Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Information Diet: How to Be a Smarter Consumer of Information

The main idea behind Clay Johnson’s new book The Information Diet is that we need to monitor the way we consume information in the same way we need to monitor what we eat and drink.
In today’s “information age,” we are constantly being bombarded with facts and opinions from television, radio, cellphones, and computers. In fact, according to Eric Schmidt, a software engineer and executive chairman at Google, every 48 hours there is more content being created on the internet than all the content that was created from the beginning of time to 2003.
That’s a lot of new information being created everyday! And this unprecedented growth of information has both its upsides and downsides.

The positive is that normal people have more access to more information than ever before. When we have a question about something, most of us can do a quick Google search and find a fairly reliable source in a short amount of time. This is an obvious luxury of new information technology.
The negative is that a lot of the information we process on a daily basis goes unfiltered. Anyone can publish almost anything they want on a blog, or message board, or YouTube, or Facebook, or even Wikipedia. There’s an abundance of information out there, but unfortunately a lot of consumers of this information don’t question how good their sources are or whether or not the information is really helping them.
The Information Diet tells us that we should be a more conscious consumer of the information that we take in on a daily basis. Throughout the book, Johnson discusses many different ways our “information age” can become unhealthy. He also provides different tips and strategies we can use to improve our information diet, such as:

Respect the facts.

Johnson recommends we stick to information that provides source material. If an article doesn’t provide evidence, statistics, or citations, then you should be skeptical if what you’re consuming is true. For example, Wikipedia is usually good with providing citations, but you’ll find many sites don’t mention where their claims come from. By avoiding sources that don’t cite their claims, we can avoid misinformation and keep our information diet safe and healthy.
If we do happen to watch or read something that doesn’t cite where its information comes from, then it’s a good idea to at least do more research before considering the information true. This means occasionally fact-checking what you hear on TV, or on the radio, or even from a friend. In general, we shouldn’t take anything at face value, and we should try to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism before accepting anything as true. Blindly following any information can be disastrous, but unfortunately it happens a lot in today’s world of information abundance.

Balance different sources.

Just like a healthy diet requires a balance of different food groups, so does a healthy information diet depend on multiple sources. If you get all your information from one source, then it’s possible that you are only getting a limited perspective. Instead, it is better that you diversify where you get your information from. This will help you understanding opposing points-of-view better, and it will also help you corroborate evidence from different sources.
In The Information Diet, Johnson says many people aren’t searching for information, but “affirmation.” We search for facts and opinions that confirm our existing beliefs, but we avoid facts and opinions that put our beliefs into question. In psychology this is referred to as a “confirmation bias.” This is why some people only watch one news station or visit one blog that shares their views. We like information that adheres to what we believe, but this tendency can lead us to ignore other information that is just as important.

Schedule time spent with media.

Twenty years ago people had to make an appointment with their TV to watch a show. However today we can just DVR our media or stream it off the internet – and thus we have access to it whenever we want. This is one big reason Johnson believes many of us are suffering from “information obesity” we’ve become constant consumers of information and media, because we have endless access to it.
One thing Johnson recommends is that we make an appointment with our media – block out some time throughout the day exclusively for TV or internet, so that we can spend the rest of our day doing other things.
This helps us avoid the trap of getting lost in a maze of Google searches, Facebook refreshes, and YouTube marathons, when we could be doing something more productive with our time. When you make your TV or internet time into a limited resource, you tend to spend it more wisely.

Get in the mindset of a producer.

One of the biggest tips mentioned in The Information Diet is to start every morning writing 500 words. According to Johnson, this puts us into the mindset of a “producer” rather than just a “consumer” of information.
It’s important that we don’t just consume information throughout our day but that we also do something with it. Writing has shown to have many mental benefits, including improved learning, as well as better cognitive and emotional processing of information.
In many ways, writing functions as a kind of reflection, which gives us extra time to digest any information that we may have absorbed throughout the day. It also gives us a chance to be pro-active and creative with the information we are taking in, rather than just a passive consumer.
Writing a little every morning or night can be a great way to become a smarter consumer of information, because it allows us to reevaluate what we have learned and channel that information in our own way. By adopting a “producer mindset” we learn not to just consume for the sake of consuming, but to consume for the sake of producing.

Keep information practical and relevant.

According to Johnson, another symptom of “information obesity” is feeling anxious about information that isn’t actionable or relevant to our lives. If our seeking of information only leads us to worrying about things we can’t control, we may want to start re-directing our attention toward other, more relevant things in our life.
Another outcome of seeking impractical and irrelevant information is “analysis paralysis.” This refers to our tendency to over-analyze or over-think a situation so that we never take action.
Sometimes our endless seeking of information can lead us to be “perfectionists” when it comes to making a decision. We feel we need to know everything there is to know before we can choose a course of action. Unfortunately, it’s often impractical – if not impossible – to try to know everything before taking action. Instead, we have to accept that we will often make decisions with limited knowledge and a degree of uncertainty.
So even though we have access to so much information, we have to be careful not to go overboard on researching everything.


The information diet comes down to personal responsibility. We know from many studies in applied psychology and neuroscience that information affects us in ways we don’t have complete control over. So it’s important that we at least regulate the sources we get our information from.
In addition, The Information Diet claims there is a new kind of “digital literacy” emerging. 5,000 years ago literacy was a trade secret only known by scribes, 300 years ago literacy was the ability to write your name, and today literacy means being able to read a newspaper. However, Johnson suspects 30 years from now saying, “I’m not a computer person.” will be the equivalent of someone saying, “I don’t know how to read.”
This only reinforces the importance of knowing how to be a smart consumer of information in the 21st century. As communication technologies continue to improve, the amount of information we are exposed to will continue to increase. It’s important that we learn how to be masters of this information rather than become victims to it.

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