Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption / Clay A. Johnson -- Sebastopol, Cal.: O'Reilly Media, Inc., 2012

Quite a number of books have been published in response to the explosion of digital information and the technology that delivers it. Many of the works are breathless panegyrics. Others are panicky jeremiads. This should come as no surprise. Digital and internet technology has transformed our lives in unexpected ways and promises to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Consequently, assessing the opportunities and dangers is no easy task, making it easy to predict both best case and worst case scenarios for the future.

Clay Johnson's The Information Diet is neither a best nor worst case assessment of our information future. His general disposition is that our social problems can often be addressed by technical solutions and as the founder of Blue State Digital and a former director of the Sunlight Foundation. So one might expect his leanings would be toward panegyrics. Nonetheless, the overall tone of his book is cautionary. Johnson has become concerned that far from solving our social problems, current information and internet technology is filling our information diets with the equivalent of junk food and poses a significant threat to the rational formation of public policy. Johnson is not only concerned about the individual's epistemic health, he is concerned about the effects that widespread "information obesity" is having and will have on society as a whole.

Much of Johnson's work is not particularly ground breaking. His analogy between information and food diets is perhaps the most novel feature of the work. The two critiques that most inform Johnson are by Nicholas Carr and Eli Pariser. Carr argues that the internet has come to be a complex distraction machine, designed to maximize the number of pages that we view. This has grave psychological consequences for our ability to concentrate, engage in deep, thoughtful reading, and remember what it is that we have read. Eli Pariser argues that the personalization of search results on the internet results in your receiving only information with which you agree, doing nothing more than confirming your previously held views. For politics, this means that people of with differing views are becoming more deeply convinced that their views are well-substantiated. Consequently, our ability to carry on reasonable dialogs with those who hold different views from us is declining.

Johnson is clearly sympathetic to Pariser's concerns. His attitudes toward Carr's thesis is, however, more complicated. Johnson writes, "the Internet is not some kind of meta bogey man that's sneaking into Mr. Carr's room while he sleeps and rewiring his brain." He also suggests that there is a "subtext" to Carr's thesis that "there may be some sort of corporate conspiracy to try to...'dumb us down.'" Having read Carr's recent book The Shallows, I am amazed that Johnson would find a conspiracy subtext in it. Furthermore, suggesting that Carr sees the Internet as a "meta bogey man" (whatever that might be) trivializes his arguments.

Johnson's critique of Carr appears to be founded on the power a person's will. He writes, "Blaming a medium or its creators for changing our minds and habits is like blaming food for making us fat." Such a view, "wrongly take[s] free will and choice out of the equation." For Johnson, the problem arises because we choose specific friends in an online social network, we choose to follow specific links, and we choose to spend a specific amount of time "consuming" specific information. Apparently for Johnson, only we are to blame for the changes we experience as we live our lives, more and more, in front of computer screens.

It is strange, though, that the great bulk of Johnson's book describes the powerful influences that the internet has on shaping all of these behaviors. One is left with the sense that Johnson has internalized Carr's criticism, but is unwilling to acknowledge it. To avoid doing so, he constructs a straw argument to attack and appeals to a dubious metaphysical dogma about free will.

His metaphysics does, however, underwrite the practical point of his book: to encourage us to take responsibility for the information we acquire. He writes, "This book's agenda is to help people make more sense of the world around them by encouraging them to tune into things that matter most and to tune out things that make them sick." This is unquestionably a worthy agenda. The amount of trivia that pours out of the internet when you dare to expose yourself to it is breathtaking.

Johnson's recommendations for tuning into the stuff that matters and tuning out the trivia is technological. For example, he recommends various filters and email preference settings that will reduce unwanted information. He recommends software that will show you the amount of time you spend at various kinds of Web sites and techniques for developing your ability to concentrate. All of his suggestions are fine as far as they go, but are hardly likely to achieve great success. The internet is insidious and seductive. Most of all, it is constructed to serve a profit motive which will not succeed unless most people participate in what it is doing to us. When information becomes the lure for commerce, widespread information obesity will naturally follow.

In general, Johnson's The Information Diet underestimates the power of the structural forces driving the internet and overestimates the power of individuals to resist its damaging force. Realistically, we may have only two choices: to embrace the brave new world of the digital information or to create a nearly internet-free counterculture that values face-to-face social interactions over virtual ones and makes limited forays into the virtual world for only specific and limited purposes.

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