Book Review: “The Information Diet” by Clay Johnson from O’Reilly Media

Book cover for The Information Diet

“Much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance—ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from overconsumption of it, and sicknesses and delusions that don’t affect the underinformed but the hyperinformed and the well educated.”

This is the general thesis of The Information Diet, a new book by Clay A. Johnson, published by O’Reilly Media. In it Johnson explores the state of information production and consumption in our society, how he perceives it has changed (for the worse), the cultural, emotional and neurological reasons why this is the case, what may happen if the pattern continues unabated, and how we can work to reverse the trend.

The analogy of information as food is maintained throughout the work. I knew this going into it and anticipated the comparison would wear thin rather quickly. Aside from being personally bored by the first chapter—which summarizes the history of food industrialization and the obesity epidemic, subjects into which I’ve delved for years—the analogy works surprisingly well for the entirety of the book. Through this strong parallel to such a well-covered and -publicized public health issue Johnson is able to engage the attention and sympathies of the reader more or less immediately.

Unlike many of the more conventional “diet” books on the market, The Information Diet does not spend most of its pages on a detailed plan you could follow to reduce your intake of junk information. Johnson does, of course, give some tips on how to do this, but most of them are summed up in his Pollan-esque statement of “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.” Instead, the majority of the book is concerned with the dangers of our current information diets. It is, to maintain the food metaphor, more manifesto than menu. Those of you who read the title then pick up this book hoping to see detailed steps to achieve Inbox Zero may be disappointed on that front. However, if you’re looking for motivation to make a more fundamental shift in your attitude toward information intake you may have come to the right place.

I am myself someone who already keeps her inbox hovering at or just above zero, who regularly scrubs her RSS subscriptions of feeds which were added more for whim than value and who filters her Twitter and Google+ to raise the signal to noise ratio. In this way I’m not really the appropriate audience for this book. I am the choir to Johnson’s preacher.

However there’s a stronger reason why I am not the audience for this book: I am neither political nor activist. The final chapter of the book is pure manifesto, enlisting reader assistance in using their newly-reformed information diets to effect governmental and political change. Considering the author’s background his concern with changing government is no surprise, however I admit that I was as turned off by it as I am by most other forms of activist outreach (political or otherwise). This isn’t Johnson’s fault. It’s my own hang up.

To be entirely clear: this is a good book. It’s well-researched, well-written and covers topics with which I believe more people should be familiar. It’s a good book, just not good for me personally. I recommend that anyone with an interest in any form of information consumption pick up a copy and make up their own minds.

Disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free via the O’Reilly Blogger Review Program.

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