The Information Diet

If you get a chance, I’d definitely recommend reading Clay Johnson‘s book – The Information Diet. Clay was a founder of Blue State Digital – the company that many people credit with winning Barack Obama the presidency in 2008 thanks to their online campaign. He’s left that world behind now but is obviously still passionate about politics and particularly about how people come to form their opinions.

His thesis in the book is that, in much the same way as there are good calories and bad calories when it comes to our nutritional diet, there’s good information and bad information for our intellects. I’m not one of those who think the internet is making us stupid but I do think we have choices to make about how we should consume the mass of information that surrounds us nowadays. Some of Clay’s stories about how big news sites operate certainly make you feel like you’ve been manipulated for years. It also made me realise quite how far the hollowing out of the journalism business in the US has gone – I don’t think I’d really recognised the stark economics of the situation before. As Clay puts it:

The industrialization of information is doing to journalists what the industrialization of farming did to farmers. In an effort to squeeze every bit of profit out of a piece of content, expensive journalists are being replaced by networks of less-qualified but much cheaper independent contractors. In the world of fiduciary responsibility, quality journalism means market inefficiency.

I went through one of the exercises Clay tries in the book to recover some control over his information consumption last December. I tried SaneBox for a month and soon realised that most email is absolutely useless and unsubscribed from almost every email newsletter. For some reason I can’t seem to get rid of the private jet and auto-dealer spam, but I’m pretty much down to the important stuff.

Twitter is still a bugbear for me - I’ve written before about my twitter twitch. Just the other night when I was in the pub with friends, a number of people said they found themselves just pressing refresh for hours on end in the afternoons. I do too, until I catch myself.

I also think that I agree with Clay that producing is the best deterrent from consuming junk information. If you settle down to write each day without any distractions, your mind feels straightened out. I’m going to really try to make it a habit as my working day is going to be a bit different for the next six months or so.

My favourite section of the book is actually the first appendix entitled ‘Dear Programmer’ which echoes Tim O’Reilly‘s “Work on Stuff that Matters” talk that inspired Social Innovation Camp and is certainly at the heart of Bethnal Green Ventures.

Clay quotes Facebook’s Jeff Hammerbacher saying, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” before writing:

My plea to [developers] is that you take your role in society seriously. Find an issue you care about: the environment, cancer, space exploration, education, rewiring communities, pet adoption – anything – and dedicate some portion of your time to finding new ways to put your skills to use in that community.