The Information Diet by Clay A. Johnson
“There is no such thing as a tool that is good even if used without conscious consideration.” – Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget
Clay A. Johnson is a former volunteer for the Howard Dean presidential campaign; a former employee of the Sunlight Foundation, a government-run transparency organization; founder of Blue State Digital, a successful research company used by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign; former Democratic political consultant; and frequent blogger about government, media, and information-related issues.
In The Information Diet, author Clay A. Johnson makes the case that, just as we need to seek out nutritional foods to stay healthy, in order to stay intellectually healthy, we need to focus on consuming news that is accurate, truthful, and comes from trusted sources. Americans spend 11 hours a day consuming information (Johnson, 2012). In this time of “information overconsumption”, Johnson tells us that a healthier relationship with information will result in benefits such as, having more free time, the ability to make better choices, and will result in more empowered citizens.
The subject matter of the book could not be more timely. With the recent rise in popularity of the term ‘fake news’, the introduction of the new term ‘alternative facts’ (by a member of the president’s cabinet no less!), the daily hourly spin put on news releases, and the emergence of Facebook and Twitter as acceptable news sources (the latter endorsed by our President), the dawn of the ‘post-truth’ age no longer seems like an exaggeration – it has arrived.
I specifically chose this book because I was feeling overwhelmed by the daily onslaught of remarkable news stories, and just as remarkable revisions of the truth. I was looking for a safe haven from ‘fake news’, or at least a reliable strategy for ducking ‘alternative facts’. As SNL actress Cecily Strong remarked in a recent comedy skit about President Trump’s impact upon the current news cycle, “I want one day without a CNN alert that scares the hell out of me” (Saturday Night Live, 2017).
Is it possible to build an awareness and develop skills that would help block poor information sources and lead to a healthy diet of information consumption? Johnson makes a powerful case, that it is. First of all, recognize that fasting is not a diet; the object is not to avoid information (Johnson, 2012). Decide for yourself to make active choices about the information you consume. Johnson suggests that we avoid (or at least recognize) affirmation and sensationalism, the obvious attempts to coax us into a lazy and comfortable resolve in the validity of our own views (Johnson, 2012). This could mean that conservatives avoid too much Bill O’Reilly in their diet, while liberals might limit their intake of Keith Olbermann rants.
In todays media rich landscape, it’s clearly necessary to have the capability to evaluate sources and make informed decisions about our consumption. Also critical is developing a habit of evaluating the credibility of the sources, and judge the potential impact of the information they provide. The capability to exchange information only after it has been moderated by internal reflection is another aspect of data literacy. Finally, being able to incorporate the ideas of others into our own understanding of an issue and invite feedback and debate, is also an important component of data literacy (Johnson, 2012).
Johnson suggests that we begin our information diet by reducing our consumption; wean yourself down from 11 hours a day to just six. This will reduce stress and help avoid attention fatigue. Limiting consumption also helps make us more selective about the information we consume. Furthermore, just as we should try to eat locally, we should seek out information that is produced near its source. We should look for news outlets that support “source-level” information, rather than pre-selected, opinion-laden news sources that only serve to reaffirm the their viewers’ attitudes. As Johnson says, “mass affirmation is the refined sugar of the mind” (2012).
Johnson reminds us that just as when striving to increase our physical health, eating right isn’t enough, we must also exercise. Developing our information fitness means learning to exercise our willpower over distractions and learning to focus more, gaining awareness and measuring our consumption( in hours per day and week), eliminating poor habits (such as responding to every social media alert) and training ourselves to increase our attention spans (Johnson, 2012).
Compared to previous definitions of literacy, we may seem to be asking a lot of today’s public. But keep in mind that “we are facing a modern epidemic” (Johnson, 2012). Critical thinking skills and data literacy are the only safeguards we have to provide our citizens to keep them from slipping into a distorted sense of reality.
If we are unhappy with the information choices Americans are making, we can not lay the blame on information overload, Republican majorities, corporate lobbyists, Citizens United, a lack of transparency, or even fake news outlets. More better information is not the answer. As Johnson points out “you cannot simply flood the market with broccoli and hope that people stop eating french fries” (Johnson, 2012). Educating our citizens to make more responsible choices is the only practical solution.
By the time that we interact with a library patron, it’s likely that they have already made several efforts to search for information they are seeking on their own; remember that, for most people, libraries are not their first option (OCLC in Casey & Savastinuk, 2007). As librarians, we have a duty to guide them in how to use the tools of technology responsibly.
Unfortunately, a drawback of the interactive nature of Web 2.0 is the rise of fake news stories, shared through social media. When we think about shaping Library 2.0, we must recognize that we need to help counterbalance this trend. If we want to truly empower our patrons, we should do more than just provide resources, we should be introducing them to a more critical framework for evaluating resources. This means, assisting them in developing information literacy skills that will allow them to navigate the modern media landscape without falling prey to the many traps that lie out there waiting for them.
Still not convinced about the need to inform and educate library patrons?
Like to hear more about the influence of fake news and its sources?
Listen to this informative NPR podcast:
Episode 739: Finding the Fake-News King (NPR.org, 2016)
(Mirrored from my Dropbox account, duration: 18:48 min)
Casey, M. E. & Savastinuk, L. C. Library 2.0: A guide to participatory library service. (2007). Medford, N.J.: Information Today, Inc.
Johnson, C. A. The information diet. (2012). Electronic version. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.
NPR. Episode 739: Finding the Fake-News king [Audio file]. (2016, Dec. 16). Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/12/02/504155809/episode-739-finding-the-fake-news-king
Saturday Night Live. (2017, Feb. 12). Trump – People’s court SNL [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/dLYfwprjtog