The Information Diet, by Clay A. Johnson

The Information Diet. By Clay A. Johnson
A Case for Conscious Consumption
By Clay A. Johnson
Publisher: O’Reilly Media
Released: December 2011

Perfect timing, to publish this book for 2012. like many people I know, I reckoned I had my web news diet down to a fine art. I follow people I know, trust and agree with, and then just read the news they alert me to. Sorted. But then a recent trip to the wilds of Scotland, outside the reach of the web, caused me to a) buy a printed newspaper and b) introspect for a few hours away from the net. In my mind I crystalised the thought that has been nagging me for a while: the news I read is the news I like. I am missing the challenge of different mindsets, the provocation of opposing views, and the mind expansion that comes from reading content I had not explicitly sought, as happens with printed newspapers.
Clay Johnson tackles these issues by drawing the parallel with modern day (specifically American) food consumption and obesity. A novel insight from an information scientist? Or a useful attempt to simplify complex issues by describing them in a way we can all understand?
Clay achieves both, and more. In fact the early part of the book told me more that I expected to learn about modern agriculture and american attitudes to food. But he is in fact from a political background.The insights of this book stem from his experience in a world where information is regularly used to achieve an end, or in circumstances where more than one competing interpretation of the facts is common.
The political discussions in the book yield one or two barnstorming relevations:
  • did you know the term ‘intellectual’ originated as an insult?
  • did you know the Murdoch businesses, and specifically Fox News, actually have a quantifiable formula that explains their superior profit from news compared to their rivals?
The psychological discussions in the book are a little more shaky, with emphasis on selected studies and theories of the ‘the shape of my brain reflects the words that I read’ variety. perhaps selected because they provide the instant gratification sought by the foodie. But there again, Johnson is not primarily a psychologist nor an information scientist.
The final parts of the book recommend some favorite news sites ( always a topical risk in a book ) and some strategies for consuming information. One of which is to seek out not just the information you already know. Good advice. My tip to Johnson would be to seek out the writings of Claue Shannon from 1948 onwards, and look at the subsequent ‘Information Theory’ science that emerged. It covers these issues of information and communication quality, entropy, predictability, and potential to surprise in a way that would nicely complement the angles of this book.
Love the open letter section, headed ‘Dear Programmer’.
Three stars; for getting us all thinking about these issues.

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