Brain Pickings

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19 JANUARY, 2012

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption

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Why “information overload” is the wrong lens on the issue, or what sugar and fat have to do with Hollywood.

“You are a mashup of what you let into your life,” artist Austin Kleon recently proclaimed. This encapsulates the founding philosophy behind Brain Pickings — a filtration mechanism that lets into your life things that are interesting, meaningful, creatively and intellectually stimulating, memorable. Naturally, I was thrilled for the release of Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption — an intelligent manifesto for optimizing the 11 hours we spend consuming information on any given day (a number that, for some of us, might be frighteningly higher) in a way that serves our intellectual, creative, and psychological well-being.

Johnson — best known for managing Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, then directing Sunlight Labs at government transparency operation Sunlight Foundation — draws a parallel between the industrialization of food, which at once allowed for ever-greater efficiency and ushered in an obesity epidemic, and the industrialization of information, arguing that blaming the abundance of information itself is as absurd as blaming the abundance of food for obesity. Instead, he proposes a solution that lies in engineering a healthy relationship with information by adopting smarter habits and becoming as selective about the information we consume as we are about the food we eat. In the process, he covers the history of information, the science of attention, the healthy economics of media, and a wealth in between.

In any democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. That’s why personal responsibility in an age of mostly free information is vital to individual and social health. If we want our communities and our democracies to thrive, we need a healthier information diet.”

(For a piece of timely irony, consider the fact that the book came out at a time when the U.S. government is considering a policy that not only attempts to regulate access to information, but does so for the purpose of force-feeding the public Hollywood’s entertainment lard.)

Johnson begins with a familiar quote from Steve Jobs:

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.”

He builds on the analogy between food and information by arguing that just like we know we’re products of the food we eat, we must understand just how much we’re products of the information we consume — and consume accordingly. Yet the sheer amount of information available to us — 800,000 petabytes (a million gigabytes per petabyte) in the storage universe and 3.6 zettabytes (a million petabytes per zettabyte) consumed by American homes per day, expected to increase 44-fold by 2020 — is mind-boggling.

Using Google’s n-gram viewer, which searches the occurrences of a particular phrase in a corpus of English books from the past 150 years, Johnson points out that the term “information overload” became popular in the 1960s, surging 50% by 1980 and then again by 2000.

But, Johnson is careful to point out, the term itself is semantically broken:

The concept of information overload doesn’t work, however, because as much as we’d like to equate our brains with iPods or hard drives, human beings are biological creatures, not mechanical ones. Our brains are as finite in capacity as our waistlines. While people may eat themselves into a heart attack, they don’t actually die of overconsumption: we don’t see many people taking their last bite at a fried chicken restaurant, overstepping their maximum capacity, and exploding. Nobody has a maximum amount of storage for fat, and it’s unlikely that we have a maximum capacity for knowledge.

Yet we seem to want to solve the problem mechanically. Turn it the other way around and you see how absurd it is. Trying to deal with our relationship with information as though we are somehow digital machines is like trying to upgrade our computers by sitting them in fertilizer. We’re looking at the problem through the wrong lens.”

Johnson argues that instead of the lens of productivity and efficiency, which have become a false holy grail for our inbox-zero-obsessed culture, we should consider this through the lens with which we assess what we consume biologically: health. Because the problem is now larger than a mere matter of getting things done:

It’s a matter of health and survival. Information and power are inherently related. Our ability to process and communicate information is as much an evolutionary advantage as our opposable thumbs.”

Still, Johnson cautions that we’re wired to love certain kinds of information, most notably affirmation, so we seek out information that confirms, rather than challenges, our existing beliefs. (Cue in Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.)

Just as food companies learned that if they want to sell a lot of cheap calories, they should pack them with salt, fat, and sugar — the stuff that people crave — media companies learned that affirmation sells a lot better than information. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right?”

Ultimately, at the heart of The Information Diet lies an urgency to not only recognize, but also act upon, something we all intuit but have a hard time enacting:

Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.

To aid in that, Johnson has provided a toolkit of helpful (mostly) free software for a healthy information diet on the book’s site, ranging from productivity apps to ad blockers to various setting hacks to make your favorite services and social web platforms more conducive to info-wellness.

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19 JANUARY, 2012

Pedaling Progress: The Dutch Queen Juliana Riding a Bike, 1967

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The pursuit of national happiness on two wheels.

In researching last week’s piece on how the Dutch got their bike paths, I came across this fantastic archival photograph from The Netherlands’ Nationaal Archief, depicting the Dutch queen Juliana riding a bicycle during her 1967 visit to the island Terschelling.

Not only is she most certainly not cultivating bicycle face, she is in fact cultivating a national culture of cycling by bestowing upon it the highest degree of institutional approval — something that remains a pipe dream in America half a century later.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, if a computer is like a bicycle for the mind, a bicycle is like a computer for society — a force of empowerment, a canvas for creativity, a sandbox for design innovation, an agent of cultural change. If only our present-day political leaders would see it that way.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

19 JANUARY, 2012

Gorgeous Vintage Swiss Stamps from the 1940s-1970s

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As if you needed another reason to love mid-century Swiss design, here are some gorgeous stamps from the collection of obsessive digital philatelist Karen Horton.

More of the Swiss postage design tradition can be found in Swiss Stamps, La Collection Suisse.

Thanks, Sarah + Alexis

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.