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"I realized we have a community of people that are highly informed but not *well* informed."
October 19, 2012 8:38 AM   Subscribe

Eating Only Dessert: Why your information diet is probably terrible - "[Clay] Johnson is the author of The Information Diet, a book with a unique core metaphor: heavily processed information, like heavily processed food, isn’t healthy but for some reason we can’t get enough of it. Email. Social networks. Blogs. Online video. People today consume more information than ever before, and typically only consume the things they really, really like. Johnson compares this to a bad diet. “If you only ate what you want then we’d probably put the dessert section at the top of the menu, rather than at the bottom,” he says. “I think the same thing is happening with journalism: we’re going straight to dessert every time.”" PBS Newshour interview with Johnson (~6 min. video with full transcript). Previously: Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear they're right?
posted by flex (39 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of all the predictions I've made in my life - up to and including a $20 bet that Titanic would flop - my mid-'90s claim that the internet would make spreading misinformation more difficult (because everyone would be able to just look up "The Truth!") was by far the worst.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:45 AM on October 19, 2012 [15 favorites]


The point probably isn't wrong, but I think the fact that no one knows the child poverty rate isn't really the best way to prove it. The exact resolution on a laptop is 1) a fact that won't change and 2) useful to someone picking a laptop.

Knowing that the child poverty rate is too high is useful to being a citizen, but knowing that it's 29% versus 25% isn't really unless your day to day life involves poverty policy. If you asked a room full of people "what's the child poverty rate like generally? Is it too high? Is it going up or going down? How does it compare to other industrialized countries" I think you'll get a lot more informed answer than if you expect people to spout statistics like an Aaron Sorkin character.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:56 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


I skimmed this book at Barnes and Noble. He has an interesting story about meeting Karl Rove at some political convention when he was working for the Howard Dean campaign (if I remember correctly.)
A week or so later, he received a handwritten note from Rove wishing him luck, and enclosed a signed picture, so he could tell people his story of meeting " the devil." He seemed impressed that Rove remembered him, took the time to write a handwritten note, and showed a sense of humor.
posted by wittgenstein at 8:58 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with this. Metafilter is part of the problem, I think, to the extent that the problem exists outside of our heads and lifestyles.

I have a friend who tells me, with some pride, that he "likes to read article," or "reads a lot of articles." One of my favorite incidents involving this guy, he was constantly telling his girlfriend how much he liked Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons, which is I guess kind of a classic of contemporary philosophy, how great it was, how it represented the kind of thinking he admired in analytic philosophy, etc.

He was maybe sort of badgering his girlfriend to read the book. And she's an eager person, sort of an overachiever, so she goes ahead and reads the book, which is 500 pages long and a little dense.

When she's done, she wants to talk to him about the argument of the book, something in the middle chapters. He like waffles for a little while, hems and haws. Eventually he has to admit that he hasn't read the book. Maybe he read the first chapter. He assimilated the knowledge that the book is very highly regarded, and sort of adopted it as a personal flag, without ever reading it.

It was embarrassing for him, but then a couple of us also had to admit that we hadn't finished the book, despite having a strong impression that it was very good.

What I'm getting at, is that the pscychological rewards of reading these short digestible bite-sized pieces are apparently so great, and it is so easy to get them, that they displace time spent on the bigger, slower, stuff; eventually we can only engage with the tougher book-length pieces on the level of bullshit. Oh yeah, that's really great, I read an article on that. . . . (There's a great NYer article on Parfit, btw.)

Now, articles are longer than tweets, and there has always been superficial bullshitting. But I feel like, the way my life is organized, technologically, I always have instant access to some quick hit, some article, that I can look at and maybe read and get the point. I have to make space for something deeper and tougher; I have to overcome resistance; and there are so many easier competing options.

The big exception to this rule, for me, is media that work as global distractions. An immersive videogame, or a novel, I have little trouble engaging with, even if it requires a commitment of many hours. These things let me shut out the world, for better and worse. I don't get sucked into articles in the middle of an engaging story, but I also don't pay attention to the things I really should pay attention to.

The healthy middle of my attentional spectrum has been eaten out, or maybe was never there, I slide into easy superficial distractions or world-eclipsing immersions. But I can't find the sober application of focus that I feel like I need.
posted by grobstein at 9:00 AM on October 19, 2012 [34 favorites]


Wait. So the message here is to avoid simplistic junk-information fed to us by blogs and social media — and we are informed of this by a simplistic blog post by "Justin Pot [...] a blogger based in Boulder, Colorado [...] Let's start a conversation. Check out JustinPot.com or chat with Justin on Twitter."

Isn't this kind of like selling a diet book made out of cake?

And seriously, it's really silly to treat "Email. Social networks. Blogs." as a kind of content. If you are using these media to communicate with the right people in the right way, they can be as intellectually productive and informative as anything else. This is just like blaming poor nutrition on consumers: the problem is not the approach of individual eaters, it's the junk-food approach to journalism and information distribution created by the corporate media.
posted by RogerB at 9:00 AM on October 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


tl;dr
posted by The Ultimate Olympian at 9:02 AM on October 19, 2012 [10 favorites]


That dessert analogy is terrible, I hardly ever eat desserts. Personally I'd order and eat only appetizers, mostly fried (so, I suppose, same results).
Aside from that he makes some good points, though.
posted by mikoroshi at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2012


Internet generalizer generalizes Internet.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 9:03 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


grobstein, that's a great comment...but isn't it a little long?
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:04 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


so, I guess this is one of those ones where we really should read the links before commenting, at least the first one. And yet I'm so tempted to say something like, "Hey, wait a second, when I go to a buffet, I don't eat just dessert. But what I do is sort of skim. A few slices of that beef, at least one chicken wing, a bit of smoked salmon, and gotta have some of those roast potatoes (gravy's amazing), and then sort of combine at least three of the salads, and I don't know what you call those things next to the dinner buns, but they're amazing ... "

And there, I just said it. And now, though I really should read the links now (at least the first one anyway), I'm actually supposed to be at work (I mean, I am logging this particular hour), so maybe I'll just track the discussion later, see what people have to say who have read the links (at least the first one), maybe get involved myself further down the thread, if I feel so compelled, maybe even read the links eventually. But to be honest, I'm guessing they'll be kind of familiar anyway. I mean, the internet's like that, right? So much stuff that no single piece of anything is essential -- best thought of as weather. Like if it rains, you don't need to encounter any particular rain drop to get the point, as long as you encounter some of them. Just don't assume that everybody caught the same part of the storm.

man, that chicken wing was good
posted by philip-random at 9:05 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


Great piece.
posted by threeants at 9:07 AM on October 19, 2012


or on preview, what mikoroshi said:

That dessert analogy is terrible, I hardly ever eat desserts. Personally I'd order and eat only appetizers, mostly fried (so, I suppose, same results).
posted by philip-random at 9:07 AM on October 19, 2012


I think part of the problem (though I'm actually a little loathe to call it that) is the difference in the way we parse information these days. I wasn't even halfway through the article (the first link) when I started thinking "oh, I can't wait to share this". When in human history has it been possible to do that instantly? Obviously there are different theories out there as to why I might do this - do I need some kind of feedback/approval to continue liking the article, or do I just really like sharing things with friends? And it was merely the content of the article that prevented me from doing so (plus I've been burned before by posting articles that start well and end poorly).

Anyway, great post - thanks for sharing.
posted by antonymous at 9:11 AM on October 19, 2012


So pre-Internet, this is different from people only reading the magazines and newspapers they liked how?
posted by PuppyCat at 9:14 AM on October 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


...my mid-'90s claim that the internet would make spreading misinformation more difficult (because everyone would be able to just look up "The Truth!") was by far the worst.

You actually bet that? Hell, even back in the 90's it was pretty evident that "the truth" was doomed to be drowned in an ocean of nuttery and obfuscation.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:16 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


So pre-Internet, this is different from people only reading the magazines and newspapers they liked how?

Because pre-new media there were only three networks that would deliver a standard package of important news nightly to the vast citizenry of the country. For you to isolate yourself wasn't impossible but it took a lot of work.

Nowadays pick a cable channel at 6pm and have the news tailored to your taste. You have your conservative news on Fox, your liberal news on MSNBC and your Twitter checks on CNN.
posted by Talez at 9:19 AM on October 19, 2012


I am actually eating a donut in lieu of lunch as I read this. Does that mean all hope is lost for me?
posted by looli at 9:24 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Part of why our diets, both information and food, are so poor is that we're being squeezed to do more in less time, constantly. Wanting email updates constantly or skimming only headlines of sites we agree with -- all that kinda comes from the same source that eating a donut for lunch (as looli mentioned) or munching on an 'energy bar' while driving does. And these things all stem from the ever-increasing demand for economic growth, it seems to me.
posted by jiawen at 9:32 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I tend to agree with him about how distracted our information diets have become, but think he's missing something in his belief that changing how and what we read will lead to political change. That requires a change from passive to active. If you don't actually go somewhere and do something, no matter how small, you're really unlikely to change the world.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:33 AM on October 19, 2012


Isn't this kind of like selling a diet book made out of cake?

I want to visit this bookstore.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:34 AM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because pre-new media there were only three networks

And before the three networks there used to be more than one newspaper in each town, each with its own overt bias, and you read the one that supported your beliefs.

This is a human problem, not an internet problem.
posted by ulotrichous at 9:36 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


So.. are people supposed to wait for the media to stop serving "dessert"? The only solution I've found is to choose my sources better. There's plenty of good stuff out there, but it requires having a small set of places to look. MeFi is a star.

(I wrote about this, btw, in a 2007 book - now a free download. Not aware that Johnson ever read the book, but the "media diet" is discussed in Chapter 6.)
posted by mark7570 at 9:43 AM on October 19, 2012


OK.

I don't disagree, necessarily. My only real "beef" really, is that he seems to place a premium on productivity which, I think, means very little. Maybe I need to read the book to fully grok what he's getting at.

Anyway, I understand the article as this: we spend too much time being distracted by things that aren't important.

Yes. This has been the case since the history of humans having eyes. Now, of course, new technology exacerbates this problem because we now have lot's of pretty things to look at, things we can gather to show off as shiny shells to impress those in our social groups, and other fun things to trick our lizard brains into thinking we're hot shit.

Let's all recognize this, of course.

But then what? I mean, is there a particular reason why doing these things in this particular way is bad? Is it wrong to want to be keyed into my social network? Just saying 'It's not going to matter that you don't check Facebook right now' isn't the same as giving me a reason for a compelling alternative.

I'm not arguing that we should all be plugged into Facebook all the time, of course. At least I don't think I am.

He almost gets to (what I think) is the heart of the matter. He realizes that just educating people about why stuff is great isn't enough. It wasn't enough to get his guy elected. So we convince people to click more on foreign policy links rather than sideboob links. But where do we go from there? So what if I know more about foreign policy if I don't have any context to go with it?

I think that the increasing polarization in politics is sort of a symptom of this problem, like excess fat is a problem to eating too much fat. We consume so much information now - and some of it may be really good information - that we don't always know what to do with it. Rather than seeking out the time to research the context, history and value of this thing we've learned, we store it in our Liberal or Conservative brain chunks where we can easily recall it for later. Eventually, this just builds up into a flabby worldview that has taken on all sorts of excess because it doesn't have anywhere else to go.

In other words, I don't think the problem is the quality of the information. No matter how good and well-informed our media and news are, it will not matter if we have no place to put them, no way to stack them up in the history of the relevant information that has come before. Because of this, I think that librarians and information science are more important than ever. I would love to (and would pay for) New York Times to give me a list of articles to help me properly the conflict between Turkey and Egypt that includes sources outside of their own publication family. A way to read about the current story and, if need be, learn as much about it in as much detail. Of course, that's a rabbit hole in its own right.

TL;DR - good content + good context = useful stuff
posted by Tevin at 9:49 AM on October 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


Totally off-the-subject, but does anybody know the browser trick to getting rid of social media toolbars that won't go away, like the one at the top of the MakeUseOf article? Isn't there a plugin that helps you do that? I use mostly Chrome but sometimes Firefox.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:00 AM on October 19, 2012


My friend Clay, of course, is Metafilter's own
posted by rossmeissl at 10:00 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


...my mid-'90s claim that the internet would make spreading misinformation more difficult (because everyone would be able to just look up "The Truth!") was by far the worst.

You actually bet that? Hell, even back in the 90's it was pretty evident that "the truth" was doomed to be drowned in an ocean of nuttery and obfuscation.


My theory was that a generation raised on wikipedia would be a generation skeptical of single sources, of having by necessity to fact check and learn not to trust something just because it is in print. I'm still not entirely sure why it didn't work out that way, except for the usual suspects: laziness and bias confirmation.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:01 AM on October 19, 2012


> You actually bet that? Hell, even back in the 90's it was pretty evident that "the truth" was doomed to be drowned in an ocean of nuttery and obfuscation.

I didn't put money on it, but I honestly believed this new technology's ability to disseminate information would trump human nature. Or something. In hindsight my naivety is almost touching.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:13 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's funny to me that there are quote blurbs raised out of the text after which the quote immediately follows. The page is presented in a way that assumes no one is actually going to read the article.

I would say that's ironical given the content of the article but I'm always told I don't understand the true definition of irony. Maybe I should look it up some day.
posted by Quack at 10:20 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, you know, some disputes are settled fairly quickly.

I told my wife she was singing Save Tonight by Eagle Eye Cherry incorrectly* - I couldn't believe how dumb the lyrics sounded her way, there was no way I was wrong.

Thank God the Internet put that one to rest. I'll no longer be singing 'come to my room/tomorrow I'll be gone' like a rube and spreading the lyrics incorrectly.

*Christ, what sort of asshole corrects people on singing the wrong lyrics to shitty 90's pop songs anyway?
posted by Tevin at 10:25 AM on October 19, 2012


Apart from the tendency to dabble or skim or digest "dessert" info-lite, I'm quite capable of immersing myself in any number of weighty materials -- so long as I'm not supposed to be reading them. Take something in which I'm terribly interested and assign it to me, make it my job? I will get to it... right after I read all these other things. But the particular things don't matter. (permitting me to use to some extent the planned progressive procrastination tool of stacked materials so that by avoiding reading one thing I'm supposed to I end up reading something else I should as well)

Oh hey, look, it's Metafilter.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:51 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm the person who cut as many ads as possible out of my life and it really has made a difference for me. I spent a lot of time with my mother recently (preparing to close her house so she could move into assisted living) and she had the TV on all the time, and it was overwhelming the amount of ads she listened to. She said she felt anxious without the voices. I felt anxious with them on!

And yes, I know that most of my information (news) diet is pretty lame, but tracking news is a full time job if you let it be. It's hard not to just pick a few trusted sources and listen to them if you don't want to be overwhelmed by the number of voices out there.
posted by immlass at 1:32 PM on October 19, 2012


Infoodie.
posted by jamjam at 2:01 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think this makes sense, given that the internet makes accessible in-depth information to more people than ever before. Previously, all you could access was "highly processed information"— if you read say, TIME or Newsweek or watched the network news, you couldn't just click over to read the actual study or legislation that the story was covering. Now, you can. That's gotta count for something.

And it's simply not true that people generally get stuck in partisan niches reading only the information they want: in order to engage in really partisan debate, you need to attack the other side, which means you need to know what they're saying. Now, you can read it directly, not just filtered and people do. There was a study that showed this but I'm too lazy to find it right now— and yes, there is that, too. But I could.
posted by Maias at 2:34 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Did you read? (SLPortlandiaSketch).
posted by thack3r at 4:30 PM on October 19, 2012


And before the three networks there used to be more than one newspaper in each town, each with its own overt bias, and you read the one that supported your beliefs.

This is a human problem, not an internet problem.


I don't read it as quite that simple. Because ever evolving info-technology (the internet etc) can't help but magnify certain things. Yeah, we've always had the option of falling in with our biases; it's just that now there have never been so many options within those options.

eg: I don't just need to be into conspiracy theories in general anymore, I can focus exclusively on chemtrails.

To think that changes in technology do not fundamentally change things (and how we relate to them) is to dismiss Marshall McLuhan, JG Ballard and Buckminister Fuller among others. And I'd never dismiss those guys.
posted by philip-random at 4:49 PM on October 19, 2012


The resolution of a MacBook, might, if I was going to buy one, be relevant to me. The child poverty rate is something that, by and large, I cannot effect except through more than an occasional donation or vote. So why would I be angry at my brain prioritizing the information in this way? It doesn't mean I don't care, it means there are only so many pieces of information that can remain in the forefront of my mind at one time. Hyperfocusing on the child poverty rate would not change it, unless I decided to make fighting it my calling, which I am not capable of doing for various reasons.

This seems like just another round of finger-shaking that we all seem to love so much. It's How You're Doing X Wrong, America, and Why It Is Ruining Everything. I have already read this book in its earlier forms, thanks anyway.
posted by emjaybee at 6:48 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


And it's simply not true that people generally get stuck in partisan niches reading only the information they want: in order to engage in really partisan debate, you need to attack the other side, which means you need to know what they're saying. Now, you can read it directly, not just filtered and people do.

Except people tend to not do that, and instead circle the wagons around their particular online echo chambers instead of bothering to see what the other site thinks. Or more often than not, they look at the other side, go "What a bunch of crazy losers!" and it further entrenches their biases against them, even making them easier to dehumanize and ignore. Go on FreeRepublic for fifteen minutes sometime, and then go to Democratic Underground afterwards. Truly, this is satori.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:12 AM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's funny to me that there are quote blurbs raised out of the text after which the quote immediately follows. The page is presented in a way that assumes no one is actually going to read the article.

Whenever I see something posted on MeFi that requires some reading, I am continually surprised that people will comment who have obviously formed their opinion of what the piece is saying or its worth by reading the first two paragraphs and giving the rest a quick skim (or maybe not even that much).

I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but I am, because I kind of think
1) many people are intimidated by posting to the front page, so since they've already gone through that social filter, there's a higher likelihood it will be worth my time if I'm interested in the subject enough to look at the link
2) if I do decide I'm not that interested in it so I don't finish reading it, my social filter is such that I wouldn't publicly comment about something I don't know enough about - if it something I don't agree with and I want to say something about it, I make sure to read the whole thing so that I know I'm reacting to what's actually presented
3) I often read pieces where I don't agree with some of what it's saying or something in how it's framed but there are other parts of it which I will agree with or think is a good point presented well - so I personally feel I can't judge the total worth of a piece on the beginning, end, and a quick skim over the middle

But clearly many people don't operate that way, so I'm not surprised that more and more, text is presented in ways that assume people aren't actually going to read it before they form - and share - their opinion on it. People are perfectly willing to react to their first impression, to how something is framed, to what they have snap-judged seems to be there instead of the whole of what's actually there.

We complain that politics is reduced to soundbites and the news is based on what gets people riled up, what gets clicks, without a more thorough examination of the situation - but it is that way because that is how people behave - even the people who complain it should be different.
posted by flex at 7:34 AM on October 20, 2012


Because of this, I think that librarians and information science are more important than ever.

I think so too (although maybe being a librarian I'm a little biased), but I think as a profession we've dropped the ball in important ways. By and large, libraries aren't making the bridge between "junk information" and "gourment information" easier to cross, or even locate. We're hanging on to the old paradigm of "If you build it, they will come" to our own detriment. The majority of the public sees us as the place to use the internet, check out DVDs, and pick up tax forms--and all those things are well and fine--but we're not relevant to people's actual information needs (that's what Google's for, right?), which is a damned shame.

I've been giving the points the article raises a lot of thought over the past few years, and I'm not sure what the solution is. I am pretty sure, though, that any meaningful solution will involve change that we don't have the funding to initiate, so... I'm not sure what to think. I will say, though, that Metafilter itself stands out for me as a model of what libraries could offer in the way of a blog presence: high-quality, tightly admin-ed, nicely formatted information bits that also link to/draw upon library resources (especially the tons of e-resources we have that nobody knows about). I'm not pretending that this would solve the problem--it'd have to be a small piece of a much larger effort--but it's a step in the right direction, I think.
posted by Rykey at 8:28 AM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


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