The journalist Charnice Milton was killed two years ago by crossfire from a drive-by shooting in Southeast Washington. Now community advocates in the area are opening a bookstore to honor her memory, promote literacy and address book deserts in neighborhoods East of the Anacostia River
Today, most Americans are awash in information. We watch cable TV, read blogs and newspapers, and share stories on Twitter and Facebook. Ironically, the most avid information consumers are often among the least-informed citizens. Author Clay Johnson says we’re suffering from a kind of “information obesity:” consuming too much “junk food” and too little healthy data. He joins us to explore parallels between food and information, and proposes a new regime for the New Year.
- Clay Johnson Author, "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption" (O'Reilly)
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One:”The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption,” by Clay Johnson. Copyright 2011 by O’Reilly Media, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission:
Clay Johnson’s suggested tools that could help an information dieter
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. It's a public health crisis for the digital age. Ever notice how people who spend the most time consuming information are among often the least informed citizens? Clay Johnson says we're all suffering from a kind of information obesity, too much cheap junk food information, too many partisan blogs, cable news and digital distractions, too little nutritious healthy data that forces us to think or challenges our world view.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe likens it to our evolving relationship with food. Just as industrial agriculture and factory farms created an abundance of highly processed empty calories, new digital technologies and content forums are making it cheaper and easier to churn out junk information. In his new book, he explores the parallels between food and information and proposes a proactive approach to weaning ourselves off the junk.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIClay Johnson joins us in studio. He is author of the book "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." He's a technologist and advocate for open government. Clay was a co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that helped build Barack Obama's 2008 Web operation. Clay Johnson, good to see you again.
MR. CLAY JOHNSONIt's good to be here, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, it's good to have you, all of our listeners in on this conversation. You can feel free to join it by calling 800-433-8850. Do we need a new kind of food pyramid for information? Tell us what you think, 800-433-8850. It was the book that launched 150 years of fad diets. In 1863, William Banting wrote the first modern diet book called "Letter on Corpulence."
NNAMDIAt the time, the idea of dieting was completely foreign to most human beings for millennia. Our approach to food was simple. We tried to consume as much of it as we could. But beginning in the late 19th century, that began to change, and we began to recognize the dangers of eating too many calories, too many fats. You say that we're going through something analogous in the present but in the realm of information. Would you, please, explain?
JOHNSONThat's right. The way that food worked, right, is we started getting obese because, well, food became plentiful. Obesity wasn't a problem 100-some-odd years ago because there wasn't much food to go around. We needed to consume as much food as we possibly could because we needed to make it through winter. Now, according to some statistics from the government in 2010, about 39 people died of winter.
JOHNSONSo that -- winter is not as big of a problem as it used to be. The same thing is happening, I think, with information. You know, because winter is not a threat, we've become obese. A hundred years ago, ignorance was thought of as the result of a lack of information, a lack of education. But now, I think we're starting to find that ignorance is a result of overconsumption of information and that people can consume so much information that they become misguided.
JOHNSONSo, you know, for instance, the picture that the book starts out with, and the thing that really got me into this was, I was walking in front of the White House and saw a man holding a sign over his head that said keep your government hands off my Medicare, which no matter how you feel about the president's health care package and Congress' health care package, that doesn't make any sense.
JOHNSONIt's impossible to keep -- for government to keep its hands off of a government program. So I talked with this guy, and he seemed relatively smart and well-informed. You know, he talked to me about the Federal Reserve bank and its history and where it comes from, in Jekyll Island, Georgia, and stuff like that. And he was just -- he knew a lot about politics.
NNAMDIFount of information.
JOHNSONHe knew a lot about innovation, but he wasn't right in the head.
NNAMDIIt's not a unique problem, however, on the right of the political spectrum.
NNAMDIOn the other end of the political spectrum, you were struck by a different sign at Walter Reed Army Medical hospital. Tell us about that.
JOHNSONI'll tell you. I live right up near there, and it's an inspiring place to run in the morning 'cause often -- well, it used to be. Now, I guess, the place is closed.
NNAMDIIt is indeed. I live up near there, too.
JOHNSONYou -- I would, you know, be passed by wounded veterans with no legs who could run past me. And there was a woman in front of Walter Reed Army hospital that said enlist here to die for Halliburton. You know, it's a myth that, you know, there's no Army recruitment center inside of Walter Reed Memorial Hospital. It would be of very poor marketing on behalf of the Army to do that.
JOHNSONBut this woman was, you know, very charged up and very angry about what's going on, but she had the wrong information. And what's happened is, I think, we've got...
NNAMDIAnd she probably knew a lot about Halliburton, too.
JOHNSONYes. She probably knew a lot about Halliburton. And what's happened is we've got this sort of electorate now that's being ripped apart by lots of information that may confirm their biases but might not be factual. And that, I think, is causing a sort of widespread information obesity problem.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, do you feel like you're consuming too much bad information? How do you make sure you get the right kind of information and news? Call us at 800-433-8850, send us a tweet at -- or you can simply send a tweet to #TechTuesday, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDISo today, even though we're literally surrounded and sometimes overwhelmed by information, in the space of a day, we watch cable television, we read blogs, we compulsively check out email, we update our Facebook status. All of that we feel helps to make us better citizens, better informed about the world, more in control of our time. In fact, the reality is that the most avid information consumers are often among the least informed citizens?
JOHNSONThat's right. A lot of studies have shown this. You know, for instance, one study that was done on climate change showed that the most educated people had the most divergent opinions on whether or not climate change was happening. So it didn't matter if someone was, you know, really well-educated, that they would believe that climate change is happening, or they would not believe that climate change was happening.
JOHNSONBut they found that, you know, the more people consumed information around this subject, the more divergent their opinions became. And, actually, people who weren't very educated were -- could go either way on climate change. They were the moderates. And this happens, I think, time after time on things like this, that, you know, again, what's happened with a lot of media is that economics have made it so that affirmation is a much bigger market than information.
NNAMDIAnd I guess you may have answered my next question, but allow me to ask it anyway because, for consumers, this new environment presents itself kind of as a bunch of distractions. But on a structural level, you say something profound is happening in the way information is crafted and distributed. And it seems to be that it's being crafted and distributed structurally to -- if not inform, then to satisfy our biases.
JOHNSONThat's exactly right. I mean, if you're a company, what you want to do is give people what it is that they want. And so a lot of -- especially online organizations can now find ways to automatically do that. So whether that's through filtering and personalizing search content or your Facebook feeds or your Twitter feeds, those are becoming more and more personalized. So you only get the stuff that you're interested in, and sometimes only the stuff that you're interested in as the stuff that you agree with.
JOHNSONBut it's also -- you know, journalistic organizations can use search technology now to figure out what it is that people are searching for and only give them that. And can you imagine what would happen if our grocery stores do -- did that?
JOHNSONIt would probably look like what they do today.
NNAMDIAllow me to talk about how it operates in journalistic or media organizations. I'll pull the curtain back and talk a little bit about how the sausage is made on this show. Every Tuesday, we have a meeting among all the producers to talk about ideas for future shows. But we also look back and talk about what shows during the course of the past week got a lot of hits on the Web. Inevitability, that information ends up influencing what we decide to cover, which, on the one hand, can be good because it means we're giving people what they want.
NNAMDIOn the other hand, it can also be bad because sometimes people want stories that just, as you pointed out earlier, affirm their world views. So am I part of the problem here?
JOHNSONI think, you know, you -- I think if you look at what other companies are doing, what you're doing is, I think, probably healthy and normal. The -- if you take an organization like AOL, which is known now as sort of a content farm much more than the sort of dial-up busy signal that they used to be a few years ago, they -- you know, an editor for Engadget, which is one of their properties, wakes up in the morning, looks to see what people are searching for...
JOHNSON...and then just post that. And that's -- you know, that's sort of a new form of lazy journalism, not shining the light on things that haven't been said but telling people what it is that they want to hear.
NNAMDIThat's fascinating because we now know that, from an evolutionary perspective, our bodies are conditioned to crave salt, sugar and fat, and that's because, for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, those commodities were scarce. But today, they are now plentiful. Likewise, our brains were wired to use information in the context of relative scarcity from which I draw that we wanted to know things that we didn't know.
NNAMDINow, we seem more and more to want to simply affirm things that we already know.
JOHNSONWell, we want things that make us comfortable. Things that prove us wrong make us very uncomfortable, and we don't -- we really don't want to hear that. It's something in our brains that just makes it a disagreement or something that triggers our fear instinct. It's the thing that makes us, you know, run away from fights or get very aggressive depending on the sort of size and shape of your amygdala.
JOHNSONThe -- you know, and we're wired to spread gossip and look at misfortune. You know, when Ug (sp?) was, you know, in a tree with Lana, and Lana, you know, ate some -- a bad leaf and died, Ug wanted -- Ug did not want to scientifically test the leaf to see if it also killed them. Ug went home and told the rest of the village don't eat those leaves, right?
JOHNSONAnd, you know, that's sort of, I think, some of the underpinnings of gossip and how that sort of fear and instinct now spreads through the media, through news.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Clay Johnson. He is author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." It's a Tech Tuesday conversation. He's a technologist, and he's an advocate for open government. Clay was a co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that helped build Barack Obama's 2008 Web operation. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do we need a new kind of food pyramid for information, is one of the questions you can answer, or you can offer your own opinions, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIBefore we go to the phones, our brains may be wired to seek bad information, but they can also be trained. They can also be reprogrammed, if you will. Tell us about what you're actually proposing that we do.
JOHNSONWell, a couple of things. The first one is, let's increase our digital literacy. Let's be able to understand data and get deep into the subject of whatever that we're -- at whatever we're interested in. So that means getting beyond what, you know, people are telling you and sort of eating low on the food chain of information, if you will. So if you look at biology, there is sort of this thropic pyramid in biology, which means that, you know, each level up on the consumption chain, there's about 90 percent less energy.
JOHNSONIn fact, in the media chain, maybe there's an information chain, too, where there's 90 percent less truth every time. I certainly got the brunt end of those jokes when I used to play telephone around the lunch table when I was a kid.
JOHNSONBut, you know, my prescription is sort of get beyond that stuff and get to the real data. So, you know, in the case of politics, instead of listening to Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck duke it out, let's check out what's going on opencongress.org to see what bills are saying. And let's check out what's going on at opensecrets.org to see who's contributing to our candidates to see what it is that they're really doing.
JOHNSONYou'll find in politics, I think, that what a candidate promises and what a candidate does are very different things, but you can always tell what they do by looking at the networks of influence that influence them rather than listening to what people tell you that they're going to do.
NNAMDIStart by now going to the phones with Allan in Silver Spring, Md. Allan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALLANWell, in a way, I'm repeating what your guest just said. But I think the problem is that people know too much about news, about different subjects and not enough basic information about the topic. Like, for example, it's possible to know a lot about economic news, but if you don't understand the basic principles of our economics, you're never going to know really what's going on. And you're -- and in a way, it's worse than ignorance.
NNAMDIHow do you, Allan, organize your own information diet?
ALLANI have to admit I have a tendency to seek out sources that I agree with. And I found myself -- you know, I thought -- observe myself getting stupider and stupider.
ALLANAnd I -- you know, in a way, I had to be sort of forced out of that diet by the -- well, I used to listen to a lot of "Air America," and I enjoyed it. But they went out of business, so I was basically forced to start listening to things like NPR, things like that. And I think it's increased my IQ by about seven points in a year.
NNAMDIWell, Allan, thank you very much for being so honest with that about your own information diet. Clay, our cornerstone or one cornerstone of your approach is actually figuring out how you exactly consume data. You wanted to figure out just how you were using and just how you might be abusing the Web and why you were having trouble focusing. So you used a program called Rescue Time to do a time audit. Please explain.
ALLANThat's right. So Rescue Time is something -- it's a little creepy. I won't lie. But it sits on your computer and measures everything that you're doing, every window that you've got open, everything that has your focus on your computer.
NNAMDIA visible conscience, yes.
JOHNSONYeah, it does it all. And -- but the reason why I did that is because it's sort of like keeping a food diary if you go on a diet, right? You want to know what it is that you're consuming, and you want to be really conscious about what it is that you're consuming. If you want to make changes, you have to measure it, right? And so Rescue Time does that for you automatically. It's a -- they have a free version and a for-pay version, but you can start measuring what's going on.
JOHNSONAnd what I found was I'm spending, you know, a lot of time, way more time than I thought, you know, getting trapped by things like the Huffington Post where, you know, I'd go there and get a link to an article on Twitter or something like that and then end up, you know, wondering how old the world's oldest female bodybuilder was and then, you know, catching up on Kim Kardashian and then, you know, wondering whether or not the -- whatever her name is in England was pregnant or not, you know?
JOHNSONAnd this stuff, you know, it was taking up way more time of my time than I thought. And, you know, another thing that's in the book is, you know, it talks about how you actually lose your sense of time when you're online, and even in any form of consumption. I'm losing my sense of time here chatting away with you, Kojo.
NNAMDIBut -- I guess you're great at parties when you have all of these tidbits of information about all kinds of things that you really don't know a great deal about.
JOHNSONI used to -- when I figured out that you can lose your sense of time in a computer and my wife wanted me to do chores, I would just leave computer screen up and operational in the house so that, you know, she'd lose her sense of time. And I could play video games for the rest of the day.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. We still have a couple of lines open at 800-433-8850. Do you think we need a new kind of food pyramid for our information? Former President Bill Clinton seems to think we do. 800-433-8850 is the number to call, or simply send us a tweet at #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIClay Johnson is our guest on this Tech Tuesday. His latest book is called "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." He's a technologist. He's an advocate for open government and a co-founder of Blue State Digital. That was the firm that helped build Barack Obama's 2008 Web operation. He's talking about whether or not we need an information diet. I am constantly amazed by just how much money I spend on a cable bill.
NNAMDIOne component of your proposed diet involves cutting the cord on cable, but not necessarily for money-saving reasons. When we channel surf, we kind of lose track of how much information we're consuming?
JOHNSONThat's right. I think trying to go on an information diet with deluxe cable subscription is probably like -- you know, try and go on a food diet with a milkshake tap on your sink. There's just a lot on and a lot that you have to choose from, and all that information is being pushed at you. Now, I'm not saying don't watch television. I like "Modern Family" just like the next guy. But what I'm saying is if you switch to becoming an online consumer of those shows by using a device like Apple TV or Roku or something like that, then you can -- then that stuff isn't being pushed at you.
JOHNSONThe television is on when you want to watch it, and you have control over the information rather than the information having more control over you. So you can tune into -- you have to go and select to watch "Modern Family" and you won't get distracted by, you know, what's on "E!" this afternoon, right?
NNAMDIBut the key to it is, in a way, the -- what I call the visual constant on -- conscience on your computer. They key to it is knowing and consciously choosing how much bad data and distractions that we're taking in.
JOHNSONThat's right. And the other key part of it is understanding that, actually, the consumption of sort of junk information has a serious ethical and social consequence to it, too. So what you're doing by clicking on those headlines in the Huffington Post is raising them more to the top and putting them in front of other people's eyeballs. It's not unlike food. You know, when buy the Cheetos, you're supporting the industry that makes other people buy Cheetos. And we're in this sort of social nightmare where, now, our obesity rate's hovering around 30 percent.
NNAMDIGot this email from Jody in Bethesda. "I'd like to ask the author to address the concept of active versus passive consumption. It seems that many users prefer to have a passive experience when searching the Web. Though they actively search often, they lack conviction on what they're searching for and follow an endless train of breadcrumbs tangentially off the path from their beloved keywords. Do you feel there's any integrity to the notion of the keyword search? How do you reconcile language in association with consumption?
NNAMDI"Lastly, how do you feel one might increase their activity in healthy consumption of data while you, the content strategist designer or programmer, recognize the wistful desire of the user to passively interact with data? Is there such a thing?"
JOHNSONWow, that's a big question.
JOHNSONSo, you know, starting at the top, the idea that we should be conscious consumers is obviously the sort of heart of the book. That's why it's called "A Case for Conscious Consumption." We should be really proactive and analyze and think about the information that we consume as diligently as we think about the food that we consume. It is as key to a healthy lifestyle, living longer and being healthier as a good food diet is.
JOHNSONWhen it comes to, you know, the keyword searches that she asked about, I think, you know, it's interesting. I -- in my book, I'm sort of starting to take a stance around these notifications on the desktop and sort of eliminating them, but they're starting to get, you know, in the search, too.
JOHNSONSo one thing that I really hate about Google right now is that if you're -- if you use Google+, their social network, there is this little red notification thing right next to the Google box that's, like, beckoning to you to go into the world of Google+ and see what's happening, when all you're trying to do is, you know, do a very simple Web search. And so you constantly -- if you don't exercise control and aren't proactively consuming information and aren't realizing that, you know, there are for-paid PR operatives out there for every journalist in America...
NNAMDIYeah, something we need to get to.
JOHNSON...you -- if you're not consciously consuming and being proactive in saying, look, this is my intake time, then you're in for a heap of trouble.
NNAMDIBut that puts content forums like Google in a quandary, too, doesn't it? Because, on the one hand, they're profiting off of sites like eHow and The Huffington Post because they're placing ads on these sites. On the other, they have a vested interest in a better, long-term Web with high-quality information.
JOHNSONThat's right. So a company like Google is in a really weird spot right now because they want search results to be really good. They want you to be able to get to the right stuff. And then you have a organization like Demand Media. They run a website called eHow, which if you probably ever searched, you know, how to change the oil on a, you know, 1996 Volkswagen Jetta, you probably ended up on one of their sites one day without even knowing it. And the -- you know, the instructions aren't very good. And they have all -- how to be a better archer, you know?
NNAMDIThat's something I've always wanted.
JOHNSONAnd what's happening is eHow is making its money by putting Google ads on its site, and so Google is trying to push that back a little bit because customers are becoming, I think, a lot less satisfied with search results on Google. But at the same time, it has an economic consequence for Google because they're going to lose revenue. Now, for right now, Google is being pretty thoughtful about it and more interested in the long term than the short term. But at the same time they've also got that big red button at the top that tells you you have Google+ notifications that may or may not matter to you.
NNAMDIHere's Clay in Silver Spring, Md. Clay, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAYHello, Kojo and Clay. I find that when I look up a review of a company, say, we would call them Acme servers. That Acme and their employees have clogged Google with bogus Facebook and blog accounts, and sometimes they make up companies with their own domains that pump up the company, pump up Acme and post it on the Net. Now, this may not be illegal, but it certainly seems devious.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Clay?
JOHNSONWell, first I want to commend the caller for -- the caller's parents for such an excellent choice in first names.
JOHNSONAnd secondly, you know, I think you're right. There's -- you know, the whole point of the Internet and -- is that, you know, it is incredibly empowering that we're -- we basically put a printing press in every person's pocket. But at the same time, it's really scary that we've put a printing press in every person's pocket. And we're reaching a place where it's really hard to tell what's true and what's false, you know?
JOHNSONWhen -- I'm trying to sell a book on amazon.com right now, and, you know, what I'm trying to do is get as many people as I can to go on amazon.com and write reviews and put it at five stars because, heck, I'm trying to sell a book and I believe in what the book says and I think it's, you know, a good book. And I think a lot of companies do this. And what you have to do is really sort of, again, consciously consume and figure out what the motivations are behind the people that are writing this stuff and producing it.
NNAMDIAnd that's not easy to do because, as you pointed out, the people who are involved in public relations now far exceed the number of people who are involved in journalism. So as mainstream media outlets try to figure out how to make money in the new information environment, a new insidious kind of journalism has emerged. It's being called churnalism, and maybe you can give as an example about filmmaker Chris Atkins?
JOHNSONSo Chris Atkins decided to do a test to see how often members of the media verbatim regurgitated what members of the press told -- members of, you know, PR agencies told them to say. They coined this term churnalism. To test it out, what he did is he decided to -- I think one of the examples of the book is the penazzle, which is...
JOHNSON...a fake tattoo. It was a fake company selling this fake thing called the penazzle, which was a temporary tattoo of the lower abdomen of males to spice things up. And he sent this press release out and did follow-up phone calls with many members of the press who simply just regurgitated the press release. And you can actually -- if you just Google churnalism and not get distracted by the Google+ notification, then you can see a lot of the stuff that he's done.
JOHNSONAnd they actually allow you to now paste in a press release and see where that press release has ended up and to see the difference in articles between what was in the press release and what was written. And you'll find that a lot of the time, upwards of 80, 85 percent of what's written in a press release just ends up verbatim copy and pasted into news articles.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Clay. We move on to Bernard in Washington, D.C. Bernard, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BERNARDHi, Kojo. I don't know if you can hear me 'cause I'm on speaker phone.
NNAMDIWe hear you very well for being on a speaker phone.
BERNARDOK. Thanks. I teach at the University of Maryland, and I just -- to add to the wonderful insight of the speaker -- of your guest, the problem is not just the question of the Internet and that information on the Internet. It's really a problem of the explosion of information generally. And what's happened in terms of the way the structure -- we're talking about the structure and the consumption of knowledge -- what's happened is that students no longer --when they enter the university, they no longer have any sense of how to filter information.
BERNARDIn other words, it's not just that it's available, but they've lost -- or they weren't trained to think that there are different kinds of information. So when we give them an assignment, they go on to the Internet. They look something up, and they can look at what -- I mean, they may be sophisticated enough to know that this is a crazy site and this is put up by a political party. But they assume that something that looks legitimate is good enough.
BERNARDSo the idea that information requires work, that you have to actually know where to look for it in the library and you have to find the right book, that's all gone because you can now find so much information so quickly. And so there's no real training in how to consume information.
JOHNSONThat's right. I think -- you know, one thing I want to point out, though, is that it's never the information's fault. There's a lot of talk about this sort of concept of information overload, but we have to remember that information is an inanimate object. It can't really do anything without people. And it's always either a system of people or people's choices that cause problems like this. But you're absolutely right that we don't do enough in education to talk about these issues.
JOHNSONYou know, I'm an advocate for changing most high school English classes, at least the names of high school English classes to critical thinking classes instead 'cause that's really what they're supposed to be about. So let's not pretend that we're trying to teach 17-year-olds how to master the English language. If you've read a text from a 17-year-old, you know that's not working out too well anyway. And let's instead go to critical thinking instead.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Bernard. We move on to Maxine in Silver Spring, Md. Maxine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXINEOh, hi. Thank you very much, Kojo. This is a very interesting discussion. Excuse me. I have to clear my throat. My -- I should explain first. I'm not one of the younger Internet, totally consumed individuals. I'm in my 80s. However, I do use a computer, and I do find, as your speaker mentioned, that you do get sucked into the thing in horrible ways.
MAXINEBut my particular complaint is how news reporting has pretty much disintegrated to a touchy-feely kind of presentation that usually starts out with presentation of some individual and how they feel and this is the situation and this is what other people think about it and so on and so on and so on. And I have to go to the inner pages of the paper to find out what the actual deal was. Let's talk about the, you know, the payroll cuts, for example.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up.
MAXINEAnd the details are buried.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought that up, Maxine, because as you know or may not know, Clay Johnson came to Washington as a political operative working for Democrats. But part of this book, part of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption" is about your own evolution in thinking about the problems in this town and how they transcend political parties. How did your own experiences in Washington inform the way that you think about information?
JOHNSONWell, you know, I came here because -- 'cause my mom got breast cancer, and her health insurance went from $300 a month to $3,000 a month. And I didn't think that was fair. So I started working for -- at first I started working for Howard Dean and then started a company and, you know, elected a bunch of Democrats, but really, you know, kept working my way up the chain. So at first I was, you know, doing the Blue State Digital thing and helping elect Democrats to Congress.
JOHNSONAnd then I wasn't doing much good, so I went to work for the Sunlight Foundation to focus on government transparency 'cause that might solve the problem. But then, you know, I found that that wasn't working either because you can't simply flood the market with broccoli and hope that people eat less french fries. It doesn't work. You have to convince people that french fries are bad for them, and that's why "The Information Diet" is really framed around health rather than journalism, that this is a health problem.
JOHNSONIt's not a problem with media production as much as it is media consumption. And if we change the consumption habits of people, we'll get better information. Just like if we change the consumption habits of food, we'll get better food, which is why, you know, Wal-Mart is reducing the salt, fat and sugar contents of their food because they're chasing after the Whole Foods customer.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk about what a food pyramid for information might look like. You can still call us at 800-433-8850. If the numbers are all busy, send us a tweet at #TechTuesday or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking with Clay Johnson, author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Clay is an advocate for open government and co-founder of Blue State Digital, a firm that helped build President Barack Obama's or then-candidate Barack Obama's 2008 Web operation. What would a food pyramid for information look like, Clay?
NNAMDIWe all know the food pyramid, which was used for many years to explain what we should and shouldn't be consuming. Today we have choosemyplate.gov. What would an information pyramid look like?
JOHNSONWell, you know, I don't like prescribing particular things for people to read. I'm far more interested in how they consume it, right? So I think we need to do the same thing that, you know, food expert and journalist Michael Pollan says when he says, you know, his prescription is eat food, not too much, mostly plants. And I think if I had to echo him, I would say read, not too much, mostly facts.
JOHNSONThe idea that we should really -- you know, I always say we should consume low on the food chain of information. But what that really means is try and get as close to the source of the information as you possibly can and try and stay away from information that's highly processed. Another thing to stay away from is -- I call it mass affirmation in the book. If you're listening to -- with the exception of this program...
JOHNSON...if you're watching the radio or watching the radio -- if you're listening to the radio or watching television and finding yourself nodding your head too often, then maybe you should pick a different news source for a little while or listen to it a little less.
NNAMDIOr stop nodding. Here is an email from someone you probably know, Bryan Sivak.
JOHNSONYeah, I know Bryan.
NNAMDIBryan used to be the head of D.C.'s chief technology office. He's now the current chief innovation officer in Maryland. Bryan says, "Clay states that it's best get information straight from the source rather than talking heads and print or on television or radio. However, getting information straight from the source requires time for the individual to understand, process and analyze data. Most people are not expert enough on a topic to have the time or the tools to process or analyze that information."
NNAMDI"One of the benefits of the experts is that's their job. Their responsibility is to process and help us understand the data and what that data means. How do you reconcile an individual's desire to understand the situation with that individual's lack of time or expertise to do so?"
JOHNSONWell, first, I would say, it's a little bit of a flawed question because the idea that you have an expert describing to you the shape and size of Kim Kardashian and, you know, her wedding nuptials and non-wedding nuptials is part of the problem. So the first thing is how do you get more time? Don't consume junk, and you can get a lot more time. The second point, too, is, you know, with that time, spend it achieving some depth of information, some depth of knowledge around a particular subject.
JOHNSONRather than worrying about, you know, what's going on in the world, figure out what's going on in your local community and what you can do to change it. Focus on actionable and relevant information and, really, sort of education, and you'll go a long way. That would be my advice for Bryan. I think experts are relevant. You know, I'm here on a radio show and sort of proposing to be an expert at the information diet.
JOHNSONAnd they're part of a balance, part of a good diet, just like -- you know, it's -- I really like ice cream and chicken wings. And I don't propose that people stop eating ice cream and chicken wings altogether, but I do propose that we ought to have -- maybe eye out to consume at least a little less ice cream.
NNAMDIHow about less chicken wings?
JOHNSONThat's not going to happen.
NNAMDIProbably that's not going to -- Bill Clinton has actually suggested that we should regulate information like food. That would obviously raise some First Amendment issues though, wouldn't it?
JOHNSONYeah, it's -- Bill Clinton proposed that we start a government agency to fact-check the Internet, which -- and media and to hold people accountable for lying, which, you know, it is a nice thought, but it's definitely not going to happen. I think most of the public, including myself, would be pretty outraged at government, you know, being in a role of sort of sanitizing information before it comes out.
NNAMDIWell, who would you recommend would be credible enough to be the person whose recommendations for an information food pyramid that we would follow besides C.J., Clay Johnson?
JOHNSONWell, I think it has to be built for yourself. You know, the difference in -- and for me, the difference between information and food is that one's information diet is very specific to what it is that they do and who they are. The information diet of a high school senior is very different from an -- needs to be very different than the information diet of a accountant. But, you know, I think that there's a lot to learn from food.
JOHNSONYou know, consume locally. That seems to be a good thing when it comes to food and our health. And maybe we should consume locally when it comes to consuming information. Consume low-processed stuff. When it comes to food, that tends to be pretty healthy. Also, it turns out to be pretty healthy when it comes to food. Looking for those parallels, you can sort of see bunches of really good prescriptions that way, seeking, you know, source information, staying low on the food chain.
NNAMDIWhen you say consume locally, it occurs to me that because of the way media have evolved, certainly in radio and television, that much of the news we get from those sources are international and national and not a great deal of it local or hyperlocal. You seem to be suggesting that we're walking around with a whole lot of information that might be virtually unnecessary to us in our daily lives and our neighborhoods.
JOHNSONThat's right. It's really bizarre to me -- it's always been bizarre to me that more people vote for the president in any given legislative district in the country. More people vote for the president of the United States than their state representative. Here in Washington, D.C., where people are supposed to understand politics, more people vote for the president than they do their, you know, city council person.
JOHNSONAnd it seems very strange to me because your state legislator, your city council person, they have far more of an impact on your life than the president of the United States does. And they certainly are more willing to listen to you because they have less people to represent.
NNAMDIAnd speaking of the fact that we don't vote in as large numbers for our local representatives, and following on the fact that we got an email from Bryan Sivak, who used to head the D.C.'s Office of Technology, allow me to make a sharp U-turn back to local stuff. You've been working on open government for a long time, and for many years this city, D.C., was considered to be on the cutting edge.
NNAMDIIf I wanted to be a healthy information consumer, I could log on to data.dc.gov, download a whole bunch of data in real time. But some people think that the momentum for open government has disappeared or is disappearing in D.C. What say you?
JOHNSONI think that's right. I think the Gray administration has not been particularly good here in Washington around open government. For a while, they shut down the D.C. Data Catalog that was really a -- an inspiration nationally. That's why we have data.gov, the website where you can get lots of federal data now, and it's because Vivek Kundra started it when he was the D.C. chief technology officer.
JOHNSONThen he went on to the administration, become the nation's chief information officer. Then Bryan Sivak, who just rode in, did a great job of following it up and keeping it open. And now the Gray administration is either let it sit, become stagnant or just try and lock it up. And it's done a terrible disservice, I think, to the open government community in D.C. and also to the D.C.'s reputation nationally as a technical innovator. You know, now it's just sort of sitting there sadly underutilized by this administration. I hope they change.
NNAMDIA topic that's sure to come up when we do our Politics Hour during the course of the year 2012. On now to Samuel in Arlington, Va. Samuel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMUELYes. My name is Samuel. I'm a student at Northern Virginia Community College, and I had a two-pronged attack here. I just wanted to make a comment, first of all, on Bryan Sivak...
SAMUEL...and his comment. And that was that I feel like there's a level of personal responsibility that every -- not just every American should have. And maybe this is a little naive of me, but that every person in the world should have -- and especially in this digital age -- that if you read something anywhere or hear something anywhere, it is your responsibility to fact-check that. It is not necessarily the responsibility of so-called experts.
SAMUELAnd you need to understand, as a thinking, breathing adult human being, that you have that responsibility. I think that's important and should not be negated in -- by someone just saying that the expert should do it. It's something that I try to practice daily. I try to always...
NNAMDIWell, I get the impression that Clay Johnson is advocating essentially the same thing.
SAMUELYeah. So we're in agreement there.
SAMUELAnd I also wanted to ask you what you think of Wikipedia as a hub for knowledge and sharing of knowledge. And I'll -- I'm done after that.
JOHNSONWell, I think Wikipedia is actually a great starting point, but a terrible end point. You know, I used Wikipedia a lot for my book. And the way that I used it was, you know, I Googled history of the diet, for instance, to find the "Letter on Corpulence," right, that we led the show with and to find out about William Banting.
JOHNSONBut then once I knew William Banting's name and, you know, could read a little bit in Wikipedia about it, I went beyond Wikipedia to the references that it cited and looked on amazon.com for other books about Banting so I could really sort of gain a mastery of, you know, what this guy was really about and what he was really going through.
JOHNSONAnd, you know, look, Wikipedia is one of the -- I think most -- it's a national -- it's an international treasure. But let's not mistake it for something that is necessarily factual. Democracy comes with a consequence, and democratic editing comes with a consequence. And so it's to be trusted to start your journey towards gaining knowledge of a subject, but I don't think it's one that completes your journey.
NNAMDII wanted to combine an email that we received with a question that I wanted to ask. Here's the email. It's from Jonathan. "While I appreciate Clay's point, the average person is too busy or too lazy to take the time to sift through the avalanche of information being pushed out to them in increasingly creative ways. How far away are we from a search engine that actively separates rich, credible content from marketing and sales drivel?"
NNAMDIAnd there was one idea about all of these personalized algorithms and how they might be hurting us is to actually build disruptions into the algorithm, asking Facebook or Google to intentionally to force us to see other things. Another key, asynchronous social network, one where you can follow someone without them following you back like Twitter and Google. It's my understanding in the book that you do not like the phenomena of what you call mutual intellectual sycophanticide.
JOHNSONThat's right. The -- so let me get to the first question about whether or not search engine...
NNAMDIAnd we only have about a minute.
JOHNSONOK. So Wolfram|Alpha kind of does that, and we'll do that, I think, more in the future when we're talking about search engines, and also Siri on the Apple iPhone, which uses Wolfram|Alpha to do that. And when it comes to your other question...
NNAMDIThe disruptions into the algorithm, asking...
JOHNSONRight. I think mutations can definitely permeate what Eli Pariser calls the filter bubble. And we ought to try it, but we also ought to try clicking on some links that we disagree with. If we want to -- if you want to break your filter bubble, there's an easy way for you to do it, and that's to change your behavior.
NNAMDISo if I'm following you on Twitter and you're following me on Twitter, and we're both following somebody who's following both of us, then we're a part of the mutual intellectual sycophanticide.
JOHNSONRight. Yeah. Let's surround ourselves with disagreement sometimes.
NNAMDIClay Johnson is author of "Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption." Clay Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHNSONIt was great. Thanks.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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