Monday, February 18, 2013

Booknote: The Information Diet

I read this last year, but I debated whether to share my review and notes more widely or not. I was very underwhelmed by Mr. Johnson's book, but it did give me things to think about. In the end, I decided some of my notes should be shared as I think they are relevant to the work librarians, especially information literacy librarians, do. So, I am posting my review as I published it on my GoodReads profile followed by some notes I took from the books with my comments on those notes.

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious ConsumptionThe Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I picked this book up out of curiosity mostly. I found it somewhat underwhelming. Part of the reason I found it falling short is that, to be honest, a lot of what Johnson preaches is information literacy repackaged. It's what good instruction librarians, and just good librarians in general, have been doing for years, even long before the Internet that he seems so fixated on. That was the other thing that did not endear me to the book: the often elitist assumption that Internet access is easy to get and that everyone can get it. There is such a thing as a digital divide, and the author just seemed to either miss it or ignore it. Also, he tries a bit too hard to remain neutral, and I have to say, there are times when one side is wrong. Pure and simple. This is not something we need to get relativistic about. In addition, if you are well-read already, and you keep up pretty well, then a lot of the book up to the point he gets to the actual information diet is a backgrounder that you can either skim or skip. There are some interesting things now and then, but unless you don't keep up much, they are not really new. As for the plan itself, let me save you time: be selective of your information sources, be balanced, cancel your cable, get it all off the Internet (because we all know broadband is easy to get and ubiquitous). I did take some notes as I read, so I will likely do a longer write-up of the book in my blog. For now, I will say I was not really impressed. This book could have just been a long magazine article. Or the content could have just been left at the companion website.

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This is right from the opening pages of the book, setting up the problem:

"If large numbers of people only seek out information that confirms their beliefs, then flooding the market with data from and about the government will really not work as well as the theorists predict; the data ends up being twisted by the left- and right-wing noise machines, and turned into more fodder to keep American spinning" (4). 

As Johnson argues for the information diet, I hoped to see what role critical thinking skills and information literacy would play. On my initial impression of the book, I think he is missing that point.

Johnson makes a parallel between food and overeating and information and information overconsumption:

"Much as a poor diet gives us a variety of diseases, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance-- ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from overconsumption of it, and sicknesses and delusions that don't affect the underinformed but the hyperinformed and the well educated" (6). 

The above can certainly describe Fox News' viewers, who may think they are well informed (a delusion. It has been documented that people who view Fox News exclusively are not well informed at all. Link to report on the study. Note other links when you get there). Sure, some diets are worse than others; will Johnson acknowledge this or try to keep a neutral illusion? And what about intentional misinformation, when some media intentionally poison an already bad information diet? As I read,  these are questions I think about. Overall, after finishing the book, I see he does not really address these questions, trying to just remain neutral instead of taking a stand and calling things as they really are.

On the current news cycle, or why PBS in the U.S., may be the only decent newscast left:

"Driven by a desire for more profits, and for wider audience, our media companies look to produce information as cheaply as possible. As a result, they provide affirmation and sensationalism over balanced information. And in return, we need to start formulating an information diet-what to consume and what to avoid- in this new world of information abundance" (6). 

By the way, the description above may well be another argument to keep librarians around. We are good at sorting out information and evaluating it to help others get what they need. We also teach others how to do it.

Now, to be blunt, a lot of his argument boils down to information is neutral; it's what we do with it. Given his charitable view of folks like Zuckerberg, Facebook's CEO, a lot of his argument is starting to look like this: it's not the drug dealers' fault; it's all those addicts out there.

In the book, Johnson goes on to discuss Roger Ailes of Fox News. Ailes may have found a "brilliant" business model peddling affirmation and entertainment according to Johnson. It still does not make the Fox News brand of misinformation right nor ethical. This is not something one should really be neutral about. Unfortunately, others have copied the model. MSNBC simply went all out left as Fox News went all out right.

"Media companies want to provide you with the most profitable information possible that will keep you tuned in, and the result is airwaves filled with fear and affirmation. Those are the things that keep institutional shareholders that own these firms happy" (33). 

Again, nothing really new there. We already know the media empires are more interested in the bottom line than any sense of common good. So, what comes next then? Well, for one, the work of educators and librarians needs to go on to counter this.

By the way, Fox News, as Johnson states, does tweak headlines to appeal to its audience. He then goes on to state that "Fox News isn't about advancing a conservative agenda." Given what we know now, that statement is either naive or full blind ignorance by Johnson. Claiming neutrality seems more like staying silent in the face of something that is clearly wrong. And yes, The Huffington Post, the source he chooses as a contrast, does the same stuff, which is why I cut them both out of my information diet (though I still get some exposure from what others share). I did find Johnson's position at that point problematic; it seems to undermine much of what he says elsewhere. Now, here is a thought to ponder:

"In the world of fiduciary responsibility, quality information means market inefficiency" (35). 

On the danger of confirmation bias, then add the backfire effect:

"The seeds of opinion can be dangerous things. Once we begin to be persuaded of something, we not only seek out confirmation for that thing, but we also refute fact even in the face of incontrovertible evidence" (47). 

The above is why we need to be vigilant, educated, and open-minded. This is something that conservatives and a lot of liberals fail at these days.

Johnson goes on to discuss personal filters and how they fail. This is something I often think about as I tweak my information diet and pick, choose, and weed out sources. This is also why I may keep some extreme/less than bright/misinformed "friends" on my social media: I get to keep an eye on the other side and thus counter a bit of the information bubble. 

"You don't need the liberal or conservative media to make you ignorant. It can come from the production and consumption of information from your friends, and the personalization of that information. The friends we choose and the places we go all give us a new kind of bubble within which to consume information" (61). 

This is also why it irritates me that RSS readers are being phased out in favor of social media. I like to organize my news sources by their value, not by what my "friends" or acquaintances, some of which are less than reliable, think is newsworthy, or worse, what a social media site like Facebook with its crappy algorithm thinks I want to see. Thinking more on this, I do realize that I serve as some folks' source of information or news. I've had people mention they like following me for the links I find and share on Facebook or Twitter. So, I try to be very careful and selective about what I share in my online social outlets. I probably make a bit more effort as a result to make sure things are accurate, so on.

Much of what Johnson goes on to write about is basically rehashing of information literacy. This is stuff that we librarians have been discussing, researching, and teaching about for ages now. It is the kind of thing that, to be honest, we as a profession should own. For example, his definition of "data literacy"? Lo and behold that sounds like information literacy to me:

"Presuming you have access to a computer and the Internet, I've boiled down what I mean by data literacy into four major components: you need to know how to search, you need to know how to filter and process, you need to know how to produce, and you need to know how to synthesize" (80). 

Notice the Internet access assumption. What about those without Internet access?

At least Johnson reminds readers that not everything is on Google (duh!):

"Finally, a lot resides inside of large data repositories that aren't findable through Google. Search literacy also means the ability to find the data you're really looking for outside of a search engine, and to constantly be on the lookout for these repositories" (81).

Gee! You know who does that on a regular basis, and often as part of their jobs? Librarians. Not only do we do that, but we can also teach others how to do it. I do get irritated when gurus somehow discover what we do but don't even acknowledge it, then make it sound like they discovered this new revolutionary insight. Then again, it is something I often see in business books and a lot of LIS literature, repackaging stuff that is not really that great and selling it as some big thing. The book has some good ideas, but to be honest, as I mentioned in the review, this could have been more of a long magazine article.

In addition, Johnson consistently assumes that everyone has access to the Internet, an elitist assumption given the big digital divide that does exist, a divide that libraries, in spite of all the obstacles, do try to address. He also tries to express some noble sentiments about publishing online and getting feedback from what you publish via comments and forums. I do concur that being able to take constructive feedback; that is indeed a crucial skill. However, Johnson makes no acknowledgement of the known reality that a lot of the blogosphere not to mention a huge segment of forums and the Internet are nothing more than a toxic dump of ignorance and trolls. This amounts to online crap, and such crap can often keep good, thoughtful people from publishing and sharing. He either completely misses this or just conveniently chooses to ignore it.

He does make a point that I agree with, but with some qualification, regarding why I blog, but also why I keep a personal journal for things I want to write about but not worry about trolls or assorted online assholes. With this point, I end this post:

"Content creation and publication are a critical part of literacy because they help us to understand better what we say, both through the internal reflection it takes to make our findings comprehensible to others, and through the public feedback we get from putting our content in front of others" (83-84). 

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