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‘The Information Diet’: Should Americans Exercise More ‘Conscious Consumption’?

May 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Clay Johnson, author of "The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption", discusses with Hari Sreenivasan how abundant technology affects our health -- producing pulsing side effects such as "email apnea" or "reality dysmorphia."
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next, a different concept of health and nutrition in the age of digital technology.

Hari Sreenivasan has our book conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Information has become so abundant and so cheap that, like food, many of us consume too much of it. And what we consume isn’t always the best around.

In “The Information Diet,” author Clay Johnson lays out the case for conscious consumption.

So, Clay, first, lay out what the problem is, and what are some signs that we are unconsciously consuming information?

CLAY JOHNSON, author: Well, the problem is that we have this idea that it is the information’s fault. So call it information overload.

But that doesn’t really make sense. It’s sort of like saying we are suffering from obesity and therefore we’re suffering from food overload. It’s like blaming the chicken for our obesity problems. And there is one victim of our mass consumption of food. It is certainly the chicken who is giving its life so that we can eat.

And I think the same thing is happening with information. We’re suffering from information malnutrition or information overconsumption, not information overload. And it has all kinds of really physiological and psychological effects on us.

Like, one thing that is discussed in “The Information Diet” is this concept of email apnea. When we get emails, our tendency is to hold our breath, is to take a deep breath or even to just take a really shallow breath. And that has all kinds of different effects on our autonomic nervous system and it can really affect your health.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So each time we hear a tiny little ding that says there is an email in-box, something is physiologically happening to us?

CLAY JOHNSON: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s a neurochemical? What is it, dopamine?

CLAY JOHNSON: Well, all kinds of neurotransmitters fire off.

One thing I did in my book was I got a little device that checks my heart rate and my breath rate and hooked it up to myself for a day and asked my friends to send me text messages randomly, right, throughout the day. And I found that it would increase my heart rate by 15 percent whenever I heard my iPhone ding at me.

And I’m totally — you don’t know my friends but I’m totally uncomfortable with having my friends being able to increase my heart rate like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you talk a little bit about the psychological and the social consequences, that we have a tendency to get trapped in our own bubbles and our filters sort of fail us.

CLAY JOHNSON: Right. It’s important to realize that no matter what crazy thought that enters your head, there’s now a minor media outlet out there willing to tell you that you are right.

And who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they are right? And so now, whenever we feel uncomfortable, we can sort of go on Google or go and turn on our television set and tune in to someone who is willing to affirm our beliefs. And we get trapped in the sort of reality dysmorphia, this idea that we can just view what it is that we want to see in the world without that actually being attached to reality.

And that’s really troubling for the electorate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So part of your book reads leak a how-to manual and you have got a credo there says, “Consume deliberately, take information over affirmation.”

How do we do that?

CLAY JOHNSON: Well, the first thing is to sort of be really conscious about your information consumption.

So I use a service called RescueTime.com. And what that does is it monitors me on my computer and takes note of what Web sites I look at. And then I look at that and just reflect. And I go, is this adding value to my life? Is this information that I’m consuming actional and relevant to me?

I find that if you are looking at a lot of news that you find yourself nodding your head to a lot, then maybe it’s time to, you know, insert some diversity into your information diet.

The second thing is to go local, really pay attention to local news before the national and the global stuff. And by local, I don’t just mean, you know, what is happening in your city. I mean what is happening in your neighborhood and what is happening in your house.

I think it’s vital for everyone to pay more attention to what is happening with their family than what is happening with Snooki.

(LAUGHTER)

CLAY JOHNSON: And I think the other thing to realize is that your clicks have consequences. Your information consumption habits are consequential not just to yourself, but to other people. When you’re reading an article online, you’re not just reading that article. You’re voting for it. And you’re telling an editor to write more stuff like that.

And so whenever you are consuming information, you’re actually affecting the information diet of someone else.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Okay. And you also say go for source information, not packaged information, kind of keeping in the parallel with food.

So there are reams of data that the government, for example, publishes. But I don’t have the literacy to understand that. How do we get over that hurdle?

CLAY JOHNSON: Well, I think one thing is that our definition of literacy is changing and that we have got to really understand that digital literacy is not just the future of sort of computers and technology. It’s the function of — it’s the future of literacy itself, just as our definition of literacy has always changed throughout all of human history.

And the second thing is, I think this getting closer to source material is tied very much to the local stuff. So if you can stay with a mostly local news diet, not entirely local news — of course, it’s important to get national and world news in your information diet. But if you start consuming a lot of local news first, then that’s, of course, easier to get to, it’s more easily verifiable.

If a house burns down in your neighborhood, you can drive over and see that the house burned down. If there is local issues, local political issues happening, you can call your state representative and meet with them and talk to them about it, which is not something that you can do at the national and federal level.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Finally, the cover of your book looks like those nutrition labels that we see on food. Why is it that we know more about what goes in our stomachs than what goes in our minds?

CLAY JOHNSON: Well, neuroscience is a lot harder.

But there is a whole field of biology that is dedicated to the nutritional sciences. And I suspect that they don’t have all the answers either. Keep in mind there were 900 diet books published the first half of this year — or first half of last year. And so that means that we don’t exactly knows what’s going on in either field.

But I would say that “The Information Diet” is really the first book of its kind that talks about these issues from a health problem, rather than from a sort of productivity problem. And the science isn’t all there yet either. But we’re going to get there.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, the book is called “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption.”

Clay Johnson, thanks so much for joining us.

CLAY JOHNSON: It was a pleasure.