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Thoughts on Infobesity

July 4, 2011

A week ago, I happened upon a fantastic site, InfoVegan, written by Clay Johnson, who has done a lot of work in online campaigning. I’m a real fan of the comparison between junk information consumption and junk food consumption. Johnson is not the only one to cite the metaphor–danah boyd, for one, mentioned “information obesity” at her talk in 2009 at the Web 2.0 Expo:

Consider the food equivalent. Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

Nevertheless, Johnson does a great job detailing the possibilities for what I’d call epistemological fragmentation online:

As we consume food, we also consume information. Yet few of us make deliberate decisions on what kind of information to consume or how much. We do make unconscious, non-deliberate decisions though— we’re naturally drawn towards the opinions we agree with, whether it be through following our friends on twitter or the mass media we consume. We naturally avoid diversity in the news we consume— you won’t find many conservatives watching MSNBC or being fans of Keith Olbermann, and you’re not going to make any liberal friends happy turning on Glenn Beck in their living rooms.

I love the metaphor, mostly because it encourages people to be more critical of their news sources. The comparison takes the progress that Americans have made in thinking critically about what they eat–evidenced by the growing number of Whole Foods and farmers markets nationwide–and beseeches them to think critically about what they learn, too.

I’m often inclined to take the metaphor too far, but I did use it to point out some of the most salient points in a response on Johnson’s post here:

Clay, I think that you’re really on to something, but there’s a few pieces where the analogy gets a bit mixed up.

You’re right when you say we should be “consuming consciously.” That’s what we have to constantly be doing as consumers of food (or, by analogy, of information). What’s important is that we know where our information is coming from, and what it contains. But we don’t necessarily have to be “infovegans” to make this work; we can get plenty of meaty stuff. What’s important is that we get a well-balanced diet of information.

The point of being an educated, enlightened human being is not only to consume facts–computers can do that pretty well for us. Agreeing with information we consume is not inherently bad, as long as that’s not the only kind of information we’re getting. Just as someone with a healthy diet still needs to find a way to get their proteins and their omega-3s, we should be critically considering op-ed pages, manifestos, and otherwise interested works, and balancing them with our other vitamins and minerals that we need.

For example: the asparagus of information might be the front page of the NYTimes; the mahi mahi of information might be the latest TED talk; the (organic, homemade) yogurt of information might be a poem by Yeats. These are nutritious. The McDonald’s french fries of information could be TMZ–which is most of the kind of stuff that we often get through contemporary media. (They appeal to our evolutionarily encoded desires, but provide us with absolutely no “nutrition.”)

This also means that we need to consider the kind of media through which we absorb our most nutritional information. As McLuhan famously wrote, the medium is the message–and as Postman would have insisted, we learn from those medium-messages. Folks who constantly are getting all of their information through, say, youtube, or wikipedia, are going to end up with intellectual scurvy.

The most important priorities are:

1) We need a well balanced diet of information–that does not exclude entertaining stuff!

2) We need to be aware of where our information is coming from and what the ingredients of that bias may be.

I’d love to know what you guys think about the comparison! Is it absolutely useless? Does it help you to think about how important it is to be aware of where you get your information? Where do you think the metaphor fails?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2011 12:56 pm

    I think the metaphor fails because even the “french fries” of information can make you think (although, that also goes with the fact that even french fries DO have nutritional value. All food does… if something has no nutritional value, it isn’t food). The fact is, the very things that make fries bad for you (excess salt and saturated fat) are things your body NEEDS, but in small amounts.

    Do we NEED twitter, sports scores, celebrity gossip (in small amounts) or can we do completely without them? I would argue they make you think, but the “nutritional value” is neglible – BUT is there something in them that we NEED? Do we need the excitement and stimulation they provide to keep us engaged?


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