inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #0 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 16 Jul 12 20:31
    
We've been looking forward to this latest conversation with Clay
Johnson, author of _The Information Diet_, a must-read about digital
literacy and personal information management. Clay is best known as the
co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed
Barack Obama’s online campaign for the presidency in 2008. After
leaving Blue State, Johnson was the director of Sunlight Labs at the
Sunlight Foundation, where he built an army of 2000 developers and
designers to build open source tools to give people greater access to
government data. He was awarded the Google/O’Reilly Open Source
Organizer of the year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed
100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011. Clay's
combination of experience as a developer, working in politics,
entrepreneurism, and non-profit work gives him a unique perspective on
media and culture. His life is dedicated to giving people greater
access to the truth about what’s going on in their communities, their
cities and their governments. He still claims that he learned all he
needs to know from a two year tour as the late-shift waiter at Waffle
House in Atlanta, GA.

I'm Jon Lebkowsky, and I'll be leading this discussion with Clay over
the next two weeks. I've been an Internet maven and digital culturista
since 1990, and I was both teaching and learning about online activism
during the Howard Dean presidential campaign, where Clay was working
with innovative applications of Internet technology to the presidential
campaign process.  Since then Clay and I have both learned to question
some of our assumptions about technology, and start dealing with the
management of our information consumption. Clay's shared what he's
learned in his short but very helpful book.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #1 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 17 Jul 12 09:47
    
Clay, welcome back to the WELL, and welcome to the Inkwell forum.
Thanks for taking the time to join us for a few days and talk about
your book. I'm sure we'll find other things to talk about along the
way, as well.

Your book is based on our relationship with food as analogous to our
relationship with information. Both have been mediated by technology so
successfully that the problem of scarcity has given way to new
challenges associated with abundance. Can you start by discussing what
brought you to that analogy?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #2 of 18: Clay Johnson (clayjohnson) Wed 18 Jul 12 10:19
    
For me it was discovering the key distinction of the book: there's a
difference between being highly informed and well informed. I was
walking in front of the White House and saw a guy holding up a sign
over his head that said "keep your government hands off my medicare."

So as a guy who once worked for Howard Dean, I was intrigued. I spoke
with him, and it turns out he knew a lot. He knew about the Federal
Reserve Bank, the constitutional qualifications of the president of the
United States, and a whole lot of other things. Yet he didn't seem to
understand that it'd be impossible for government to keep its hands off
of a government run program.

The next day I saw a similar sign: a woman in front of a local army
hospital with a sign that says "enlist here to die for halliburton" and
while I didn't stop to talk to her I imagine the same circumstance: so
charged up over some information that she feels the need to protest,
not understanding that the place she was standing in front of was
treating wounded veterans, not sending our young off to war.

Finally, I saw this graph from the CDC: 

http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html/

Poof. That's all it took.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #3 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 18 Jul 12 20:19
    
So what was the next step? Did you have a flash of insight about the
food/information analogy, and decide "I've gotta write a book about
that"? Or did you evolve the information diet first by working on
yourself, before you conceived the book? (Or maybe neither of the
above?)
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #4 of 18: Clay Johnson (clayjohnson) Thu 19 Jul 12 10:32
    
You'll have to forgive my slow turnarounds on responses. My wife and I
had a baby 15 days ago, so we've got our hands full. My information
diet today is basically counting diaper changes and ounces of milk.

It was that my work at the Sunlight Foundation as director of Sunlight
Labs was only half-solving the problem. Yes, flooding the market with
fresh fruits and vegetables is going to lower the cost of fresh fruits
and vegetables. But it doesn't make them taste better than fried
chicken and french fries.

So I left Sunlight to write the book. I spent about a year working on
it, and pushing the issue forward, with the idea of building a more
thoughtful electorate. 
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #5 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 19 Jul 12 20:52
    
Congratulations! And don't worry about slow turnaround, we have two
weeks to dig in.

To establish context, let's talk a bit about your experiences before
you wrote the book. You worked as a programmer for the Howard Dean
campaign (which was when we met), then formed Blue State Digital, the
company that handled technology development for Obama 2008. You were
working intensely political candidate campaigns, and were thrown into
the DC vortex. After that you worked at Sunlight Foundation, which is
an activist technology organization that builds various applications to
make government more accessible and understandable. 

We already talked about how you came to the "diet" analogy, but how
did your experience as a developer for political campaigns influence
the book?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #6 of 18: John Payne (satyr) Sat 21 Jul 12 21:09
    
BTW, the website for this book is http://www.informationdiet.com/

Having recently recognized that I was suffering from information overload,
I resolved to pare back, but it's already clear that simply reducing the
flow of input isn't enough, by itself, to get control of the irreducible
remainder.  I need an organizational method or tool that can cope with
multiple facets of my area of primary interest, which is the application
of robotics to making the best practices of horticulture both scalable
and economical enough to displace conventional agriculture.

As tightly focused as that is, there are still dozens of data types
involved, from the people working directly in this or in related fields,
what they've done in the past and what their current research interests
are, the institutions with which they are affiliated and how their
relevant work fits into the missions of those institutions, professional
organizations, companies and corporations, government agencies, funding
sources, and so on.  I have a hunch that all of this can be distilled to
a relative handful of primitive data types, and that I might be able to
build a relational database or wiki around those, but I'm not yet
confident of this.

It has occurred to me that the most direct path to getting control of
this information might be to write a book about it.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #7 of 18: cjoh (clayjohnson) Mon 23 Jul 12 08:56
    
@jonl: yes, my experience as both a professional political consultant,
and as an activist definitely did. 

There is something deeply concerning about my experience as a
political consultant. I found it to be professional, paid, mass
manipulation. And if you think about it, that's part of what I'm trying
to tackle in my book.

Taking a step back, the if key distinction of The Information Diet is
the difference between being highly informed and well informed then the
key question I'm trying to answer in it is:

Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they're right.

Most of campaign consulting is trying to convince your side that
they're right and everybody else is crazy. And in order to do that
work, you've got to convince yourself of the same thing. Maybe I'm too
much of a skeptic to work in politics, but I just couldn't buy that our
politics boiled down to matches of good vs. evil.

Let's take lobbying as an example. When I started at the Sunlight
Foundation, if you'd have asked me what I thought of lobbyists I'd have
said something like what most people say:

"These are people who buy and sell our government against the will of
people. They should be gotten rid of."

Of course, I knew deep down what I meant by "lobbyist" was "other
people's lobbyists" -- not my lobbyists. Boom, the nuance bug.

Our current political climate doesn't allow for that kind of nuance or
synthesis. And what I'm afraid of is that because we're all seeking
out what it is that we want to hear, and we're busily manufacturing
that for people here in Washington, that people are unable now to hear
what it is that they *need* to hear. And further, they're unable to see
the nuance of government, and thus synthesize great ideas.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #8 of 18: John Payne (satyr) Mon 23 Jul 12 17:32
    
Not having read your book, I'm in the dark about just how much you make of
the parallel between food and information, and the degree to which you pick
apart the system of corporate agribusiness, which both provides the food
and drives its overconsumption through advertising, while protecting their
backs with lobbyists, campaign contributions, and more advertising,
congratulating themselves over what a great job they are doing while
simultaneously preparing us for the dramatic expansion that will be needed
to feed the world a few decades from now.

Perhaps to go into this would be to strain the analogy.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #9 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 24 Jul 12 19:10
    
I don't think it would be a strain. Feel free to go down that path.
The analogy is more about diet, but industrial food production is
related to the abundance, and the misuse, of food. 

Clay, in the book you talk about "confirmation bias" and it's relation
to belief. Could you explain how confirmation bias works, and its
implications?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #10 of 18: cjoh (clayjohnson) Wed 25 Jul 12 07:44
    
@satyr: Indeed about a third of the book delves into this. We
industrialized our agricultural firms, consolidating them into
multinational, billion dollar publicly traded corporations. As a
result, they no longer have nutritional responsibility, they have
fiduciary responsibility. And that fiduciary responsibility makes them
not create healthy calories, but cheap, popular ones.

We've done the same with our media companies -- they're owned by
multinational corporations with a legal fiducuary responsibility to
maximize the wealth of their shareholders. And as a result, they
provide us with cheap, popular information not information that we need
to hear to be active participants in society and democracy. They're
telling us what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.

The parallels run deep in the book: comparing what happened to farmers
in the last half of the last century to what's happening to
journalists today, comparing factory farms and content farms, and so
on. 
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #11 of 18: cjoh (clayjohnson) Wed 25 Jul 12 08:06
    
@jonl confirmation bias is seeking what we want to hear rather than
what's the truth. We have a bias for what we already believe, and we
*uncontrollably* seek that out through no real active choice of our
own. In that way, it's a lot like training our pallets to like certain
kinds of food: eat a lot of sugar, and you'll find yourself training
your tastebuds developing a sweet-tooth for you. 

We're wired for this kind of bias because it's been key to our
evolutionary survival: human beings are communal creatures -- and it
makes sense that we're more wired for tribalism than we are for truth.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #12 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 25 Jul 12 19:32
    
Is there something about the Internet that is more conducive to
confirmation bias?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #13 of 18: Ted Newcomb (tcn) Thu 26 Jul 12 10:06
    
Glad to have you with us Clay. You get pretty deep in cognitive
studies.  Can you expand a bit on how our brains are changing as we
integrate digital into our informational diets?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #14 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Thu 26 Jul 12 12:50
    
There was more I wanted to include in that last question, which was
posted on the fly. The book gets into how confirmation bias plays out
in the Internet age, and I was asking how the Internet amplifies the
problem of confirmation bias. It would also be good to know how
confirmation bias, heuristics, and cognitive dissonance work together,
and how bias is leveraged by media: "Giving people what they want is
far more profitable than giving them the facts." How does this affect
journalism and media, and what's the relevance for (tired word,
battered and maligned) democracy?
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #15 of 18: John Payne (satyr) Mon 30 Jul 12 06:52
    
> We industrialized our agricultural firms, consolidating them into
> multinational, billion dollar publicly traded corporations. As a
> result, they no longer have nutritional responsibility, they have
> fiduciary responsibility. And that fiduciary responsibility makes
> them not create healthy calories, but cheap, popular ones.

That's the most succinct explanation of what's going on in the
'food' industry that I've ever seen.  Thanks!
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #16 of 18: cjoh (clayjohnson) Mon 30 Jul 12 11:28
    
@jonl democracy depends on the synthesis of ideas. We need to be able
to hold cognitive dissonance, and resolve it in order to work.
Synthesis now though is less achievable than its ever been because no
matter what crazy thought that enters our head, there's a minor media
outlet out there willing to profit from confirming our beliefs and
making us feel good about being "right". 

When we hear we're right, our brain may (I stress *may* because the
science here is still a bit sketchy) undergo physiological changes.
Hebb's Law of neuroscience states that neurons that fire together wire
together -- and just like your body "adapts" to irregular insulin
levels when you chow down on a lot of sugar, your body may make
physiological changes when it seeks out and finds information you agree
with. Thus making it all the harder -- from a level that you cannot
really control -- to change your mind or see alternative solutions.

Note that synthesis is not the same thing as compromise. Compromise
means if you say the world is flat, and I say the world is round, we
compromise and say it's a half-sphere. Compromise means that you and I
are enemies and I'm going to win my argument and you're going to lose
it. Synthesis means we're both on the same side, and we're both seeking
out the truth, and we'll rigorously test our theories until we figure
out the shape of the Earth -- which is indeed closer to a sphere, but
actually an oblate spheroid.
  
inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #17 of 18: Administrivia (jonl) Mon 30 Jul 12 21:26
    
Short url for this discussion is http://goo.gl/aH3zo. If you're not a
member of the WELL and you want to post a comment or question, go to
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inkwell.vue.447 : Clay Johnson - The Information Diet
permalink #18 of 18: Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 30 Jul 12 21:34
    
What's the connection between the idea of an information "diet," or
reduced consumption, and this idea of synthesis?
  



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