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 Obamas 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/OReilly Open Source Organizer of the year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Weeks 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 whats 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.
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?
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.
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?)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Wed 25 Jul 12 19:32
Is there something about the Internet that is more conducive to confirmation bias?
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?
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?
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!
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.
Administrivia (jonl) Mon 30 Jul 12 21:26
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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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