Information Diet: Why Your Brain is Getting Fat

Everyone would agree that we live in the information age.  No matter the subject, it is conceivable that you can find information about that within a few minutes using the multitude of internet enabled gizmos that stay virtually tethered to us every single minute of the day. The upside of this great digital revolution is that we are not constrained by space and time any more to learn and understand things. We are surrounded by a silicon and hyper-text protocol based environment that allows us to very quickly connect the dots, so to speak. This much is not under any disagreement.

The quality of this information, though, may not be as virtuous as one might think. With many sources, following their own methods and policies in procuring, curating and delivering information, it is hardly a stretch to imagine that information getting manipulated by those who stand to make personal gains by spreading misinformation. We all want to be right and the corporations and conglomerates know that we want to be right, as often as we could. We have the strong tendency to accept, enthusiastically, anything that affirms our beliefs while quickly brushing aside anything that does not confirm to our personal world-view. Thus any argument that claims George Bush was incompetent is a valid argument for (most) liberals while all articles that question Obama’s birth place is hailed as truth by (most) right-wing conservatives. With people who consciously choose to filter their information intake with their strong bias setting themselves at the extremes of any subject, in the middle are today’s omnipresent media and its savage hunger for profit.

Google, Time Warner, CNN and pretty much everyone else who is delivering your news on their website have a strong monetary reason to bring you to their website and keep you there as long as they can, in hopes that you will click one or two of their ads. But to bring you to their website, they can’t just give you news; they have to give you a hybrid, synthetic form of news – it is just normal news with a decent amount of context-filtering and ambiguity added for flavor. Fox News and Huffington Post are masters at this craft where, editorial justice is used to mop the floor while SEO techniques get spa treatment. This is a vicious cycle where people seek out, even demand, partisan, self-assuring information and an ethics-neutral corporate media network machine catering the endless buffet, dumbing down the electorate with every news cycle.

And this is bad. Not because I say so, but because Clay Johnson’s excellent book – The Information Diet – says so. In this book, Mr.Johnson, a self-proclaimed technologist – and a political activist – lays out an excellent case for why regulating the information overflow while demanding transparency from the sources of that information is essential to make sure that facts, not opinions, get proliferated. Using the various analogies from nutritional diet books, like obesity and food pyramid, which we are so used to, Mr.Johnson makes it clear that we need to take a hard look at what we choose to read and listen and from which sources we choose to do them. Here is great presentation by him at a publishing conference.

It is no secret that when it comes to realizing our own faults, we are hopelessly unreliable. The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight shows us that we consistently over-estimate the correctness of our opinions while consistently under-estimating the capacity of others to be right. But all is not lost, since it is within our own powers to recognize this inherent fault in our psychology and, by making conscious and sometimes unpleasant choice of reading and consuming information that contradicts our world-view we can overcome this built-in bias. Once we start doing that for a consistent amount of time we would then be able to truly learn and understand and eventually appreciate the world around us.

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