Do Canadians Need an Information Diet? Clay Johnson on ‘Information Malnutrition’

Co-founder of Blue State Digital and author of The Information Diet, Clay Johnson spoke at this week’s Mesh Conference in Toronto about how we’re “over-eating” on information—and we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Johnson compared the way we consume information to the way we consume food and how these habits have changed similarly over time. People didn’t need to go on diets hundreds of years ago because people couldn’t indulge in unhealthy food back then the way we do today. Similarly, we never used to spend as much time as we do now staring at a computer screen, television or mobile device. Too much of it negatively impacts our efficiency and contributes to an unhealthy lifestyle.  

“If you’re using your iPhone as an alarm clock, you’re doing it wrong,” Johnson pointed out during the mesh talk. Pushing the snooze or dismiss button on your iPhone is just a welcoming invitation to start checking email or other social networking activity, so you immediately inhibit your own productivity by overwhelming yourself with information even before you get out of bed.

The idea is to be a producer rather than a consumer, and according to Johnson, people really need to become conscious information consumers so they can manage their time better and avoid distractions. Unfortunately for most people, it’s a lot easier said than done.

Glancing across the tables at this year’s conference, all you could see were people tweeting, Facebooking and typing away on their laptops or smartphones. A tweet from conference attendee @michaelocc reads:

“We sit here, checking iPhones, live-tweeting on our laptops and iPads, all while listening to @cjoh push the Information Diet. #mesh12 #irony”

Although we’re responsible for what, when and how much we consume, Johnson continued to explain that we can partially blame the media for actually reinforcing our behaviour as well, turning us into hopeless information junkies.

And here’s a bit of proof. He asked the mesh audience if anyone knew the name of Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband. Several people surprisingly shouted “Chris Humphrey” without hesitating. But when Johnson asked if anyone knew the percentage of Toronto children living in poverty, only a couple people mumbled guesstimates of 10% here or 30% there. (It’s actually 50% for those wanting to know.)

News about the Kardashians isn’t exactly important in any real sense, but junk like that sure does drive traffic, which is why they keep pumping it out. To some media outlets, it doesn’t always matter that people are being well-informed of a significant issue. It only matters that people are consuming.

The Kardashian/Toronto child poverty example helped prove a point that we are perhaps suffering from “information malnutrition,” leading Johnson to push a new kind of “whole news diet” people need to start embracing today.

Instead of following news outlets that feed us what we want to hear and tell us what we already agree with, we should be actively seeking out whole news that include source material allows us to make up our minds on the topic or issue. Scheduling our intake of information and even considering paying for good content can help subtract all the junk we often find ourselves wasting time with these days.

A big takeaway from the talk was a simple, actionable habit Johnson suggested we all start incorporating into our lives to help us become better producers. Before doing anything after waking up—eating breakfast, hitting the gym, checking email—make it a goal to write 500 words about something. It can be anything. That way, you start your day as a producer right off the bat, and Johnson said you should notice a significant difference in how you tackle the rest of your day. Say goodbye to wasteful web browsing and hello to conscious consumption of whole news and information.

With the increasing amount of information being pushed around the web and the global shift toward everything going digital, an “information diet” may be a much more regular thing in the future.