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Book review: The Information Diet

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The Information DietDid you know that you spend upwards of 11 hours a day consuming information? In The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, Clay A. Johnson argues that much of what we consume – in information terms – is as bad for us as junk food.

It’s a really interesting idea. The general concept is that if we consume poor quality food we get fat, and if we consume poor quality information we lose the ability to respond rationally.

“Much as poor diet gives us a variety of disease, poor information diets give us new forms of ignorance – ignorance that comes not from a lack of information, but from an overconsumption of it,” Johnson writes.

You have information choices

The Information Diet talks about how we have got to this point of information overconsumption. Johnson discusses churnalism (the practice where journalists repeat what is in a press release instead of carrying out independent research), content farms and search engines. He says that as we can’t stop the overproduction of data we need to learn “how to cope in a world with different rules.”

Johnson’s rules for managing your data diet are:

  • Consume consciously: know what information you are taking in and regulate it appropriately.
  • Consume locally: get to the facts and avoid over-processed information.
  • Cut out the ads: these are like sugary drinks, all buzz and no sustenance.
  • Consume a varied diet of information from a number of sources.

“When we tell ourselves, and listen to, only what we want to hear, we can end up so far from reality that we start making poor decisions,” Johnson writes.

Information overload is not an excuse

Information overload is a modern epidemic. Johnson argues that information overload is the wrong term: people don’t overload on information, and it is unlikely that our brains have a limit for knowledge. “Instead of the lens of efficiency and productivity, maybe we should start looking at this through the lens we use to view everything else we biologically consume: health,” he adds.

Johnson points out that information is neutral. It does not force you to consume it and it can’t rewire your brain without your cooperation and intervention. As a result, he says that there is no such thing as information overload. He writes:

“Though we constantly complain of it – of all the news, and emails, and status updates, and tweets, and the television shows that we feel compelled to watch – the truth is that information is not requiring you to consume it…There has always been more human knowledge and experience than any one human could absorb. It’s not the total amount of information, but your information habit that is pushing you to whatever extreme you find uncomfortable.”

A chunk of the book covers managing your information habit, including his personal experiences of handling constant interruptions from pop ups and email notifications when working on his computer. He trained his attention span so that he could concentrate for longer, which enabled him to concentrate on longer pieces of information such as books, instead of short bite-sized information like this article.

Consume deliberately

This is a book heavy on examples from US politics, and you have to look hard to see parallels with the project management environment. There are parallels though; after all, project management is largely knowledge work.

We need to get information from a variety of sources, not favour one stakeholder or project team member’s view of the world. We need to consume consciously, by understanding project information and being able to process it appropriately. We should get as close to the facts as possible and not rely on second or third hand information for decision making.

Johnson’s manifesto for a healthy information diet is this: “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.”

In project terms, this means really understanding the project information and where it is from, and not rating praise for deliverables or process over the facts.

Despite it having a large dose of US politics, most of which went over my head (although Johnson does apologise for this at the beginning), I predict that this will be one of the most interesting books I’ll read all year. It is thought-provoking and relevant, unique and informative. It’s not a project management book but it will make you look at information more critically.

The last chapter is a call to action for information activism and I’m not quite excited enough by the concepts explained here to set up my own diet group, as Johnson recommends, but if you want a book to challenge your views on information and to help you ration those 11 hours a day to meaningful sources, then I highly recommend this book. Plus, it has an excellent cover!

Buy on Amazon.co.uk

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