There’s a lot of content out there about what’s happening around the world and it can make your mind fat. This content – a term that I’m using to describe words, symbols, images, audio and video clips, layout and so on – is a combination of fact and fiction that varies in accuracy depending on the source and their motives.
Some sources want to entertain. Others just want to inform the reader while others are trying to incite action – or, in some cases, discourage action. And, on top of all of that, some of the content is very open and transparent about the goals of its creators while in other cases it’s harder to tell why the content is being produced.
And there’s a huge amount of it out there, growing daily. But you know that.
As an example, today I tried to learn more about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerilla group leader accused of kidnapping children in Uganda and turning them into his private army of soldiers and slaves, among other crimes. I also tried to learn more about Kony 2012, the latest project by the Invisible Children movement to try to stop Kony. To be more thorough, I should learn more about:
- the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army), Kony’s guerilla group
- the Ugandan military (which may or may not be a great group of people, but it appears to be the LRA’s primary opponent)
- Uganda itself
- United States foreign policy and its mission in Uganda
- Invisible Children itself
- The founders of Invisible Children, including Ben Keesey, Laren Poole, and Jason Russell
- How well Invisible Children uses the money it gets (there are differing opinions about this that you can find on the Internet, here’s an example)
- And hundreds of other small details
Then there’s the Occupy movement across North America and other parts of the world – seems like a worthy cause in theory, but I honestly don’t know a lot about it. I don’t know what % I’m in, but probably not the 1% that they keep talking about. I think. It seems like a worthwhile cause…
There’s also the food that we eat. According to one article I read today, a major cause of heart disease is inflammation of artery walls, which is not caused by fatty foods but by eating foods that were once expected to be healthy, like grains. Apparently the inflammation of the artery walls is what lets the cholesterol gain its foothold in your arteries and eventually ruin your health. Or is it? I don’t know.
But I came across the term “wheat belly” a couple of months ago and I’ve seen a lot of stuff that tells me that wheat, gluten and lots of processed foods are bad for me. Which I kind of knew already but the world periodically finds new ways to tell me that this food is bad for me. Or another food is bad for me, while these three products are good for me. And so on.
But I don’t know for sure unless I have access to accurate, timely information.
Oh, by the way, it’s an election year in the United States. I can understand that you might not know this if you’ve been in a coma for the past five years and only woke up today. But cheer up: plenty of information out there about it! Of course, it might be helpful to know which is both accurate and relevant. That might be tricky. But there is no shortage of people telling you how to vote.
Meanwhile, I get access to a lot of stuff that I find via Twitter, Google Reader, Facebook and dozens of other sources. To be honest, most of it is quite trivial. And there’s the ads, don’t forget the ads. And television programming. And so on.
But wait, you’re saying. Isn’t this a book review?
Yes, it is. But I wanted to set the stage a bit first.
The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption appears to have one main purpose: to convince you to choose and consume your information in a mindful manner. The key metaphor throughout this book is the information diet as the mind’s version of a healthy food consumption practice. Clay Johnson goes through some of the dangers related to unplanned, random information consumption. He then provides the reader with ideas on how to reduce the “junk food” content that many of us consume, as well as ways to find and partake of “healthier” information: more balanced, less biased, more diverse, more of an emphasis on primary or first-hand sources, etc.
At 150 pages, this is a short book and it’s an easy read. There are some amusing anecdotes amongst the more sobering discussion. You might look at Karl Rove in a slightly different light after reading this book. At least you’ll believe he has a sense of humor.
Is this a perfect, infallible book? No. It’s not a college level text book. It provides an introduction to various theories and practices. It does cite a number of references. It has 94 footnotes – a few of them are more humorous than factual. When you look at the cover of the book, you’ll see a claim that there is a 65% bias toward experiences (presumably the author’s). It has no index. There’s a couple of terms that Johnson uses throughout the book that I wanted to review in more detail but the lack of an index made that very difficult.
But here’s why I would recommend that you read this book, especially if you’re getting concerned about the value of the information that you are wading through each day. I’m going to circle back to my previous example for a moment.
Yesterday, while I was wasting time reading through Twitter feeds, I came across a couple of people talking about Kony 2012, which I referenced above. One person was stepping up their Twitter presence in an attempt to build awareness about Kony 2012. The other person was skeptical. I really don’t know either person at all but my interest was piqued so I decided to find out more. It’s just one example of the things that people want you to learn about and tell your friends.
[Side note: I started using my research using a combination of Wikipedia and Google Search. Wikipedia doesn't have the greatest reputation for factual information but I've always found it to be a decent starting point for more information. But you do need to view the content in Wikipedia with a critical eye. At least they try to do a good job of self-policing in most cases and indicating potential problems with their content.]
Facebook, Twitter and now Google+ are places where people post and link to a lot of things, including causes of all shapes and sizes. Kony 2012 is one example. So is Rep. Ron Paul’s quest for the presidency. So is Komen For The Cure. So is Armless Widows For Gun Control (well, it would be if it wasn’t a complete fabrication that I just made up.) And so on.
At a different level, maybe you’re being asked to promote:
- someone’s new novel or business book
- their blog post
- their funny infographic
- the product that their friend’s friend’s friend is trying to sell
- or their annoying cat picture.
Perhaps the content is politically motivated or otherwise trying to support some cause. Whatever it is, it’s really easy to share a link on your Facebook Wall, ReTweet something in Twitter or share it in Google+. Many people do this in blind faith without doing any research about the content behind the link. Maybe it’s being shared out of loyalty or an obligation to help someone out who has helped you out. Some people just like to share stuff.
But here’s the thing: you have a responsibility behind everything you share, link to, or write. You spend a piece of your credibility and social capital whenever you say “Please RT.” Or “MUST READ”. Or “REQUIRED READING”. Or “BREAKING” for that matter. So doesn’t it make sense to know what you’re doing is right, accurate and that you understand the motivations of those involved? That you have the best possible information available to make an informed decision and consciously share good stuff?
And don’t you owe it to yourself to really understand what you are reading and talking about? I’ve read enough so far about Kony 2012 and Invisible Children that, while the movement certainly seems to worthwhile and somewhat effective, it is run by human beings and it does need to be regarded with a critical eye, no matter how altruistic it seems. At the same time, if someone is criticizing something, like a series of critiques I’ve also read about Kony 2012, you should give it some consideration, especially if you, the reader, don’t have first-hand or even second-hand knowledge about the situation. (Of course, you also need to find out if the critics are full of crap.)
The Information Diet isn’t perfect, but in my opinion it’s a good framework to get started in feeding your brain better information. We need to treat our mental development with as much importance as our physical health (and, of course, they are connected). Conscious information consumption makes sense. You can’t go wrong by reading this book and trying out its ideas.
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