Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet, is best known as the co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed Barack Obama’s 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/O’Reilly Open Source Organizer of the year in 2009, was one of Federal Computing Week’s Fed 100 in 2010, and won the CampaignTech Innovator award in 2011.
Johnson’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 what’s 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.
Clay Johnson: Information over-consumption is what a lot of people think they mean when they say information overload. Information over-consumption makes a lot more sense. We don’t say that someone is suffering from food overload. It’s not like fried chickens are offing themselves then jumping into deep fryers and some undead zombie chicken flies out of the deep fryer and into our mouths for us to eat. That never—that hasn’t happened to my knowledge and if it does, well, then we’re in the middle of the chicken apocalypse and that’s problematic. . . . Sometimes I laugh at my own jokes. . . . But information over-consumption is really the right frame for us to look at things through. We have to take responsibility both for the supply and the demand of information and our role as a consumer and a supplier of this stuff.
In the world of food, for instance, we have industrialized agriculture, and as we industrialized agriculture we created large corporations who have fiduciary responsibility to produce cheap and popular calories, and what that means is that they go, “Well, what is it that people want?” And now we’ve made it so that you can have a pizza with everything on it delivered to your house for $15 in a half hour made from all kinds of different things from all kinds of different places. This is as much of a feat of science in my mind as putting a man on the moon, if you really sort of think about what it takes in order to do that.
And I think that same thing has gone on with information. We’ve industrialized media, and our media companies now have a fiduciary responsibility to produce cheap and popular information, and that’s led us down the road of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, who don’t really want to inform us. They want to affirm us. They want to tell us what it is that we want. I mean think about this for a second. Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right? I certainly don’t. I love being affirmed. I love being told that I'm right, and I certainly like that a lot more than I like being informed.
And I think that’s important to realize when we talk about this supply and demand problem of blaming the victim is that we’re wired for what was good for us and not necessarily what is good for us, and our producers are producing what was good for us, but not necessarily what is good for us, so I don’t want to blame the victim, but I do want us to start waking up and realizing that this has a—we have to have a conscious level of consumption when it comes to our information intake.
Your information diet is an ethical choice of yours, so when you’re on the Huffington Post looking at, say, the Kardashians and you click on the Kardashians, understand that you are not only reading that article, but you’re also voting for that article. You’re telling an editor to produce more content like that at the expense of the stuff that you didn’t click on, and so we have this sort of rapidization of the tyranny of the majority, if you will, because of that because we are constantly being given what it is that we want, not necessarily what it is that we need, and I think that’s vital to understand, that there is a difference between those two things. But in the world of food if we are only given what we want, what would we look like? We’d be—well we’d look like, kind of like what we do today. We’re about 35% of Americans are obese and I think that same thing is going on with information.
I don’t want people to really focus on consuming less, just like I think appropriate nutrition shouldn’t be focused on consuming less. It should be about consuming well and being healthy about your information consumption, and that’s where I’d like to see us go. That’s what I’d like to see us do. That’s what I’d like to see us do is to start building healthy frameworks for information consumption, and sometimes that means reducing it, sometimes that means subtracting some of the bad stuff and adding some of the good stuff.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
An information diet has to be about personal responsibility.