The Information Diet
Feeling overwhelmed? It might be time to change the way you eat the internet.
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food
There’s such a thing as too much.
Humans behave strangely when we have too much money, power, choice or free time. When a resource becomes abundant, things get weird. That’s especially true if the resource used to be scarce. Our relationship to it changes, and we don’t navigate that change very well.
Take food for example. For most of human history, food was a scarce resource. Today though, in most parts of the world, food is abundant. Across Europe, North America and Oceania and more recently, large swathes of Asia and Latin America, spending on food is now only a small part of the average household budget, which means most people can afford to eat whenever they like.
Unfortunately though, while it’s become relatively less expensive, most of it is low quality. The results are well known. Sugar now kills more people than all forms of violence combined, there are more people on the planet who are obese than starving, and the global agricultural system that we’ve built to supply all that cheap food is slowly but inexorably destroying the conditions that allowed the human race to flourish in the first place.
Information has gone through a similar change. It used to be a scarce resource, but now it’s abundant. This has happened in one lifetime. I was born in 1983 and I remember learning to read as a kid, and being so excited about my new ability that I’d read everything in sight, the labels on cereal boxes, the street signs on a car trip. My appetite was insatiable, and there weren’t enough words in my environment to satisfy it.
That’s very different in 2019. The digital revolution made sure of that. Young boys today will never know the joy of having to read all their sister’s Sweet Valley High books when the library card runs out. There’s now so much content, so much information available, on so many different devices and channels, that the idea of running out seems ridiculous.
There’s a real sense of motion sickness that accompanies this accelerated pace of change. The German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa, calculates that since pre-modern times, human movement has increased hundred-fold, communications by a factor of ten million, and information transmission by ten billion. The amount of raw, accessible information we have access to is orders of magnitude more than it was just a few years ago, never mind a generation ago. Yahoo has the historical financial statements of every public company in the United States; 20 years ago you had to ask each company to mail you hard copies. Twitter is less than 5,000 days old, but it spits out 200 billion tweets a year.
No wonder we’re suffering from whiplash.
As our access to information has exploded, our relationship to it has changed. When information was scarce, its value lay in its ability to influence action. Now that it’s lightweight and abundant, we act on less and less of it. As the ratio of action per incoming piece of information falls to zero, the new value of information is its immediate pleasure. It becomes increasingly indistinguishable from entertainment. That’s why most of the information available to us today is cheap and low quality; the equivalent of corn syrup, KFC and jelly babies. It temporarily satisfies our urges, but has little to no nutritional value. It’s engineered to be addictive, making humans unhealthy and corporations rich.
It’s also instantly accessible. Instead of having to drive to the shops, we can consume junk information at the touch of a button. Here in Australia, more than half the country get some of their news via social media, and 78% access news or newspaper websites on a regular basis. In the United States, half of adults get their news from television, and 68% get at least some of their news on social media.
That’s a problem, because we live in a supercharged attention economy that encourages car crash style reporting. Newsworthiness is determined by how unusual, scary or shocking the story is. As essayist Steve Salerno says:
By definition, what the news business really gives you, with its unending parade of ugliness, is unreality. What you see each night on TV or hear from those all-news radio stations is not, in fact, your world. It is a negative image of your world, in both the photographic and tonal senses.
It’s difficult to swim upstream against the market. A few years ago, a Russian news site called City Reporter decided to report only good news for an entire day. The site put positive news stories on all of its front pages and found silver linings in negative stories (“No disruption on the roads despite snow,” for example). The result was a unicorn orgasm of sunshine and rainbows — that absolutely no one wanted to read. According to its deputy editor, Viktoriya Nekrasovathe, the site lost two-thirds of its normal readership. “We looked for positives in the day’s news, and we think we found them. But it looks like almost nobody needed them.” The following day, the site returned to more reliable staples: car crashes and burst water pipes.
If it bleeds it leads isn’t an aphorism. It’s a business model that media organisations are stuck with. They want us to believe that consuming the news offers us a competitive advantage, but it does the exact opposite. Just like fast food, our brains and bodies aren’t rational enough to be exposed to the product they’re creating. We become prone to overconfidence, taking stupid risks and misjudging opportunities. Instead of making us better informed, junk information causes us to walk around with the wrong risk map in our heads. Terrorism becomes overrated. Chronic stress is underrated. Political horse-races and the culture wars make all the headlines. Fiscal irresponsibility is relegated to a small column on page 13. Firemen are celebrated. Nurses are ignored.
Bear in mind, we’re not talking about fake news here. We’re talking about reputable, fact-checking media organisations. Nobody explains it better than Carlos Maza.
Junk information doesn’t just warp our view of the world, it damages our health. Research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms. High cortisol levels cause impaired digestion, lack of cell, hair and bone growth, nervousness and susceptibility to infections. Other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation. A study by psychology researcher Michelle Geilan found that watching just a few minutes of negative news in the morning increases the chances of viewers reporting having had a bad day by 27%. Life Time Fitness, a gym chain with with 128 locations in the United States, recently decided that showing cable news on television was antithetical their mission of making people healthier, so they’ve banned it from the gym.
Perhaps most worryingly, news addiction can permanently change our brains. As stories develop, we want to know what happens next. The news media has adopted the tricks of the entertainment industry, heightening immediacy and drama and superimposing narrative to make everything sound momentous, like it’s part of some bigger story. In effect, we’re watching hundreds of television shows at any given time, keeping hundreds of storylines in our heads, multiple ongoing plotlines about presidents, plane crashes and police brutality. The craving to get the latest instalment becomes harder to ignore.
Neuroplasticity works its magic. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to following cheap plotlines, while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. That’s why most of us — even if we used to be avid book readers — have lost our ability to consume long form content. After four or five pages our concentration vanishes and we become restless.
Wondering why it’s harder these days to pick up a book when you settle into bed? It’s not because you’re older, or because your schedule became more demanding. It’s because digital media has changed the physical structure of our brains.
There’s nothing wrong with eating sweets, fried foods, pastries, even drinking soda every now and then, but food manufacturers have made eating these formerly expensive and hard-to-make treats so cheap and easy that we’re eating them every day.
Michael Pollan, Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual
Very few things in life are all good or all bad. Not all news is bad for you, and I’m not suggesting you should stop consuming it. The productivity bros for example, like to talk about the low-information diet, a concept popularised by people like Tim Ferriss and Mr. Money Mustache. The idea is that you remove all news and social media in the interests of being more productive, living a simpler life or not taking on stress. This is silly. As anyone who’s ever tried to diet has discovered, permanently reducing your consumption of something takes a level of willpower most of us don’t have. We might be able to avoid the news for a few weeks, but all it takes is one misplaced click and suddenly we’re outrage-scrolling through Facebook at 1am again.
Nor is it clear that reducing our intake is desirable. Sure, the recommendation algorithm doesn’t optimise for balance, and that’s not great for democracy. But you know what’s worse than unbalanced news? No news. If you live in an information cocoon, not only will you believe many things that are false, you will also fail to learn countless things that are true. That’s awful for democracy.
For people to govern themselves, they need to have information and they need to be able to convey it to others, which is why social media platforms (despite all the hyperventilating) are not merely good; they are terrific. Consider the famous finding, by Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, that in the history of the world, there has never been a famine in a system with a democratic press and free elections. One of the main reasons is that famines are a product not only of a scarcity of food, but also a scarcity of information.
It’s easy to mistake this article as saying that it’s bad to read the news, or to be on social media, but really, it’s saying that it’s bad to do this constantly. Susanne Babbel, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma, says this repeated exposure is the real issue:
Every time we experience or hear about a traumatic event, we go into stress mode. Ideally, after the perceived threat is resolved, the body’s resting state of homeostasis should be regained. However, recurrent exposure means the body is undergoing this process far more frequently, interrupting restful recovery and causing our adrenal glands to become fatigued. Adrenal fatigue can lead to being tired in the morning, lack of restful sleep, anxiety and depression, as well as a multitude of other symptoms.
The problem is around-the-clock consumption of junk information to the exclusion of everything else. We’ve made it our primary food group, and that means we’ve all become the digital equivalents of the guy who spent a month of eating only at McDonald’s.
So what are we supposed to do about it?
For me, the biggest change happened when I started thinking about information as a diet, and decided to make it healthier and more diverse. The effect has been transformative. For the last few years I’ve felt less stressed, less anxious, more motivated, and I’m still confident I know what’s happening in the world. I didn’t completely cut out the bad stuff; midnight ice cream is one of life’s great pleasures — and if I’m really honest, so is an hour of being outraged at politicians.
Instead, I took the advice of Nicole Wong, a veteran of Google and Twitter, who says its time for a “slow food movement for the internet.” I changed my intake to include the information equivalent of more wholewheat grains and vegetables. As much as possible, I also tried to build in some downtime by removing the temptations to binge (this article from NYT journalist Kevin Roose should really help). Thinking about how much effort professional athletes put into recovery, I asked myself “what would recovery look like for someone whose work involves giving their mind, rather than their body, a beating?”
I thought it might be fun to share the specifics of that process, and provide a detailed breakdown of exactly where I get my information from in 2019. Remember — what you’re about to read here is the information diet of someone who curates and communicates information for a living, so by definition it’s going to be a little excessive. It’s not supposed to be a definitive guide. Instead, my hope is that by showing you the broad brushstrokes of my food groups, you can create your own menu.
Imagine if we had a food system that actually produced wholesome food. Imagine if it produced that food in a way that restored the land.
Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma
Before you begin, you need a dietary philosophy. This is how people with good health and fitness operate: they have an approach: they’re vegan or they’re paleo or they believe there should be a certain balance between strength training and cardio. There’s a philosophy they believe in, and it’s the same thing for digital life. It doesn’t matter what it is, it could be spiritual, psychological, or commercial. The point is that it’s not the tips that get you there. You need a central organising principle around which to craft the whole thing. That allows you to change the sources, to sign up to new publications or get rid of old ones, without ever losing the thread that binds it all together.
Let me give you an example. My organising principle can be summed up by this quote from legendary kids entertainer, Mr Rogers:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Using that as my guide, I’ve built my information diet around science, because I believe it’s the most powerful driver of progress. At the core of my philosophy is the idea that science is a verb, not a noun. It’s not the truth, but it is the best compass we have to guide us there. It’s also the most helpful, optimistic thing humans have ever come up with. Sure, it can be terrifying — it shows us that we’re cooking the planet, that there are superbugs which could wipe us out, or that an ill-timed comet strike could destroy all life as we know it. But even these are triumphs. Every step in science is the mark of a species that is willing to challenge itself and press forward, to seek out wonder, to identify problems and solve them.
On the whole, science news is the most helpful news you’re likely to read on any given day.
Everyone needs a good dietary base. Books are the best place to start. The really important stories in the world are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the radar of most journalists but have a transforming effect. Books are a much better way to identify these. They’re also good for you. A University of Sussex study found that reading a book reduces stress levels by up to 68%. The distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart, working better and faster than other stress management methods such as listening to music (61% reduction), having a cup of tea (54%) and taking a walk (42%).
The beauty of a book is that it’s usually been vetted by a publisher, whose business model relies less on grabbing your attention and more on the quality of the content. Of course, there are exceptions to that rule — but you can avoid that by word of mouth and through reading reviews. Five books that have really changed the way I think in the last two years are:
- Steven Pinker — Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
- Tali Sharot — The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others
- Krista Tippett — Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and the Art of Living
- Ben Horowitz — The Hard Thing About Hard Things
- Cixin Liu — The Remembrance of Earth Trilogy (Three-Body Problem)
The most important element in my diet is email newsletters. I honestly cannot imagine a world without them. They’re different to traditional news outlets or social media, because their continued readership relies on the quality of curation. Their other key advantage is that you can diversify, choosing from a combination of generalist and specialist topics. That’s why they’re everywhere these days. There doesn’t seem to be a single writer who isn’t newslettering or newsletter-curious, and for many, it’s where they’re doing their best work. Craig Mod says in a recent essay that:
One way to understand this boom is that as social media has siloed off chunks of the open-web, sucking up attention, the energy that was once put into blogging has now shifted to email.
Here are my favourite newsletters. Do not subscribe to all of them! Your inbox will explode. It’s taken me years to get here. Go check out the ones that sound interesting, and subscribe to five. Go slow. Keep the ones you like. Unsubscribe if they no longer serve you (I do this often). Come back for more later.
There’s a reason it’s the top paid newsletter on Substack. Incredible breadth of content, including lots of good long form. One of the very few newsletters I pay money for.
Six things every week, from three awesome people, Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder and Claudia Dawson.
McKinley Valentine — The Whippet
How do I even classify this? High quality esoterica, quirky inner musings, one of the best advice columns on the internet, and she always digs up interesting content I can’t find anywhere else.
Nieman Journalism Lab
My go-to source for the state of English-speaking media in the 21st century. Excellent signal to noise ratio.
Gottman Institute, Marriage Minute
The grass isn’t greener on the other side. It’s greener where you water it. Not all the advice is relevant, but when it is, it makes a real difference.
Alexis Madrigal — 5it
One of my favourite journalists, both for the scope of his thinking and the way he writes.
Joanne McNeil — All My Stars
I’ve picked up so many great fiction books from this newsletter.
Warren Ellis — Orbital Operations
Favourite grouchy old comics druid. Misanthrope. Legend.
Africa Is A Country (scroll to bottom for sign up)
The most important stories from a continent of hundreds of millions of people. I wish there was something like this for Latin America and Asia (I’m sure there is, just haven’t found it yet).
Longreads — Weekly Top 5
Awesome long form content, which I often save for when I’ve got a slow day.
Azeem Azhar — Exponential View
Like me, a political economist, and just as obsessed with information. Really love his take on how technology is affecting everything. Can’t imagine doing Future Crunch without this newsletter.
My favourite source for most things Silicon Valley. If it’s important, I know he’ll cover it. Plus, his occasional essays on the tech world are always required reading and his end of year presentations are essential.
Anjali Ramachandra — Other Valleys
My favourite source for all things not Silicon Valley. She covers tech developments all around the planet.
Lance Weiler — Culture Hacker
Allows me to stay on top of the intersection between storytelling media and technology.
Venkatesh Rao — Breaking Smart
Nine times out of ten I have no idea what he’s talking about. Almost definitely operating on some kind of genius scale. But when he nails it (like this one on how change actually happens in organisations) he gets it so right, it fundamentally alters the way I think about the world.
My go-to source for all things fintech and crypto. I used to be a lot more on top of this space, now I’m just waiting for the crypto winter to pass. In the meantime, if it’s really important I know they’ll catch it.
One of my favourite economists. Always refreshing to hear a European perspective on venture capital and techno-sociology.
Sam DeBrule — Machine Learnings
Great source for all things machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Kai Brach — Dense Discovery
This is my go-to source for all things tech and design. Thoughtful, beautiful, and often has links to great products.
Conrad Gray — H+ Weekly
Great newsletter covering the really mindblowing tech stuff usually around robotics and genetics. I know that if something really amazing happens and I miss it, I’ll pick it up here.
Social Capital — Snippets
The lede is often hit and miss, but their links game is top notch. I almost always find at least one interesting story I didn’t see anywhere else on the internet.
Environment & Energy
New Food Economy
Brilliant new publication from a bunch of millenials, have found a ton of great content from them on agriculture and agtech. Smart.
If like me, you enjoy watching the slow motion death rattle of an industry on its way out, you’re going to love this.
Chris Goodall — Carbon Commentary
Excellent curation of relevant links for all things energy transition. Nicely balanced.
The only science publication whose newsletters I subscribe to, because they’re smart and get the balance right. Plus, unexpected nuggets every now and again.
Ed Yong — The Ed’s Up
Probably my favourite science journalist. Feels like someone from a more innocent age.
Swapna Krishna — Give Me Space
She’s currently on hiatus, but should be back soon for more space news goodness.
High quality journalism on all things health related. I don’t read all the articles but it’s a good skim, and if there’s something big happening they always catch it. Don’t sign up to all of them unless you’re in this line of work — Weekend Reads is usually good enough for average punters.
Big Feels Club
Honor Eastly and Graham Panther are legends. They’re also friends, and their club for people with too many feelings is awesome. Busting things up in the mental health space with excess love.
Bertalan Meskó — The Medical Futurist
I love this guy. Usually I avoid futurists like the plague, but he’s got a doctor’s sensibility combined with a tech nerd’s excitement and it’s irresistible.
Singularity University has a lot of newsletters, but this one stands out from the rest. My backup source in case I’ve missed anything in healthtech, top quality links game.
For many people, podcasts are the best thing about the internet. Like newsletters, the time and effort required to produce a podcast usually means the information you’re getting is high quality. And like newsletters, a large chunk of the world’s most interesting thinkers are doing their finest work in this space. Your balance between newsletters and podcasts will really depend on what kind of learner you are — auditory or visual. Personally, I prefer visual learning, and specifically text, which is why I rely primarily on newsletters. So I don’t eat as many podcasts as other people I know.
For me, they either tend to slot in and around other forms of information consumption, or else I listen to specific episodes when someone recommends one to me. The Browser for example, has a great weekly roundup of the best podcast episodes from around the web (you have to be a paid subscriber). Mostly though, I go back to the same podcasts again and again — a16z for what is easily the best thought leadership in tech, On Being for understanding what it really means to be human, and Revolutions for all the history lessons I should have learned in school.
Beans and Pulses
I know what you’re thinking. Seriously?
Srsly. If I was going to name one secret ingredient that makes my information diet really work, I’d choose this. Reddit is your friend. It’s the biggest newsboard on the internet. Everyone’s there. It has more diversity, more content and better quality debate than any news site. Of course, it also has more extremists, more crap and more flame wars than any news site. Fortunately, there are moderators on all the channels, and they do a good job of weeding out serious problems.
The great thing about Reddit is that content is voted up and down by users. The wisdom of crowds usually works pretty well. Generally, I don’t get involved in the debates, and instead use Reddit as a high quality information source. The other thing I like is that individual subreddits will often do a Q&A with well known celebrities and thought leaders, as well as experts in particular topics. If you choose just a few topics that interest you, then it’s a goldmine. I repeatedly visit:
This is the sweet stuff you get to sink your teeth into. If you can look past the current hysteria around social media and the news, you’ll discover that the digital revolution has led to an explosion of new, high quality online publications in every imaginable area. If I need to click on something while I’m procrastinating, I’ll usually navigate to one of these. There’s so many to choose from. If heterogeneity is the sign of a healthy ecosystem then it’s looking pretty good out there. Or, as my friends are probably sick of hearing “if you’re tired of Facebook, why not try the internet instead?” Here are my favourite websites for specialist information. Most (although not all) are science and tech themed, as this is what I’m interested in. With time, you can curate your own list around whatever you’re interested in too.
Energy and Environment
Let’s start with Linkedin, the roadside service station cafe on the information highway. If that’s your game, great, but my experience is that 90% of the content is self-serving, self-promotional drivel. Which should come as no surprise since that’s exactly what it’s built to do. Fortunately, it’s not too addictive, and it’s still useful as a place to maintain business contacts and post our own content. These days I just try not to scroll so I don’t have to endure any more motivational coaching videos.
What about Facebook? I treat it like McDonalds or Burger King — basically, there’s no way of eating it that’s safe or healthy. For many people, that’s not realistic, as they rely on Facebook to keep in touch with friends, stay up to date with events, and to promote their business (that includes us). It’s hard to ignore a marketplace of two billion people. So if you can’t get off Facebook, your next best bet is to cut out the most toxic element — the newsfeed. I installed the News Feed Eradicator extension on my browser, which blocks anything from appearing on the feed. This means that every time I visit, I don’t see any new updates from my social network. As a result, I usually navigate to another website or start another task.
Twitter is just as toxic, but for different reasons. After years of trying to curate my Twitter feed to stop it from driving me mad, I’ve given up. I’m still using it, but I interact with Twitter through Tweetdeck, which allows me to remove the newsfeed and use it only to have conversations with people, and to push Future Crunch content out in an effort to bring a little bit of sanity to proceedings. There are still a few people I’ll check in on from time to time, but I figure my favourite thinkers these days have newsletters or podcasts so I’m not missing anything.
And Instagram… well that’s pretty much like heroin for me. It’s so addictive I don’t touch it. I wish I could. I know I can’t. So I don’t even bother.
So that’s my information diet. It changes all the time. I’m constantly subscribing to new newsletters (letting old ones go), getting new book recommendations, and then there’s all the treats I get from friends and subscribers, little clips or videos or articles people send me.
I still believe that the internet is the greatest thing humans have ever invented. It’s a case of going slow though, of being intentional and sticking to a plan. You can make your own diet. Start with a philosophy. Identify your food groups. Figure out what works best for you. Stay away from junk. Evolve it over time.
If you do that, you’ll never suffer from having too much.
Good luck — and drop me an email (email@example.com) if you have any success, I’d love to hear from you.
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