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.

Still horrified at how much I know about what’s between the covers of these books…

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 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.

Part 2: My Own, Personalised Information Diet

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