The Information Diet (Part 2)
What’s on my digital menu…
This is the second part of a two part post. If you’re looking for Part 1, you can find it here.
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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