Agribusiness and Infobusiness
Aug 05, 2010 Clay Johnson

The premise of The Information Diet is that we have to start looking at information consumption like we look at food consumption. We’re suffering from new problems our species hasn’t dealt with before — problems of abundance rather than scarcity. Our brains, like our stomachs, are finite in throughput. As such, we need to start being selective about the information that we consume before we consume it. This is the beginning of what I’ll call, for now, the case for conscious information consumption.

The second part I want to talk about is the how we get our information and the business behind it. What’s interesting is how our information suppliers share so much in common both in terms of history and in terms of structure with our food suppliers. Here’s an overview of their similarities.

Consolidation

Both the food industry and media have undergone major consolidation in the past 20 years. The big food industry has consolidated. Agribusiness has taken afoot, and large scale corporate farms — often providing contracts to family farm suppliers — are big businesses. I won’t dwell too much on this. That’s the job of Michael Pollan and the Food, Inc. crew. But if you’re interested in the stats and data, check out the Food Circles program over that the University of Missouri. The synopsis is: every step in the food chain — seed, livestock, retailers, you name it — has consolidated itself into a handful of large businesses. And they’re beginning to go vertical too— consolidating ownership in every step of the process.

The information industry has also rapidly consolidated. Major media has boiled down to the control of a handful of large corporations. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has a great review of media ownership. And with Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal, it’s clear that the information consumption chain is also getting vertically consolidated as a giant cable corporation purchases its own network. And yes, like food, small, local information providers tend to do a better job of providing information nutrition than large conglomerates.

Profit

The result of this consolidation is neither good nor bad — it just is. These companies need to show growth to Wall Street and to their shareholders in order to stay afloat. The point of a business is, after all, to make money and provide value to the owners of the corporation.

With food, we’ve seen massive economies of scale come into play and a constant search for cheaper ways to produce calories. Indeed, industrial agriculture provides enormous benefits to society. According to Bruce Gardner at the University of Maryland, the US agricultural output since 1930 has more than quadrupled, thus reducing the cost of our food. Whereas in 1950 we spent an average of more than a fifth of our income on food in the United States, we’re only spending 7% of our income on food today. Indeed industrial agriculture is perhaps the only way that we’re able to sustain our current population level.

The downside to this is that most cheap food that we can buy isn’t particularly good for us. It’s rich with the things that we want— salt, fat and sugar. It’s poor in the things we need. And not only are we suffering from lengthening waistlines as a result, we’re also up against food safety and environmental concerns.

With information, we’ve also seen a deep desire to cut costs and bring more profits to the table. Like local fruits and vegetables, Investigative Journalism is dying[1] as the cost of major investigative pieces can cost a nearly a half million dollars. Dateline: To Catch a Predator is cheap, and so is Snooki. Opinions are even cheaper. And thus our newspapers and airwaves are filled with cheap to produce information and additives like opinions and “expert analysis”

The real clutch here is that they’re doing this both in the food and the information case because we ask for it. We think McDonald’s french fries are delicious. Watching Snooki or hearing Beck/Olbermann/O’Reilly/Maddow is delicious, too.

Regulation

In the case of food we got to where we’re at not just because of the will of the market, but also because of government subsidies and regulation. The Food and Drug Administration (in charge of food safety, labeling) is a relatively small 2.5 billion dollar subagency of Health and Human Services, and the US department of Agriculture (in charge of farm subsidies) is a cabinet level agency with a 26.6 billion dollar budget. If you’d like to see how it compares, check out Death and Taxes for a great visualization. The Federal Government spends a lot of money regulating and subsidizing food production.

Government has been working with people up and down the information supply chain to bring you access to cheap and abundant information, too. With information there’s also a government hand, too. It’s a bit different though — it seems early on the FCC wanted to make sure you had a balanced information diet. When the FCC started licensing the airwaves it also believed that licensees were “public trustees” and had a duty to inform the public. Most famously, up until 1987, the FCC had a Fairness Doctorine which pushed news providers to provide equal opportunity to all sides of an argument.

Media, too, is not without subsidies. Let’s not forget that the medium you’re reading this in and that you’re increasingly turning to for a source of information, was invented with taxpayer dollars. And the cable lines and telephone lines that move down your street are provided with government assistance. Though they’re not nearly as high as corn or soybean subsidies — government subsidizes newspapers and magazines with reduced postage rates, too and with the purchasing of public notices — both by government, and by private companies that are required by law.

The point of all of this is to say there’s striking similarities between our information and food consumption on the supply side. The same market forces that are producing Tyson Anytizers are also producing Glen Beck and Keith Olbermann, and remarkably similar struggles exist at the FCC and the USDA and FDA.

It’s all being driven by one thing — not the nefarious need of big government to enslave humanity, and not the need for big corporations to poison America in order to get big profitability — but rather by a desire to give people what they want: food that taste good and words that sound right.


[1] One reviewer brought to my attention that I cite no data on whether or not investigative reporting is actually dying. It’s true, and I’m busily looking up whether or not it actually is. But my case, I think, is still intact. Keith Olbermann is no Edward R. Murrow, no matter how many times he says “Good Night and Good Luck.”

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson