Goodbye, Hello
Nov 13, 2011 Clay Johnson

Today I put to bed. The best of its content has been moved here, to Eighteen months ago I wrote on

Cheaply produced junk food has created an obesity problem in the United States, and cheaply produced media is creating an information obesity problem in the United States. Bytes are far cheaper and easier to consume than calories, and as a society, I think we’ve got to start talking about the other part of this equation: how should people’s information consumption habits change in order for transparency to have a full effect.

When I started looking at the world through that lens, the more I realized that this wasn't a nice analogy. It's history repeating itself. The parallels between agriculture and media: the consolidation and market efficiencies, the history of America's farmers and the future of America's journalists, and the practices of content farms and factory farms, alongside consumer behavior and demand -- this isn't just an analogy. There's something to learn from food and agriculture for the new world of information abundance.

We can feel safe knowing that the food that we eat won't kill us immediately. At its worst, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe kills us slowly. Society wants to make sure that our food doesn't kill us by creating organizations like the FDA and the USDA. We make sure that water is safe to drink, and air is safe to breathe through laws, regulations and consumer action. Information is fourth on the list of what we consume and the primary law we have in the United States to govern its consumption is the first amendment ensuring that government stays out of it.

In any other democratic nation with the freedom of speech, information can never be as strongly regulated by the public as our food, water, and air. Yet information is just as vital to our survival as the other three things we consume. Thus, the case for consumer responsibility in an age of mostly free information becomes vital to individual and social health.

After realizing that, it became obvious that we needed to take the concept of an information diet beyond the areas of productivity and efficiency and into individual and social health. So I spoke to Julie Steele over at O'Reilly Media about this, who immediately and persistently insisted that I write a book. So for you loyal readers wondering where my once-daily posts went: Julie got those words instead, and over the past year or so she's been editing them into a book called "The Information Diet".

When William Banting first promoted the concept of the modern food diet, it was as the dust was settling on an agricultural revolution in England that finally made food abundant for the masses. But it was also a time when the calorie was used to calculate the efficiency of steam engines. To an extent, we are in the same place with information -- we know we are suffering, and like Banting, with some testing and measurement, we can assert some conclusions. The Information Diet's intent is to provoke a discussion that will live on here on, and its accompanying Resources Section, which you can read more about, and contribute to.

The other intent of book is to awake a social mission. We know that something's wrong -- you can feel it in the blood pressure of liberals watching Fox news and conservatives watching MSNBC. Information abundance is testing the limits of democracy's scalability. Unless we treat information consumption as a public health issue, the country will continue to tear itself apart and our democracy will suffer for it. This has to change. We cannot have a country with two separate definitions of what reality is. I hope that The Information Diet, and begin the movement towards a more reality-based electorate.

Maybe you feel like you just aren't able to read long-form articles like you used to and suspect that it's the sea of distraction that the web offers that could be the cause. Or maybe you feel like the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement are symptoms of greater problems than government spending and Wall Street bailouts. Maybe you wonder how those things could actually be connected.

In either case, I promise that the book can shed some insight for you, and at least make you laugh a few times. When it comes out in January, I hope you check it out. It's the first book that's you can judge by its cover. Between now and then, I hope you find some time to discuss these issues with me here.

Information Diet © 2011 Clay Johnson