Information, Food, and Democracy

I am a skeptic on the subject of food diets but have been a true believer in the information diet for a long time. I am pretty sure that Clay Johnson had the opposite sort of reader in mind when he wrote The Information Diet.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of things I wanted to respond to and aspects I wanted to explore. But in the spirit of restraint which the book embodies, I will hold myself to just two posts – an overview of my own information diet, and this broader response.

Information Mania

Back in 2004 I was extremely into the political blogging scene and thought that all mainstream news was utter crap. My reasoning was pretty straightforward – bloggers actually linked to things in order to provide context. They didn’t pretend to be objective; they wore their ideologies and biases on their sleeves. The distorting news cycle that mainstream media operated on, and the narrow perspective they approached everything from, drove me crazy. I excluded it from my information diet as much as possible.

I had family members and friends who I could see develop a kind of mania as they followed more traditional news outlets. They didn’t want to talk about anything but politics. They made blunt statements that were insulting to anyone who disagreed with them, under the assumption that no one did, and were genuinely surprised when it turned out this assumption was wrong.

The section of Johnson’s book where he talks about his relationship with his Uncle Warren, a Fox News faithful conservative, really touched a chord with me.

The conversation, viewed from the outside, couldn’t have been considered coherent. It was just an explosion of nonsense—two grown men shouting at each other about taxes, gun control, and healthcare, with some perfectly good turkey between us. That Thanksgiving, Uncle Warren left early, and things haven’t been the same between us since.

I myself came right to the brink of such a fallout on several occasions. Of course I realize now what Johnson has also realized; that my own behavior and my own information diet were part of the problem. I fell into an “us versus them” mentality and I selected for blogs that fed into that. Despite adamantly refusing to affiliate myself with either political party, I was still drawing a line in the sand; my people against everyone else.

It was extremely bad for me. It made me unhappy and dissatisfied, and every so often I would become downright unpleasant company.

I was right about mainstream news, but was unwilling to recognize that the problem was not the medium but the type of content. Since I considered myself a part of the new media crowd, I didn’t give new media as critical an eye as I did traditional media. The only exception was the critical eye I turned to those blogs of a different point of view.

I’m still a techno-optimist and I still think that most news is crap, but I have come to realize that there is a lot more crap on the Internet than off of it. This is because there is a lot more of everything on the Internet, good and bad. The digital age gives the producers of crap some new, powerful tools that they didn’t have before, as Johnson describes:

Even more than television, Fox routinely tweaks the news on the Web to make the news more palatable to its audience. Even when it takes content from other sources like the Associated Press and puts it on its website, the organization tweaks the headlines to make them more attractive to its conservative audience. The AP’s story “Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” turned into “Obama Has a Big Problem with White Women.” “Obama to Talk Economy, Not Politics, in Iowa” turned into “White House Insists Obama’s Iowa Stop for Economy, Not 2012.” And “Malaysia Police Slammed for Cattle-Branding Women” turned into “Malaysian Muslims Cattle-Brand Prostitutes.”

Fox isn’t about advancing a conservative agenda. For its parent, News Corporation, it’s about the dollars. Fox changes these headlines on the Web not because it has an agenda, but because people click on them more, meaning that more advertisements can be shown, and more money can be made.

So I have, for some time now, agreed with the general proposition that the information we consume has an effect on us on our emotional and intellectual state of mind. This is an idea that is old and familiar to me, and it is a crucial part of the story told in The Information Diet.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Food Morality

Something else that is common among certain members of my family and friends is the propensity to moralize on the subject of food.

A lot of the time, this centers on the “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic”; something that is apparently a very important public health issue. An uncle of mine once assured me that it was only a matter of time before national life expectancy began to fall as a result of this problem.

The food moralist’s story is a key piece of the story that Johnson wants to tell in The Information Diet. Consider the following:

Today, 13.5 million people die each year of heart disease and stroke, and 4 million from diabetes-related complications–far more than die in automobile accidents. heart disease is now our number one killer, and it takes more people to the grave in the United States in five years than all our war-related deaths combined. Instead of dying from the cold of winter, we find death in cholesterol.

The way this story is framed is at odds with my understanding of the material progress that has been made in developed nations over the last two hundred years. But I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand, so I went to see if the known facts were what I had thought that they were.

The following are the facts, as I understand them, with links to primary sources.

First, my uncle’s comment aside, life expectancy has been rising consistently for centuries. It’s been rising more slowly in the last few decades than it was, say, right after the discovery of penicillin. Nevertheless, it has continued to increase. I understand that the past is not prophecy; it could start to decline. But it hasn’t so far.

But what about the specific risk factors of being obese? What about heart disease and stroke? After all, as Johnson points out, “heart disease is now our number one killer.”

Just because something is the biggest relative cause of death does not mean that it is a bigger problem than it used to be.

According to the CDC, “Overall, death rates for heart disease and stroke have decreased in the United States in recent decades.” They hasten to add that “rates for incidence and death continue to be high”, and to talk about how it is higher among some socioeconomic groups than others. But they don’t include a breakdown of whether those higher rates have increased or declined – a number I would be very interested in seeing.

According to the American Heart Association, “From 1997 to 2007, the death rate from [cardiovascular disease] declined 27.8%” and “the stroke death rate fell 44.8%, and the actual number of stroke deaths declined 14.7%.” Not only is the stroke death rate down, the actual number of deaths is down despite the larger population. This is not the rate at which people who contracted these diseases died from it – this is the number of people that died of these diseases per 100,000 people in the overall population.

This 1997-2007 period is squarely in the middle of the 1990-2010 period that Johnson cites as one of enormous growth in the obesity rate. People were getting fatter but the things that they are at higher risk for was killing them less often. This is hardly finding “death in cholesterol”.

Now, these are just the death rates–it could be that the incidence rate of heart disease and strokes has increased, but medical science has advanced so far that it’s actually overcompensated and the number of people per 100,000 in the population that actually died of them decreased. And I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to be overweight, or that you can eat nothing but chocolate for three meals a day, seven days a week. Obviously dietary choices have health consequences; a friend of mine knew someone in college who ate nothing but ramen for a month and actually ended up getting scurvy.

I just don’t see the smoking gun here. This is no existential threat, no “crisis”; this is a lot of people eating in a less healthy manner than a physician would probably recommend. But they are still, on average, living longer. In particular, the things that overweight people are at risk for are killing them less often.

I believe that what we eat is a personal and quality of life issue, not a moral one. Some people may have less energy and feel bad about themselves because of the kind of food they eat regularly. On the other hand, some people may be happy eating food that they enjoy but being overweight to some degree. There are trade-offs to be made, and everyone must weight those trade-offs for themselves.

This disagreement over whether food is a moral issue or a personal one is paralleled in the conversation about information.

Saving Democracy

Johnson does not just want you to fix your information diet for the sake of self-improvement. He wants you to do it because he thinks it will be good for democracy.

The role that information plays in influencing politics is complicated and difficult to measure. It’s something that my father thinks long and hard about over at The Fifth Wave.

Johnson appears to hold to what I would describe as the traditional progressive hypothesis: the more informed the governed, the better the quality the governance in a democracy will be.

once you lose the fluff and start really seeing what’s going on, new priorities arise that require new tactics to accomplish.

He recognizes that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between the amount of information available and policy outcomes. For instance, he spends a whole section taking down the notion that mere “transparency” is actually effective at holding policymakers accountable.

Like the calorie counts from food, transparency is ineffective at arming the masses unless there’s a strong will in the public to arm itself with the knowledge of how this information affects us, and how to effectively read the metaphorical labels. People will be no less obese—and no less ignorant—unless they have the will to consume less of the stuff that’s bad for them, and more of the stuff that’s good for them. While transparency can help the problem, it alone cannot fix it.

Admitting that mere transparency isn’t enough to achieve mass enlightenment does not mean that Johnson thinks such enlightenment is impossible, however.

He then offers a laundry list of how you can make a difference, ranging from the kinds of problems you should focus on:

My plea to you is to start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction.

Nudges such as:

If you’re worried about federal spending and the budget, don’t concern yourself over the debt-ceiling debate. Work to change procurement laws so that government can get access to the same things the private sector has without paying an arm and a leg. We spend so much time figuring out what programs to spend money on, comparing their priorities to one another, and blanket cutting them when they’re deemed too luxurious. It’s the equivalent of trying to lose weight by cutting off your legs. Optimizing how government spends its money is at least as important as figuring out what our money gets spent on, and there are real, pragmatic solutions to getting there.

There are also tools available to us, and tools yet to be made, that can help us do the job.

We can also improve our government without waiting on government to act. Organizations like PopVox.com, for instance, make it easier for people to translate what they want their representative to do into the language our representatives speak. There’s a whole world of technology out there waiting to be used to help members listen to their constituents, and it’s likely—now that much of our discussions about politics are public—that we don’t need government to act: we can build tools that listen to what people are already saying, make that information public, and question our elected officials when they’re voting against their constituencies.

I’m not denying the value in what he’s saying, I just really wonder how much exhortations like these are going to make a difference.

I don’t pretend to any special knowledge on the relationship between information and politics, but it seems to me that when you write a book encouraging people to have a nice, balanced, reasonable information diet, it encourages people to be nice, balanced, and reasonable. In my admittedly limited experience, it is rarely the nice, balanced, and reasonable people that move history.

I keep going back to the circumstances where policy or norms moved in a direction that I, personally, consider to be good. For instance, when the web rose up against SOPA and PIPA and managed to get those bills tabled. In my opinion, it wasn’t the well informed, reasonable people that made that happen. It was Wikipedia and other major websites going dark and essentially sending the message “STOP SOPA OR NO MORE WIKIPEDIA/LOLCATS FOR YOU”, lighting a fire under the typical web user to get pissed off in their representatives’ direction.

Or a much more important example, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the student activists of the 1960’s were not just nice and reasonable people, they were extremely shrewd about the media of their day and the rhetoric that they used. They picked their battles very carefully to have the maximum emotional impact.

That is what I thought of when I read the following line in The Information Diet:

As much as I’d like to use the political skills I’ve learned in the past 10 years to drive a traditional campaign, doing so would go against the principles of the book.

Call me cynical, but I tend to think that if the problems that Johnson thinks are solvable do get solved, it will be because some very effective propagandists and rhetoriticians get behind it. It won’t be because people are suddenly more reasonable and informed, and decide en masse to get behind the solving of practical problems.

That’s just my instinct. It doesn’t help that I went to a grad school that distinguished itself in the field of Public Choice theory, which tends to make you skeptical of the notion that a more informed populace translates into better policy outcomes.

I should also say that I’m skeptical of the hypothesis that things are so much worse and so much more polarized than they were in the past. I think the fact that we all share this big information space called the Internet means we’re exposed to the loud and angry among us much more than we used to be. I also think that technological change and an increased overall wealth now allows us to support the Fox News’ and MSNBC’s–the Krispy Kreme donuts of information intake–rather than the bland mass products of old like CBS News. But I don’t really think those bland mass products were any better for us.

A Book Worth Reading

So I don’t really think a good information diet is going to save democracy, but I do think that there are big benefits to be had by taking the time to scrutinize your information diet. Johnson made me think not just about the content I consume, but the amount of time I spent obsessively checking for updates.

The Information Diet is, for me personally, exactly the kind of meal I need to have more often in my own information diet. It challenged my perspective on a number of margins but was reasonable and inoffensive while doing so. More than anything, it made me think. It also introduced me to interesting tools like EveryBlock.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s only 160 pages long and very well written. I got more out of reading it than I have from books three times its length.

Once you’ve read it, I recommend Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics as a good companion piece. It’s even shorter than The Information Diet and is an excellent guide to sorting the sense from the nonsense.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.