The Information Diet: You Are What You Read…Really (so read this)

If this is indeed the Information Age, then we are in big trouble. In a talk titled “Is SEO Killing America?” at last week’s Tools of Change digital publishing conference in New York, former political strategist, open source information advocate and author Clay Johnson compared the commodification of information (content farms) to the industrialization of agriculture—with similarly disturbing results.

Agriculture’s relationship to obesity has a lot to do with media’s relationship with ignorance.

From Fox News to the Huffington Post, editors are much less concerned with the actual content of content than they are whether it is what the readers want. It doesn’t take long for the tail-wags-dog-wags-tail-wags-dog spiral to get to the point where we all know too much about things Kardashian and not nearly enough about anything that actually matters. To use Johnson’ analogy from his new book, The Information Diet, we have grown fat and digitally diabetic dining on junk news. It turns out we are not only what we eat, but also what we info-consume.

Food companies want to provide you with the most profitable food possible that will keep you eating it—and the result is our supermarket aisles filled with unimaginable ways to construct and consume corn. Media companies want to provide you with the most profitable information possible that will keep you tuned in, and the result is airwaves filled with fear and affirmation. Those are the things that keep institutional shareholders that own these firms happy.

—The Information Diet

It is not a pretty picture. And, yes, SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the insidious practice of using keywords to game search results, is driving this race to the inane. The only metric that counts is popularity. “The problem is no one is searching for the Pentagon Papers,” notes Johnson, “No one is searching for high quality investigative reporting.”

Instead, we have “The AOL Way,” where content is bait, journalists assembly line workers, readers “hits” and, says Johnson, “editorial integrity is market inefficiency.”

The intent of the AOL Way is to decrease the costs and increase the profitability of the company produces. According to the plan, each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and at the bottom of the list, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write between 5 and 10 stories per day, each with an average cost of $84, and a gross margin (from advertising) of 50%.

— The Information Diet

AOL is hardly alone in shredding the once sacred line between newsroom and advertising department, but its clarity of mission is breathtaking.

And that mission is made that much easier by machine learning: the holy grail of figuring out what a consumer wants, then making sure that’s all s/he gets, sucking any potential serendipity out of the system. The cacophony that begins with our clicks—our votes of interest—starts an echo chain from which there is no easy escape.

Even snarkier: profiling disguised as customization. Sex, age, political leanings, religion, nationality, ethnicity, income, reproductive state—all can be guessed from data. Retailer Target recently found itself in the embarrassing position of knowing about a teen’s pregnancy before her father. That level of granular-to-the-individual target marketing can quickly shift from helpful (that teen could probably use coupons for lotions and vitamins) to flat out frightening, leading to a kind of information apartheid: the filter bubble as filter wall, making it increasingly more difficult to find common ground. 

When applied to news, it can lead to what Johnson calls “reality dysmorphia,” a mismatch between what we deeply believe is true and what is in fact truth, reinforced by:

  • agnotology: culturally induced doubt—a co-option of “innocent until proven guilty” used to great effect by Big Tobacco, Big Oil, climate-deniers, et al.
  • epistemic closure: e.g., A is bad. A thinks B is good. Therefore B is bad. End of discussion.
  • filter failures: e.g, the unseen hand of algorithmic tyranny editing your Facebook newsfeed

Instead of broadening our horizons, technology is being used to narrow them.
Instead of the promise of a renaissance, we are heading straight for a dark ages.

So what’s the solution to this? I’m not here just to scare the heck out of you. That would be a job for FOX News or MSNBC. I’m here to ask you to help me to create a “whole news movement.” To make a “slow news movement.” To make a movement of high end consumers of information that demand that their media changes. We as the reader need to upgrade.

In Michael Pollan-esque haiku: “Consume deliberately. Take in information over affirmation.”

Which isn’t to say that a little junk news nibble every now and again is so bad. But if that’s all there is, well, we could have had it all…

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— J. A. Ginsburg / @TrackerNews