Johnson, Clay A. The information diet: a case for conscious consumption. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly, 2012. ix, 150 p. ISBN 978-1-449-30468-3. $22.99/17.50

Clay Johnson's basic proposition is that rather than suffering from information overload, we suffer from over-consumption. He draws analogies with food consumption and obesity and suggests that, just as some foods are bad for us and lead to obesity, so some categories of information are equally bad for us, leading to over-consumption. His first chapter concludes:

While our collective sweet tooth used to serve us well, in the land of abundance it's killing us. As it turns out, the same thing has happened with information. The economics of news have changed and shifted, and we've moved from a land of scarcity into a land of abundance. And though we are wired to consume—it's been a key to our survival—our sweet tooth for information is no longer serving us well. Surprisingly, it too is killing us.

I imagine that is a pretty good reason for not writing another book to add to the 250,000 or so that are published in the USA every year, but, of course, that would defeat the aims of the author, which is to advise us on how to avoid information obesity. (He confides that, in spite of all his exercise efforts, he is one of the '62% of Americans considered overweight'.) Part I of his book is really scene setting, discussing obesity, TV addiction and similar problems, along with lots of data on the growth of information outputs, and our ability to seek out sources that provide us with information to bolster our existing beliefs—hence, Fox News (the moment you learn that Fox News is run by the guy who got Richard Nixon into the White House is the moment you realise you'll never want to watch Fox News!).

Part II presents the author's information version of the Atkins Diet, the information diet, in four chapters. These are directions on how to avoid information obesity. First, data literacy, which I think is akin to information literacy is explored:

I've boiled down what I mean by data literacy into four major components—your need to know how to search, your need to know how to filter and process, your need to know how to produce, and your need to know how to sythesize.

The advice under these headings is pretty brief and basic: for example, how to search is dealt with in about 250 words; filtering requires more, but half of the text is taken up with the story of and the spread of fake information about Timothy Leary claiming to have discovered a new primary colour while under the influence of LSD. The information on creation and synthesis of information is similarly brief and filled with tales of this and that, but all sections get across some basic facts about information literacy from which the lay reader will probably benefit.

The second chapter in this part is called Attention fitness, which deals with a phenomenon we are probably all familiar with; the development of the limited attention span and the inability to resist opening up the e-mail whenever a new mail signal occurs, or the inability to resist clicking on a link on a page that might lead to something interesting, or, more likely, not. Johnson discusses a couple of tools to help rescue you from such temptations; one is, appropriately, RescueTime, which tracks your use of the computer and the Internet. After about a week you can log into your account and identify sites that you need to do your job, feed your current interest or whatever, and those that add no value for those activities:

Every week, RescueTime will send you an email giving you a productivity score, and comparing your productivity to that of the entire RescueTime community.

Another tool is, a priced service, which filters out mail identified as 'unimportant'—my guess is that that includes all mailing list messages and everything not addressed to you and you alone. You get an e-mail from the service at the end of the day telling you what's in the sanebox folder, so that you can check that nothing important has been missed. I have more or less the same thing set up through filters that direct mailing list messages to the bin - and I check the bin from time to time, just in case... and I also use Gmail's Priority Inbox - most of the 'Other mail' items are dealt with by the filter strategy. The author's Website has more tools of this kind, some free, some priced.

A lot of this book bears out what I found in large organizations when looking at information overload (some of which was published). I'm a little surprised however, that Johnson does not identify what I see to be the real causes of what I called 'pathological information behaviour', the root cause of which is

the stress created by modern management practices which put people's jobs under threat, or which increase the general workload, or otherwise create defensive behaviour. This leads to information behaviour that creates overload on the individual and/or on others. The management ethos creates a culture of blame, which works against the desire for change and risk-taking and, in the process, the organization loses part of its information base as a result of stress-related diseases, redundancies, and the best qualified people moving to positions in other organizations where the stress levels are lower. (Wilson 2001)

Johnson deals with information overload as a personal matter, and it isn't. We can take some actions to protect ourselves from the pathological behaviour of others, but the demands of the organization, peer pressures, expectations of supporting the corporate ethos and the other factors that make working in organizations bad for our health are only likely to be dealt with at the corporate level—but don't hold your breath for that to happen any time soon. After all, the bosses' bonuses come first, don't they?


Wilson, T.D. (2001). Information overload: implications for health-care services. Health Informatics Journal, 7(2), 112-117

Professor Tom Wilson
February, 2012