October 7, 2013

Our Information Diet


Lately I’ve become more aware of what I eat.

I’ve learned to aim for “real” foods, that are complex and wholesome.

I’ve learned about sugars, white flour, and processed foods – how a calorie obtained from these is not the same as a calorie from nuts, fruits, or an egg.

Both kinds of food satisfy an immediate need – feeling hungry, a desire for energy. The difference is in the makeup of each food, in the complexity and richness of what we digest and absorb.

A sugary drink or candy will satisfy my hunger – fleetingly.

A piece of white bread or cracker (whose starches break down into the same sugars) will hold me just a little longer. Neither will provide me with many nutrients.

In contrast, a can of tuna, a plate of lentils, or eggplant with tehina will take longer to break down. They, however, provide lasting energy with a complexity of nutrition.

I’ve also started becoming aware of my information diet.

What am I consuming? And what is its effect on my intellectual nutrition?

Scanning Tweets, scrolling through Facebook, hitting refresh on news sites – they, like sugary snacks, satisfy my immediate hunger. But I feel pretty pretty bad after consuming too much, and I’ll get hungry again soon too.

The Information Food Pyramid

There’s incredible parallels between the web’s simple content and, well, junk food. They both enjoy mass distribution, quick access, and temporarily numb our need to consume real food. They’re engineered to be addictive and make you crave more. Worst of all, once digested, they leave behind nothing of value.

You might even say they cause damage to our intellectual metabolism by making it hard to consume more complex content. Their heightened flavors dull our appreciation for subtlety.

One step up from internet junk food are blog posts, infographics, and longer video content. These are slightly more nutritious and require more digestion. But they’re still consumed quickly and limited in complexity. I view these as the pastas and sandwiches of the web.

The true nutritional value – the vegetables, meats, and whole grains of our information diet are, of course, long form content. Books, films, documentaries, podcasts, and essays.

Just like with good food, you don’t end with the urgent feeling to consume more. You naturally pause, reflect, and let it sink in. Your mind isn’t just satisfied: it’s enriched.

Of course, such mental sustenance takes forethought and a bit of patience. But over time, consuming a good balance, you feel energized, creative, and well, healthy.

To quote Julien Smith,

“Reading has made me a much better, more complete, and happier person. All the world’s wisdom is contained in books– most of it is not on the internet or known by people in your social group, so this can really help you expand, if you let it. So start today.”

I often find myself feeling like I have “information obesity”. Or at least that I’ve binged on sugary, processed information. It’s pretty clear when I’ve consumed the wrong things in the wrong amounts.

(My iPhone certainly doesn’t help this, either. Having a smartphone is like carrying around a mini-pack of Pringles in my pocket everywhere, in order to never feel hunger.)

How do we start “eating right” intellectually? Just like real food – it’s not so much a matter of eliminating or hiding junk from the shelves. It’s a matter of being aware, and most importantly, providing ourselves with ready alternatives.

It starts with the realization that browsing the web doesn’t necessarily make you smarter, any more than eating means you’re healthy.

Given the frequency with which we consume information, it only takes a few days to form a habit of health. As Dave Kurlan writes:

“Three years ago, when I committed to change the way in which I eat, I found that it was only difficult for 5 days.  5 days for the carb cravings to go away.  5 days before fruits and vegetables tasted delicious.  5 days until snack food lost its appeal.  5 days until I recognized how awful I felt after eating carbs which didn’t come from fruit or vegetables.  5 days until I didn’t have to rely on willpower…”

The next time I open a new tab and start typing f-a-c-e-b-…, I’m going to ask myself, would I satisfy my hunger with jelly beans? Would I eat a Snickers at this hour?

That, and keeping a good book nearby. Next time I need a break I’ll try to read another chapter instead of refreshing Hacker News.

It’s the healthier option.

One Comment on “Our Information Diet

December 9, 2014 at 10:18 pm

Really great metafor.


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