Webstock: Clay Johnson, Industrialized Ignorance

This week I’m at Webstock, a lovely conference in New Zealand. I’m doing my best to write little blog posts about the amazing presentations. Please forgive any typos, etc. If you’re here too, come write a haiku at Automattic’s booth.

Clay Johnson (@cjoh) started out with a comparison of knowledge. Most of the room knew the name of at least one Kardashian, but most didn’t know the child poverty rate in NZ. How can we build better communities if we don’t know these things?

In 2011, the obesity rates in America are so bad that they had to adjust the map for comparing states.

“Pizza tastes better than broccoli.” We tend to eat more of what tastes good to us, as opposed to what’s good for us. Evolution hasn’t caught up to agriculture, let alone industrial agriculture.

We’ve created huge multinationals produce cheap, tasty calories for us. The power of industry means that complex food items (e.g. Pizza Hut with a variety of crazy toppings) are more easily accessible than simple ones.

“Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear they’re right?” We’ve also created media companies that affirm what we know, as opposed to informing us of what we need to know.

Politics and media is A/B testing and optimizing for reader clicks. “Opinion tastes better than news.” How do inform a society when everything is optimized for business needs? The AOL Way is a classic example of doing it wrong. Editorial integrity is last on the list.

Something strange is going on in America, and Clay thinks it’s because of the media. Up until 1996, the voting distribution across America was mostly purple (e.g. red and blue mixed). Since 1996, voting distribution has become increasingly polarized. Some areas are bright red and others are bright blue. Clay argues that it correlates with the rise of television networks. Similarly, Google search results affirm what question you’re asking (e.g. “democrats are socialist”).

Our definition of ignorance has changed. Ignorance now can be caused just as much by the consumption of information as lack thereof.

“We need to manage our information intakes like we manage our food intakes.” Some ways you can manage your information diet:

  • Be a conscious consumer. Clay uses Rescue Time to track which websites he’s viewing. At the end of the week, review what you’ve been looking at and consciously think about whether it’s how you actually want to spend your time.
  • Schedule regular tasks like email, Facebook, and browsing the news.
  • Go local. Pay more attention to what’s going on in your neighborhood instead of what’s happening nationally. You probably aren’t going to have an impact on the international child poverty rate, but you can definitely have an impact on local child poverty.
  • Be a producer instead of a consumer. Stop using your iPhone as an alarm clock. The moment you check your email in the morning is the moment you start reacting to things. Clay has a goal of writing 500 words before 8 am.

We as a community need to get closer to the source material. We need to demand of journalists that they show their work. Data is what enables us to create a more honest media.

Most importantly, work on stuff that matters. Every moment in history there’s been a hyper-literate class. Computer illiteracy will be like book illiteracy in ten years, and there will be a lot of people left behind. Lawyers are transferring their power to developers. When Mark Zuckerberg creates a new feature on Facebook, he’s wiring society. Features, like laws, dictate how we operate.


Nikolay Bachiyski February 13, 2013 Reply

The calories inflation idea, both in nutritional and information terms was a huge eye-opener for me.

I still don’t think he proposes a good enough solution for the information problem: how to make sure we have a “varied” information diet, how do we choose our sources. This is where, I think, the analogy starts to leak.

I’d be happy to hear what your ideas on healthy consumption are.

P.S. Clay is pretty awesome. I rode in a car with him at SXSW last year and I got a free ride, because I had Information Diet on my Kindle 🙂

Daniel Bachhuber February 13, 2013 Reply

The calories inflation idea, both in nutritional and information terms was a huge eye-opener for me.

I agree, it really reframes how you think about it. Clay seems to be promoting a “Whole Information” diet, similar to the whole food movement. Considering the current state of obesity in America, I’m skeptical of how effective of a strategy it is.

To be honest, I’m deliberate about my information diet in some regards and totally compulsive in others. I think I’m fairly good about how much I consume from Twitter and Google Reader, and of what type of information. I’m horrid about email and paying attention to local issues.

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