Earlier this week, NetSquared, a MeetUp group that I sponsor, had its monthly event at Affinity Lab and this month, hosted a “fireside chat” with Clay Johnson, author of The Information Diet. Based in DC, Clay is a former employee of both the Howard Dean and Barack Obama campaigns, as well as the Sunlight Foundation.
His new book, subtitled “A Case for Conscious Consumption” draws an extended comparison with food, attempting to apply the same “good calories, bad calories” approach to media and content. The cover design, which apes the nutritional information found on most foods, reflects this. The numbers are staggering, of course. As a society, we are storing and curating (maybe) an exploding amount of information. As Johnson argues, information isn’t power. Rather, the choice involved in what to consume, as well as the ability to create versus consume, is where real power comes in. Although, you can already see the irony in Johnson’s book. If creating is better for the soul (and the diet) than consuming, we’re doomed to only enable the information explosion further. We’d also have to face the likelihood that what life becomes is the endless pursuit of creating one’s own little universe, further removing us from society
The book is broken into three parts: (a) the history and economics of information growth, (b) the attempt to design a better “information diet” and (c) advice and recommendations to view information as more of a social and ethical issue. As for the talk Johnson gave, the strongest parts were his examples and commentaries linked to his life in politics. The parallels to food and beverage diets resonate well; their resemblance to the growth of the obesity problem in America is unnerving, but certainly understandable. A few years back, I went to a talk on global manufacturing given by Joel Kotkin, who was examining the growth versus knowledge work juxtaposed with the shrinking of building and making actual products. I remember the exact phrase he used: “ a slow and steady retreat”. He also said “no country can survive by doing this.” I kept thinking of this as Johnson spoke about the converging factors in our society.
One thing I absolutely didn’t care for was the presence of a moderator. No offense to Dr. Alan Rosenblatt from the Center for American Progress, but a one-person presentation from a guy as outgoing and thoughtful as Johnson does not need a caddy. The use of pre-written questions for discussion is completely unnecessary, other than as a fall-back. In fact, it’s distracting, especially once you’ve gone to the audience for questions and then want to interject with observations which are not of the current environment. This was evidenced by Rosenblatt’s first question, which was an extended reference to a webcam Monsanto had in the early 90s AND was not an actual question. If you are reading this and planning a conference where you are going to have a moderator for a one-person presentation, please rethink that strategy. If a presenter is good enough to present, a presenter can handle audience.
Overall, I think this book is a valuable addition to the content strategist’s conversation, because consumption patterns shape how we develop strategies and content for our clients and audiences. Part of what we do is cut out fatty extras, after all.