Book Review: The Information Diet

May 9th, 2012 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

Let me say two things plainly. First, Clay John tortures the comparison of food and information consumption to death…and beyond. He loves his cleverness. Second, the middle of his book contains ample rewards for sticking with it out that far.

Note on the tail end: The author buries links to three remarkable blogs on the very last page. These cover the brain and information processing. I am glad I plugged through the pretty tedious, tacked-on conclusion and found these gems.

You should also be aware that the author ran Barack Obama’s online campaign. He is never more than a few keystrokes from little d democracy, civil duty, and politics. None of that really gets in the way of his central message, nor distracts from the theory and processes he presents for dealing with too much and too much bad information. He also does not push his own left leaning on anyone. The principles are for all.

What you get with The Information Diet includes an overly wordy background on how we get and use our data, opinion and entertainment. Then, he presents the inherent problems and why we feel so overwhelmed. Of course, like any diet book, he also presents what to “eat” and how to solve the problems.

Unfortunately, he wanders off at the end into some ethical prescriptions. I suspect most readers will be with me in thanking him for the good, useful tips and techniques on controlling our info flow, and forgive him his excesses.

Honestly, he could have done the whole thing without the food/obesity/diet conceit. His main point include that there is no such thing as information overload. Rather, most of us are not aware of how information that intrudes on us or we seek controls us, from email to cable TV to opinion from those we already agree with.

As a remedy, he offers a plea for conscious consumption. That includes extremely useful methods for doing so. He specifies sites and applications, as well as philosophical decisions that will return the control back to us. That middle part of the book is worth its price and time.

If you are like most of us and fairly well versed in dieting, including Atkins, you may snort at the first third of the book. He is so fond of his metaphor of information as mind food, that he makes risible comparisons. For example, he notes that neither William Banting nor Robert Atkins’ advice “solved” obesity, and that he is chubby himself, but he doesn’t follow their advice. Eh?

Set that aside and if you are so inclined, skip the first section. The real, if you pardon, meat is in the middle. You feel overwhelmed by information and entertainment intruding all day, every day. What do you do?

Johnson has both general and specific fixes, including apps to help. His related website ( has links to the resources he recommends, and additional ones. These include to record honestly how you spend you computer day (and recommend efficiencies), to winnow wasteful email automatically into folders, and even to strip website articles of ads and other distractions.

He also devotes several pages to a methodology for increasing your attention span and desk productivity. It’s well worth reading and implementing. The man loves is metaphors and compares this to the walk-run system distance runners use to increase their exertion periods and reduce the rest ones. It is quite workable and for many like worth the time and expense of the book.

To use Johnson’s lingo, The Information Diet is like a sandwich. The white bread is on the outside and the real meat in the middle. There’s a lot to sustain you inside.


The Information Diet
A Case for Conscious Consumption
By Clay A. Johnson
Publisher: O’Reilly Media
Released: December 2011
Pages: 160

Ebook: $19.99 list
Print: $22.99 list
Print & Ebook: $25.29 list



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