Minding Our Information Diets

“Trying to Escape”

“You are what you eat.”  Or if you follow nutrition writer Michael Pollan, “You are what you eat eats.”

A quote from a 2011 book titled “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption” by Clay A. Johnson states “Our bodies are wired to love salt, fat and sugar. … Our minds are really wired to be affirmed and be told that we’re right. … Who wants to hear the truth when they can hear that they’re right? Who wants to be informed when they can be affirmed? What we do is we tell our media that that’s what we want to hear, and our media responds to that by telling us what it is that we want, and sometimes that isn’t what’s best for us.”

Farmer’s Market in downtown Roanoke, Virginia

A recent conversation got me thinking about our information diets and the many parallels there are with our food diets.  If we aren’t careful and mindful about how we eat, we will too easily be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of product choices in grocery stores and restaurants.  The choices we ultimately make are heavily influenced by a number of factors, but not insignificantly we are influenced by marketing.  The food industry is a very powerful force in our lives, whether we realize it or not.  All the advertising we see is just one of the many visible ways we are influenced.  Product placement in stores, packaging and promotion are all marketing.  It is up to each of us individually to sift through all those choices to determine what is best for us.  It takes work and it isn’t easy.  There are a lot of mixed messages out there, and they don’t necessarily point us in the right direction.

It’s no secret that the quality of our food directly influences our physical health.  People who eat a lot of processed foods, regardless of source, tend in general to be less healthy than those who eat less processed food.  Vegetarians and vegans, by some measures, appear to be more healthy than omnivores.  But being an omnivore doesn’t necessarily mean you are unhealthy.  There are nutritional needs that can be met by any kind of diet, but meeting those needs takes some figuring out.

However you care to characterize or categorize eating preferences, all of them have positives and negatives.  The key, it seems, is to do enough research and gather enough information from sources you trust, to (a) figure out what works for you, and (b) find something that is sustainable and that results in a permanent behavior change that will ultimately provide the result you desire.

Farmer’s Market in downtown Roanoke, Virginia

How is an “information diet” similar to a food diet?  Food companies don’t make money promoting spinach, broccoli and carrots.  They make money by promoting high profit items like processed foods and drinks.  And they use all kinds of methods to convince us that it’s OK to spend our money on the stuff that makes them the most money.  And they know what we want because we tell them.  They track sales by all kinds of methods, including those “Frequent Shopper” cards that give us awesome discounts on products and gasoline.  And you thought they were just being nice?

Farmer’s Market in downtown Roanoke, Virginia

Media companies make money by selling us advertising and promoting agendas, which allows them to sell more advertising and promote more agendas.  They know what we want because – knowingly or not – we tell them.  The “Recommended for You” content we see on Facebook is a result of the stuff we look at and interact with on Facebook, plus what Facebook sees us look at when they follow us around the internet (yes, they do).  Google makes their money by tracking the websites we visit, creating a profile of who they think we are and what they think we are interested in, then selling ads and promoting content that their data tells them should appeal to that profile.  Television networks get their information from other sources, but still have a very good idea of who their target audience is.  Want to know who a television show is aimed at?  Pay attention to the advertisements.

Just like large portions of salt, sugar and fat kick up the flavor of food to appeal to diners, loud and confident blowhards in the media (I use ‘media’ to include television, the press and the internet in general) are tailoring their messages to appeal to their audience.  Who is that audience?  It’s the people who their data tells them will tune in.  These media companies and individuals don’t necessarily have to provide factual information as long as they are saying what their audience tells them it wants to hear.  Similarly, restaurants don’t necessarily have to be considered “good” just because they give you a lot of food or season their dishes heavily to cover up the fact that there is otherwise no flavor.  After a while, people don’t know what real food tastes like because they haven’t tasted it.  By the same token, people lose sight of what their own opinions are because their mental taste buds have been dulled by endless loud and confident media tailored to sell them someone else’s opinion or agenda.

Farmer’s Market in downtown Roanoke, Virginia

We have a hard-enough time making informed decisions at the grocery store.  There are way more sources of information available in the media, and the companies that serve up that information have lots of ways to send us to sources they think will appeal to us, even more ways than the food companies do.  It’s up to us to determine what sources will suit our needs the best.  To figure out what goes into our information diet.  And we owe it to ourselves to do the same thing with our information intake that we do for our food intake.  As I stated earlier, we need to do enough research and gather enough information from sources we trust, to (a) figure out what works for each of us, and (b) find something that is sustainable and that results in a permanent behavior change that will ultimately provide the result we each desire.

We need to strike a balance between what appeals to us and what is good for us.  And while those are not necessarily mutually exclusive, there may sometimes be tough choices to make.  Just like our nutritional balance needs to contain the right amount of essential nutrients, I think our informational balance needs to include a healthy connection to reality.  We have to determine what balance is right for us.  Yes, I suppose it’s possible to get by on carrots and water, at least for a short term.  It’s also possible to go completely “off the grid” and eliminate all sources of information.  But I don’t think either approach is healthy long-term.  I do believe that disconnecting from a lot of media is a healthy start.  A second idea would be choosing carefully where our information comes from.  The internet and social media can be a cesspool if allowed to get out of hand.

Farmer’s Market in downtown Roanoke, Virginia

For me personally, Kathy & I haven’t owned a television for years, because at some point we realized that it was running our lives and that we were scheduling things around “our shows.”  I have accounts with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but I use them in a way that makes sense for me – primarily as a source of information that I decide I want.  I mute or unfollow people who share stuff I’m not interested in.  If I want to find out about conditions in a National Park or the status of a particular business, Twitter is often a good place for current information.  I only follow a handful of people and organizations, and add or remove them as my needs require.  My Instagram account is highly curated in terms of who I follow and who I allow to follow me.  I use a browser with appropriate safeguards to keep these people from tracking my search history and to block ads, and use an alternative search engine that doesn’t track my inquiries.  I use a VPN that hopefully keeps my internet provider and others from getting too much information about my habits.  I’m still using Google for some mail and other functions, but one of my current projects involves looking for a suitable replacement.  That is not an easy task!  My ways are not perfect, but I’m pretty comfortable with the level of information I receive and it works for me.

Charlotte Regional Farmer’s Market in Charlotte, NC

This is a long post, but it is important for us all to think about.  I’m not an expert by any means, and since this isn’t a term paper I haven’t filled it with all kinds of footnotes and references.  But I’m confident that most of what I’ve written is true and accurate, because I’ve taken a lot of time to figure it out in a way that works for me.  I look forward to any thoughts you have on the subject, either by comments on this post or an email directly to me.

Grapes growing at Shelton Vineyards, Dobson, North Carolina

6 thoughts on “Minding Our Information Diets”

  1. Nicely said, Tom. I would add that Michael Pollan’s three rules of eating: “Eat only food, not too much of it, mostly from plants” applies as well to our information diet, to wit: Consume only nourishing information, not too much of it, mostly from “cool” media like books. I would also refer you to David Brooks’ “A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person” in The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/05/commencement-address-too-honest-have-been-delivered-person/611572/) where he writes: “my worry is that, especially now that you’re out of college, you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff. The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming. ”

    Hope you and yours remain well (and thoughtful),

    1. Thank you, James for the thoughtful comment. I found a lot of interesting anecdotes that I might have used, but was already concerned that I had written too much for most readers! There are a lot of wise and sensible people out there with good things to say. It’s a shame we can’t get any of them to run for office. Too wise and sensible, I suppose.

      All is well here in the Queen City. Give a shout sometime when you are in the area. We’ll do the same when we’re up your way.

  2. Wonderful rant and I’m not saying that negatively. I agree whole heartedly with you. When I worked at Starbucks one of the things I discovered they did was place items in peoples way when they walk into the store. This past week I noticed they have removed the displays at two grocery stores that were situated in the middle of the entry to the store. I assume the display was moved to provide more distancing for people as they entered the store.
    I’m still working on my eating, what works for me. It will probably be something that evolves the rest of my life. I think at times the vegetarian way is something I could benefit from, then look at the paleo diets. You used the word balance in your post.
    I am also aware of the way the internet does track where we visit, what we look at. I no longer use Facebook and never had Instagram. Twitter is my media and I’m selective of what I follow, often muting ones I don’t want to follow. I’ve been surprised at how many photographers use twitter for their advertising of workshops.
    Excellent post and one I need to read again.

    1. Figuring all this stuff out is not an easy process, and I am only peering under the lid of things we could or should be doing depending on our tolerances. I know that we do more than a lot of people. Is it enough? Probably not. But again, balance is the key. I spent some time last week trying to figure out how to send encrypted email. I gave up after a couple of hours because I decided it wasn’t worth the time, since there is only one person in my world who would know what to do with an encrypted message, and he doesn’t mind getting unencrypted mail from me! 🙂

      My issue with Twitter is the thing that makes it good for most people, and that is the ability to share stuff. But the result is that no one seems to share original content. That’s what I do like about Instagram. It’s more about the photos and doesn’t seem to have as much room for abuse.

  3. May I start off by saying that your pictures look very fresh 🙂
    I agree with your sentiment. I went through these contemplations—regarding food and information—several years ago. Like you I looked first at trusted sources, but no sooner had I made that decision that I came unstuck, after all, what did a trusted source look like? Did I trust a source because they “felt” true, or because what they said was agreed upon by other trusted sources, or because they had photos of people in lab coats titled “scientists at work”?
    Around the same time that I got interested in nutrition, a not-for-profit, independent scientific foundation started off in Australia whereby their sole goal was to test supermarket foods for nutritional value and then assign a rating to help plebs like me figure things out more easily. A lot of people, including me, trusted this company. Most still do. Alas, I found out through my sister who had a very senior role in the food industry at the time that the ratings were paid for. She also pointed out to me that “healthy processed foods” was an oxymoron. Anyway, the point is that at the time, before I talked to my sister, I wanted to believe this rating because it was convenient to do so. And so, I trusted the company. If I trusted them so easily and yet, so poorly, who else was I wrongly putting my trust in? Spoiler alert: I never did work out how one goes about verifying a source. In the end I think we all tend to trust those who make us feel good about ourselves. Which is fine really, unless it is to our own detriment, but that only gets me wondering if my brain would be capable of knowing what that looks like. After all, cognitive dissonance is as strong as confirmation bias. What a weird animal we are 🙂
    Anyway, great post Tom.

    1. Thank you, Cedric. I have come to regard any source of information as being suspect. All media has some kind of an agenda or bias, although it may not be readily apparent to us. And however much I try, I acknowledge that I am ultimately influenced by it in some way.

      Food is a little easier, as the closer it is to it’s original form, in general the better it is. Setting aside the concerns about pesticides, genetic modification, etc. Our philosophy is that if it needs a nutrition label it’s processed. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, but there is a big difference between a container of yogurt and a Snickers bar.

      Yeah, a lot of what is going on now plays to our insecurities and our need to belong to something. That is why social media is so pervasive and influential. It gives people a false sense of belonging, and that makes them feel good.

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