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March 23 2012

My Paleo Media Diet

I've been on a train to New York City for about 20 minutes and it just occurred to me that I haven't checked Twitter today. In fact, I sat on a bench in the station for 30 minutes without even touching my phone. I watched people walk by, I daydreamed, thought about my plans for tomorrow, stared at the ceiling and generally just sort of zoned out. That would be no big deal except that later I realized I didn't get that itchy urge to check my phone and do the circuit: email, Twitter, Yammer, G+, Email, Twitter, Yammer, G+ … my little socmed treadmill.

That's huge! This is the first time I can remember sitting down somewhere in at least three years without immediately feeling the urge, or more like compulsion, to pull out my phone and twiddle with it. And this was at the train station, for 30 minutes! I feel like a smoker just realizing that I forgot to light up when I stepped outside for an afternoon break.

For too long I've been killing time on that treadmill, which would be fine if I had time that needed killing, but that's rarely the case. Plus, once that circuit gets started it tends to keep on going well into time that really should be better used. After a while I began feeling like I was never really present anywhere. Whether I was riding the train, sitting at dinner, watching a movie, whatever … every few minutes I'd get that tug. "See if there's a pellet. Give the bar a push."

Maybe you'll scoff at this, but I'm an addict. I have been for a long time, and I'm sick of it. I'm tired of having the attention span of a meth addict. I'm tired of reaching for my phone at every red light because the urge has been building inexorably since the last one. I'm irritated that my first impulse after any real world human experience is to tweet it. What the hell? Narcissist much?

I'm tired of walking down busy sidewalks full of interesting people and places with my head down staring at a rectangle. I want to be present, in the moment and the place. I want to experience mental flow by the river full and I want to be more productive. And above all, I want to nurture the relationships I have with people that I actually see and touch in all of their materialized-in-atoms glory.

If you have never experienced addiction, be happy. This post isn't for you. But I'm addicted to those little bursts of pleasure that pile into my inbox, or are prefaced with an "@" in my stream. Each one a new affirmation. "You mean something to someone" they seem to say. Although they needn't even say that to adequately stimulate. A Skinner Box really doesn't take much. Hell, I'd probably reach for my phone if it actually dropped little pellets from a chute.

If you've read Clay Johnson's thought provoking book "The Information Diet" you know that he describes his diet in terms of infoveganism. While I get what he means by that, I think it's the wrong analogy, at least as it relates to my addiction. Going vegan is a moral choice. An approach to food designed to satisfy first and foremost the conscience. Which makes a lot of sense in the context of government and political ideology in which he uses it. But my problem isn't one of extremism, or TMZ, or empty calorie media of any kind. Most of the pellets I chomp are just fine, probably even nutritious. It's the fact that I immediately crave the next one so much that is driving me crazy.

So a few weeks ago I decided to take advantage of a mini-sabbatical and go paleolithic. I guess I'll call it the Paleo Media Diet because for me it's not about the content per se, but its medium of conveyance. The medium is the message, and the stimulant.

I'm not doing this to satisfy my conscience, I'm doing it to satisfy evolution. Or more specifically, my evolutionary state. If my ancient and maladaptive wiring, that evolved in a different time, can't resist the lever and the pellet, then I figured I was going to have to get rid of the damned lever. So I did.

Now I own the world's dumbest smart phone. I removed all of the "social" apps - Yammer, Twitter, G+, LinkedIn, Path ... all gone. I open up preferences and turn off "cellular data" for long stretches of each day. If there is a specific email I'm waiting for I'll go through the multiple steps to turn it on and check, otherwise data stays turned off. I'll get my mail when I'm at my computer, with intention. But I turn my computer off when I'm not actively using it too, and leave it off for most of each day. The first time I turn it on is at lunch. I don't check anything electronic in the morning — that was the first thing I needed to stop. Compulsively checking messages before brushing my teeth is just ridiculous.

If I'm using my computer to write (like right now) I turn off the Wi-Fi. Sometimes I turn it off at the router to make it a little bit more difficult to "just check that one thing." In fact, maybe I'll make a T-shirt with this on it:

NoFi icon

Who knows, maybe it will become the symbol of a movement.

Oh, also, out of a sense of new media / old media fairness I'm leaving the TV off too unless there is a specific thing I planned to watch. No more flicking it on to just see what's on. After all, for the first 30 years of my life we railed against the "tube" as a flood of stupid coming into our living rooms. There's no point in letting it off the hook now just because there is a new even raw'er media that has a pellet bar attached to it.

To fill the time I'm getting back I'm meeting people for coffee, drinks, dinner, whatever. I'm spending time face to face with old friends and making new ones. I'm going to great lengths to try to make my social interactions more "around the campfire" and less mediated by a glowing rectangle. I'm reading, a lot.

The inspiration for this change was simple. First, I was getting nothing done. My productivity had been decimated by my inability to focus for more than a few minutes at a time and I desperately had to do something about it. So when I had the chance to take a break from work I knew I had to detox, and more importantly, change my habits permanently. This can't be a temporary "cleanse." This has to be me taking control of my interactions with media again, for the long run. These new habits have to be ingrained before I get back to work and back in front of my computer all day.

Second, I started a paleo-inspired dietary regimen in December in response to a different set of addictions: sugars and gluten. I started following the Perfect Health Diet because it seemed reasonable that during the bulk of our evolutionary past we ate very differently than we do today. As a result, the way we are eating now is poorly aligned with our biology and is probably killing us. We simply haven't had enough time to adequately adapt to what we actually eat in the mere 10,000 or so years of agriculture. Especially as our recent style of agriculture is being warped by farm subsidies into producing huge quantities of cheap fructose.

With three months' worth of results I think there is something to the theory. It was brutal to get off of sugar. It took two painful weeks of feeling like my head was made of wood, but then it passed and I'm eating and feeling better than ever. Energy is up, weight and body fat are down and blood work is trending in all of the right directions.

Once that basic idea — that in the timeline of human history and pre-history we simply haven't had time to adapt to our new circumstances — took root in my brain it seemed natural to apply it to other domains besides food. I think "going paleo" is going to be the catch phrase of an emerging counter culture and it isn't going to mean just diet. For me, at this point, it means a variety of lifestyle choices that recognize the limitations of my physical self to adapt to modern life. My approach now is going to be: "Where I can, adapt to my surroundings, where I can't, adapt my surroundings to me."

I know that we've always worried about the development of new media and what impact it might have on our culture. "The loss of oral culture will devastate us" etc. etc. I know I run the risk of getting lumped in with Nicholas Carr and all of the other Internet pessimists. But really, that's not what I'm saying. I just believe that my brain is maladapted to the networked Skinner Box, so I want out. My brain is plastic, but not in a sufficiently adaptive way. In fact it's probably adapting just fine, but in a fashion that creates a destructive feed forward loop.

I'm not trying to get all Walden Pond on you, and many of you will no doubt see this as nothing more than faddish crazy talk, but I'm going to work really hard to be both present and informed. I'll keep taking advantage of networks to live a better and more productive life, just as soon as I get through the part of my transition that makes my head feel like wood, but they're not going to keep taking advantage of me. And well, if a paleo media diet sounds stupid, do what works for you. We're probably different. But I'm turning off, opting out, and disconnecting as much as I can to save my brain for more of the things I really want to use it for. I'll let you know how it goes.

Related:

January 20 2012

Four short links: 20 January 2012

  1. On the Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA (John Battelle) -- My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption. But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together. THIS.
  2. Google+ Scraper (GitHub) -- Instead of scraping the HTML code itself, this script fights its way through OZ_initData, a big, mean and ugly inline JavaScript array containing the profile information. (via Pete Warden)
  3. Student Study Techniques -- How to focus in the age of distraction. cf Clay Johnson's Information Diet.
  4. Code Racer -- interesting addition to the "teach me to program" world: a competitive game to drill your HTML/CSS recall. You race to add HTML and CSS in response to prompts like "add a level 1 heading with the words: Racing Car". Requires Facebook login. It's how kids learn to type these days, so it just might work for web design too. (In my day it was with a typewriter and a bib)

December 02 2011

Top Stories: November 28-December 2, 2011

Here's a look at the top stories published across O'Reilly sites this week.

Don't blame the information for your bad habits
Clay Johnson, author of "The Information Diet," says information consumption, not the information itself, is what needs to be managed.

Big data goes to work
Alistair Croll looks at how data is shaping consumer expectations and how those expectations, in turn, are shaping businesses. He also examines where business intelligence stops and big data starts.


The paperless book
Todd Sattersten: "The publishing world needs some new language that describes what happens and, more importantly, what is possible when the words are separated from the paper."

How Twitter helps a small bookstore thrive
Learn how Omnivore Books, a cookbook store in San Francisco, uses Twitter to solidify relationships with customers and break through the publisher blockade.


Web-first workflows let publishers focus on the stuff that really matters
In a recent keynote, PressBooks founder Hugh McGuire said web-first workflows streamline book production so publishers can focus on more important matters, such as writing, finding, and editing great books.


Tools of Change for Publishing, being held February 13-15 in New York, is where the publishing and tech industries converge. Register to attend TOC 2012.

November 29 2011

Don't blame the information for your bad habits

We assign blame for our overconsumption in odd ways. Gulp down one too many cupcakes and that's 100% on you. Yet, if you're overwhelmed by the fire hose/deluge/tsunami of information, blame must be placed elsewhere: on those glutton-minded information sources or the overall degradation of society or ... anywhere really, as long as it doesn't reflect back on your own lack of control. Information overload seems to always be someone else's fault.

Clay Johnson (@cjoh), author of the forthcoming book "The Information Diet," believes the information overload problem is actually an information consumption problem. In the following interview, Johnson explains how reframing the issue around consumption and taking ownership of our info intake are the keys to finding information balance.

Is "information overload" the wrong term?

Clay JohnsonClay Johnson: Information overload is the wrong term because it blames the information. That doesn't make any sense because information isn't something that can make decisions or be malicious. Information is something that informs decisions, and those decisions are made by people. We never say someone suffering from obesity is suffering from food overload. Bad food is manufactured by companies that are being run by people, being distributed by companies that are run by people, and being purchased with money from people. Spend a night in a room with a bucket of fried chicken, and provided you don't eat it, your cholesterol is unlikely to change.

Because of this mistake in how we look at the problem, we're unable to fix it. Information overload's message is, "put these tools on your computer, and you'll better manage the information." This kind of practice would be like trying to go on a food diet by buying a different kind of refrigerator, or trying to become a professional athlete by relying solely on the purchase of running shoes. The problem is, we don't need to manage the information. We need to manage our consumption of it.

In other words, we don't suffer from information overload — we suffer from information overconsumption and poor consumption habits. The solution is just as simple as a successful food diet. It's about building habits and healthy choices for yourself, and sticking to it.

Why do we place blame on the information itself?

Clay Johnson: Information is different from the three things we need to consume to survive: food, water, and air. Without getting too mystical, food, water and air are made out of matter, but information is ethereal and comes at us from everywhere. Information is much harder to think of as something we consciously consume.

It's certainly easier to blame the information than it is to take responsibility for our consumption. It's also easier to worry about the economic system that we've set up that values information that affirms our beliefs, makes us feel good, or terrifies us rather than pursue information that informs us and empowers us to make smart decisions. It's just easier to think about a bogeyman than it is to be consciously aware of our consumption.

What are the physical and mental effects of information overconsumption?

Clay Johnson: The book starts out with what I think are the two examples of information overconsumption, and the biggest problem I'm trying to solve in writing it: an electorate that's massively disconnected from the mechanics of their government. In front of the White House in 2009, I saw someone holding a sign over his head that said "Keep your Government Hands off my Medicare." Shortly thereafter, I saw someone else holding a sign over his head in front of the (now closed) Walter Reed Army Hospital that said "Enlist Here to Die for Halliburton."

Now, neither of these signs made any sense: you're not going to be able to keep government's hands off of a government-run program, and nobody enlists to join the Army at an Army hospital. But after speaking with some of the people behind these sorts of messages, they didn't come across as stupid. Medicare man, for instance, spoke with me for about 45 minutes about the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank in Jekyll Island, Ga., and he could name the first 10 amendments of the Constitution. It made me think that there's probably a form of ignorance out there that results from the consumption of information rather than the lack of it. And sure enough, when you look at our history through that lens, you can see a lot of problems — from the tobacco debates of the late 20th century to the climate change and vaccination debates of today.

In other words, information overconsumption can make democracy less scalable. Thomas Jefferson said, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Information overconsumption can cause as much ignorance as a lack of education.

Overconsumption has all kinds of other individual consequences — cognitive ones like a poor sense of time and shortened attention spans, or social ones like shallower relationships. Let's not forget the physical ones — stress, hypertension and sedentary lifestyles are nothing to laugh at. We're not sedentary because we're silently meditating. We're sedentary, usually, because we're consuming too much information.

The Information Diet — Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to a new form of ignorance. This book provides a framework for consuming information in a healthy way, by showing you what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective. In the process, author Clay Johnson explains the role information has played throughout history, and why following his prescribed diet is essential in today's information age.

What are the first steps you should take to address information overconsumption?

Clay Johnson: Step one is measurement. Just like with food, it's a good idea to get a non-obsessive look at how much you're consuming. Count the stuff that requires effort for you to consume — anything that involves a power button, page, switch, tap or click. There seem to be all kinds of gadgets that track when you sleep and how well you sleep these days, but not that many that help you when you're awake. On your computer, you can use a service like RescueTime that will count everything you consume. When you're not in front of a computer, keep a little media journal.

Step two is to cut cable TV. Going on an information diet with a high-end cable sports package is like trying to go on a diet while subscribing to a daily fried chicken and ice cream delivery service. Cutting cable does two things: it reduces your exposure to advertising (probably the junkiest of all information) and reduces your ability to "couch surf." Plus, it's just cheaper. You'll save a lot of money going Internet-only and getting your television through Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and Amazon.

Step three is to adjust your consumption habits. Just like with food, it's good to go local. Start your media consumption with the things that are the most local to you: your closest family and friends, then your local and professional communities, then national issues, then international. Too often we focus more on the issues of Washington or the world when it's our local school boards and state legislatures that make the decisions that affect us most.

Step four is to fix your computer. Try and get rid of anything with a number by it. Your inbox number, all those notifications that pop up, that little red box for notifications on Google+, even the stuff that might be popping up to tell you when a song is playing. Get rid of them. End the battle for your attention on your computer. It's your computer, not Google's, not Microsoft's, not Facebook's. Yet these guys seem in a constant battle for getting in front of your eyes every waking moment. I put together a list of tips and resources to help rid your system of notifications.

Step five is, again just like with food, to not consume information that would be unrecognizable to your grandparents. Avoid highly processed stuff and go straight to sources. Actively avoid news articles that don't empower readers or viewers with the source materials (so few do) and seek out source materials for yourself.

How do you know when you've got information consumption under control?

Clay Johnson: When I first put myself on this kind of diet, especially after removing the ads and notifications of my life, it was as though I lost weight. It's like being in a room with a really noisy air conditioner — you don't realize you're suffering, but you breathe a sigh of relief when the the air conditioner turns off.

Unfortunately this only lasts a few minutes before your brain starts wondering when it's going to get its next dopamine hit. But keep at it. For me, after about a year of being on an information diet, I find I have more time for my wife and family, I'm better at my work, and I have less stress overall.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo of Clay Johnson by Joi Ito.

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