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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.


September 27 2011

High voltage music: Behind the scenes with ArcAttack

Anyone who's been to a Maker Faire is familiar with ArcAttack, a maniacal combination of music and mad science that uses half-million-volt Tesla coils to play songs. I caught up with Steve Ward, a recent addition to the ArcAttack crew, at Maker Faire NY and asked him about the technology behind the show.

How did you come to join ArcAttack?

Steve Ward: I actually started my own Tesla coil show in Chicago and worked remotely through the Internet with Joe Diprima, who is the main founder of ArcAttack. We were sort of conspirators on the technology for many years, and then just this past August, I quit my engineering job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and moved to Austin, Texas. Now I'm working with ArcAttack.

How does the music actually get produced?

Steve Ward: We have a regular PC computer that is playing back MIDI sequences that we have preprogrammed. This MIDI is sent over a fiber optic cable to our stage area, where we have custom-built controllers that then initiate the sparking of the Tesla coil. We love using fiber optics for isolation. When we want to play a certain pitch — like a concert pitch A is 440 Hz — we then fire out 440 little lightning bolts per second, and each lightning bolt creates its own small sound. That vibrates the air at the right pitch, and then our ears hear it as that pitch.

What are the engineering challenges?

Steve Ward: This is a solid-state Tesla coil. I began working on these things back in, I think, 2004. Within the last few years, the reliability has been outstanding with them, but we do have a lot of issues. If the sparks hit some sensitive electronics, it'll take the system down. So making everything rugged in the sense of protection is the biggest challenge for us.

How could someone get started with their own project?

Steve Ward: There are some electrical safety issues, obviously. But if you treat it with respect, then it will respect you back. Don't go touching the thing while it's running or energized, that sort of thing. For anyone who dives into this hobby, you can't get into it too fast. You build up the knowledge of working with these things as you go. When I was back in high school, I built my first solid-state Tesla coil, and it probably took me a good six months to figure out what was going on and to get it working. You can build a small one for probably around $100 to $150.

Here's a clip of ArcAttack at a 2010 Maker Faire:

This interview was edited and condensed.

Kinect-Controlled Tesla Coils: The Evil Genius Simulator


  • The long slow make

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    March 04 2011

    Open question: How should you correct a bad tweet?

    Open QuestionRegular Twitter users know that deleting tweets is ethically dubious and technologically useless. A live tweet is a helium balloon in an open field — within seconds, it's long gone.

    But correcting tweets is a different matter, and that's what I'm interested in discussing in this open question.

    We've all tweeted incorrect links or made egregious spelling errors, and many of us live with the horror — real or imagined — of launching a direct message into the public Twitter commons. Yet, an agreed upon correction standard has yet to manifest (as far as I know).

    So here's what I'm curious about:

    • If you mess up a tweet, do you send a follow-up correction?
    • What isn't worth correcting? Spelling errors? A tweet that runs too long?
    • Should Twitter accounts associated with established information sources (@nytimes, @cnn, etc.) always send corrections?
    • Is there a correction window? For example, if you notice an error in a tweet you sent two hours ago, should you bother correcting it?

    Please weigh in through the comments.

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    January 14 2011

    Open question: What's the point of inbox zero?

    Open QuestionI have 10,021 unread messages in my inbox. Ignored newsletters and various bits of nearly-useless information make up most of that unread count (I think). That's why 10k+ unaddressed messages don't concern me.

    But is my ease misplaced? There seems to be an awful lot of people -- or a few vocal people, I can't tell which -- that pursue "inbox zero" with evangelistic zeal.

    To be clear, I don't fault anyone who pursues the tidiness of an empty inbox. If that's what you want to do, so be it. Rather, I just don't understand the motivations and intentions behind inbox zero (nor do I understand why so many feel it necessary to publicize their inbox successes and failures through Twitter ... but that's another matter).

    So, because I find the whole "inbox zero" thing curious, I figured I'd toss out a few open questions:

    • Do you try to get your inbox down to zero unread messages? If so, why?
    • Is inbox zero something you try to achieve every day? Every month? Every quarter?
    • What does inbox zero represent to you? Does it have deeper meaning?
    • Does inbox zero lead to better overall organization?

    Please share your thoughts in the comments area.


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