Subtitled "A Case for Conscious Consumption", I was a little leery of Johnson's book. First off, he co-founded Blue State Digital, who perfected, if not pioneered, the legions of email blasts I get in my inbox everyday from activists and politicos.
And yet, he comes across clearly in the book as someone distressed not in just the battle of left versus right, but the fact that partisanship has paralyzed the democratic process fuelled by frothing rhetoric on both sides (something I've bemoaned myself.).
Drawing heavily on a metaphor of information as food, Johnson says our problem isn't information overload but information overconsumption.
Paralleling the obesity epidemic fuelled by cheap, mass-produced and unhealthy calories and people unconcerned with their intake, Johnson translates this to the deluge of information and facts disguised as entertainment or churnalism, and the fact that we choose information we want to hear over information that reveals the truth through confirmation bias. These problems don't stem from a lack of information. They stem from a new kind of ignorance: one that results in the selection and consumption of information that is demonstrably wrong.
And, in fact, they're getting worse. Besides, the fact that most networks must now compete with the punditry of outfits like Fox News, a terrible side effect of personalization engines designed to serve you up links you're more likely to click on (for display ads like google and facebook) and peoples' inherent confirmation biases means that increasingly you don't even see countervailing or differing opinions. We're slowly shutting ourselves into a dangerous echo chamber where you hear only your own opinions reflected back at you, confirming your own beliefs (and often why it's so hard to convince people entrenched in their opinions despite facts.). People are increasingly only hear mass affirmations of their opinions, bolstered by a news media that speaks more to entertainment than facts, and that colours and distorts the truth of the world.
While I don't necessarily agree with all Johnson's prescriptions to fix the problems, I did especially like some of the things he focuses on to minimize or reverse these effects, for example, only consuming quality information sources and actively seeking out countervailing opinions. In particular, his opinion that having your own ideas challenged hones, clarifies and distills them if they have worth. I particularly liked his idea of a toolset of new data literacy and the fact that more time should be spent on the synthesis (rather than consumption of ideas) in order to clarify and communicate these ideas. I also thought his aside about keeping a bias journal interesting (if a little kooky.).
Overall, it's an interesting book which points out a novel approach to a serious and widening problem as well as a call to arms for a divided civil society. While I can't agree with all its prescriptions, it's certainly worth the read.