On food, information and metaphors

I have been wrestling with a gnawing sense of uneasiness, whenever I ponder over "Information is Food" metaphor. Everyday, as I take my routine stroll down the manicured, digital gardens of the web, I often see this metaphor gaining currency among bloggers and writers, spawning book titles such as The Information Diet: A case for conscious consumption, curated knowledge lists such as Brain pickingsBrain food,(which advertises itself as "a free weekly digest of nutritious brain food"), doctors pondering if food is information,and other adventurous  intellectual excursions. 

A major part of my unease arises from my experiments with food over the past few years, weaning from processed, industrialized food sources to healthy,natural alternatives. My biggest beta learning insight in these experiments has been the need to facilitate a real-time, direct conversation between my body and the food I eat, as opposed to relying on any external knowledge source or authority.  It's rather better to consult my body (and not mind) on food and nutrition matters than any nutritionist or dietitian or their books.  To use a familiar metaphor,to fix your car, is it not wiser to rather consult the manufacturer  instead of the local mechanic?

We can understand this insight better through what Michael Pollan calls as American Paradox: The more we worry about nutrition, the less healthy we seem to become. The more America obsesses with nutrition, through corporate sponsored hype cycles of nutritional and dietary fads, the more likely we are( yes, not just America, we are, thanks to globalization) to screw our health. Although he falls prey to the tried and tested American publishing formula by addressing the problem through rules and manifestos, his insight is indeed illuminating.

How does one consult the body on food matters? You experiment with various kinds of foods and see how the body reacts to it. As a wise man writes in Body: The Greatest Gadget
"If the body feels very agile, energetic and nice, that means the body is "happy". If the body feels lethargic and needs to be pumped with caffeine or nicotine to stay awake, the body is not happy"
However, practicing this insight is easier said than done. I find it extremely difficult, given my inherent conditioning, bequeathed from my years of schooling, to rely on experts/gurus for deciding on things which matter to my life and other pernicious habits accumulated from the modern world such as limitless distraction and relentless hunger for every form of stimulus. 

When I look at information through the lens of this insight, I wonder, through such metaphors, if we are perilously close to  inflicting the same damage to our minds which we are doing to our bodies. Although few might disagree, it's depressing to see how the American Paradox would translate for information: The more we worry about what we are doing to our minds, the less healthy it becomes. 

If it is deemed wise to consult our body for the food that we eat, how do we consult our mind for the information we consume, especially when the mind, as we know it, is an incorrigible liar, always dissatisfied with what is and always wants more?

I think the question which we have  been evading is : What does it mean to 'consume' information? If you care to meditate on this word, you would realize that this word presupposes a 'consumer' of information. How can we expect to solve "information overload", (assuming such a problem exists), in our 'consumer' role, if information is the only currency available for hoarding, speculation and commodification in this marketplace of ideas?   

Who is this "consumer of information-infosumer" species? This question is pertinent, especially in our times, where we are building our  micro-identities every moment through each digital footprint and communicating to millions, real-time across dynamic contexts in the social web. 

Every time we consume information, we are involved in a wholly unique, personal, context-making exercise where we impart sense to the information through links with our existing mental models or new mental models. The usefulness of the information is totally dependent on the context making exercise undertaken to process it. While information consumption can be an unconscious habit(and thereby addictive), context-making is a rigorous, conscious activity our minds undertake to process the information. This could probably help us see clearly that any incremental addition in information need not necessarily lead to any additional increase in knowledge.  
Now that we have an inkling of this new species, infosumer, it may be worthwhile to explore the linkages between food and information. Do we consume information like we consume food? A good way to explore this could probably begin right at the question itself.  Do we consume information like we consume food? When did we begin to consume food? To consume is to eat immoderately. It may be a sign of our capitalist cultural climate that we collectively fail to realize what a world of difference it makes in replacing the word "eat" with "consume"- the latter which epitomizes the zeitgeist our times.

I don't intend to dispute the usefulness of "Food is Information" metaphor here. It plays a valuable role in making us understand that information overload doesn't exist. Just as food abundance cannot be blamed for obesity issues, it doesn't make sense to blame information overload for our inability to process information. 

It's only when this metaphor imposes the role of "infosumer" on us, our much acclaimed collective intelligence descends into stupidity, as we relegate our context setting to the algorithms, which dictate what they think we should see. Trapped inside our own filter bubbles, we lose our ability to exercise our precious agency

Back in 2006, when Jaron Lanier, in his widely discussed article on the perils of online collectivism,Digital Maoism, condemned "the anti-contextual brew of the wikipedia",the legion of Wikepedians became furious and retorted to highlight the rich context hidden inside Wikipedia's discussion pages. Today in 2013, when Google's algorithms are busy collecting multitudes of click signals in its sisyphean task of predicting the user's context, if we are serious about getting us out of "group think", it behooves us to reject this metaphor.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree? 


Emeri Gent [Em] said...

The call to action today is metacognition - a reflection of our own thinking rather than generating more thinking. Agree or Disagree fits the mental model of argument and as we argue we fail to reflect because we are either selling our viewpoint or further entrenching our position. So the last thing we want to do is think about our own thinking.

The benefit of relating information (mind) with food (body) is to see that issues in education today (mind) are issues of healthcare (brain & body). That not only should we not separate education and healthcare but we need to see both through a triangulated connection with media.

What does that look like?

Andy Grove (who survived cancer and now is battling parkinsons) asked questions which fit this way of seeing, an example of which is demonstrated below.

Healthcare Innovation Summit 12

What would happen when we triangulate education, healthcare and media?

Such triangulation is a step forward to transparency

Whether we untangle the entangled hands of special interest, self-serving groups and political siloes depends more on the arrival of people who can see through all of this and untie the hands of competing gridlock. Such triangulation also humbles us to recognize that we cannot "argue" our way to insight, but that we need to learn to see. We are all still learning to see.

Now I can take this down so many roads, so many different ways that by leading others, the destination I offer is "everywhere" and "somewhere" which is the same recipe for unintended consequences and the gridlock we see particularly in healthcare and education - and if we are don't know our own destination and then follow destinations that go everywhere - what is the point of going back and forth on the tennis match stuck inside a political tennis tournament.

We won't make quantum leaps through the present education system, the present health care system or the present media system. Each is interacting with each other and each is stuck in seemingly intractable positions and imprisoned politics.

So it is clear that we need new ways of thinking. Here is the problem, who taught us that?

The answer is no one - but if we seek it, then maybe we will discover what that is. That is what I am doing here.

Dr Russell Ackoff is one of those thinkers who I find interesting because he offers a clue as to what this new way of thinking may be:

VIDEO: Dr Russell Ackoff on Systems Thinking
Part 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJxWoZJAD8k
Part 2 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdBiXbuD1h4

Just watching these two parts informed me that Ackoff's point of view is worth examining and more importantly not simply another mental model to follow, but to explore.

The last thing I want to do is influence YOUR thinking - this is my thinking, I am thinking out aloud as I type this and then what I learn to see is what I learn to see. This is reflection, this is metacognition, me thinking about my own thinking.

What you learn to see will depend on whether you choose to experiment or choose mental models. Did the chicken lay the model or the egg lay the thought, or even better still ask the questions Ackoff did such as why did they put the motor in the front of the car? Why :-)

The chief cavaet of thinking is that it can drive us mad, but thinking about our own thinking isn't madness, it is unexplored truth - unexplored because it sits within us, not out there where we see the failure to address that as our world's problem.


Venkataraman said...

Couldn't agree what you have so eloquently said on the role of imagination. I am not sure where I gave you the impression that I am wanting to disband this society and its fetish with consumption. My personal responsibility is my political responsibility. When it comes to nutrition, I have taken up my responsibility to go back to the source and harvest new meanings in the fertile grounds of my imagination. My blog name Venkinesis comes from just that. The sense of kinesis - movement, stems from the new meanings I am willing to discover in my fascinating jouneys of the everyday life. Couldn't thank you enough for sharing your valuable comment and enriching this space of thoughts!

Emeri Gent [Em] said...

I had to read my response again to see why I would have given that impression. Somewhere between "cultivating awareness" and "disbanding the order of the star", an intent was seen that was not an intention on my part - so thank you for pointing that out.

Unlike this response, the main spray of thoughts are done in several minutes rather than honed in hours or written slower so I can actually be somewhat more thoughtful rather than prolific; so what gets shot out of my mind is usually in that given moment. It represents the world as I see it and most definitely should not be construed as the world as you see it.

Once I have sprayed out these thoughts, I go back and try to figure out what it is I have said and secondly, I then go and check the links and see if my expression contains naivety, misses meaning or is in any way off base.

Doing things backwards comes naturally to me, so don't draw too much into interpreting this as a judgment about your actions, but certainly do call me out where you think an impression was made or needs being clarified. It is not that I don't want to piss you off, I am not just cut that way - the worst you can say about me is "man you are so self-serving" :-)

It would be remiss of me thinking I know who Venky is, when in my thinking out aloud is both self-discovery and humble foolishness (that being a value rather than self-deprecation).

When it comes to "disbanding" I am simply admiring the chutzpah of Jiddu Krishnamurti from his "Truth is a Pathless Land" speech


Imagine being plucked off the beach as a child to be viewed as a "The World Teacher" - then given schooling and development that you "are the one" - and then when your brother dies (Jiddu Krishnmurti's Brother), go through a severe reality check in the enormity of grief and have the gumption to stand infront of thousands of followers and tell them that the answer to the World Teacher is, "don't follow me". Man it gives me goosepimples everytime I think of the ultimate walk away, and freeing of oneself in the very same step.

The only person whose life story is more profound than that is the life of Buddha

1/3rd of his life he has EVERYTHING, all his whims and desires are met

1/3rd of his life he freely wonders to try out new things and so which philosophies fit

and then

1/3rd of his life once he figures out the "suffering" thing, is one profound existence of personal happiness.

That to me is the ultimate life story. Otherwise the only other life I know is the one I have, where I don't need to be a Krishnamurti, I certainly don't come anywhere close to being Siddhartha since his name means "one who achieves his aims".

I won't ever claim to know who you are Venky, other than that I can see your heart is in the right place, your mind is very acute and well developed and you were preloaded with plenty of guts (and that is not me explaining what you mean by political responsibility).

If I wanted to be read, I would blog and when I did once blog I got told by most that writing out one liners is a really stupid form of blogging. But of course that was 10 years ago and 10 years is several lifetimes in Internet terms.

There is a west coast surfer phrase I love, "this is my trip". What I do online is simply my trip. Trip here means "doing one's own thing" rather than taking a hallucinatory drug. If I ever did take a drug (other than coffee or tea) it would simply be the closest thing to freedom that I can get. Another surfer expression I love is "Thanks Dude". And since you have a pretty neat and cool blog, all I can say is thanks for allowing me this moment in your virtual home so "thanks Dude" :-)


Priyank Loonker said...

Hey venki, really liked your piece of information consumption. brilliantly put. The metaphor of "information is food" is not just applicable in terms of assimilation of the "info-trients", what seems to be your main line of thought here, but also to do with accessibility (easy vs esoteric), present-ability (standardization vs customized) and edibility ( taste vs health) .
If looked from these 3 perspectives too, i think 'information is food' is more than apt.

Venkataraman said...

Hey Priyank! Good to see you here! I concur with your observations here. These three are major aspects which has led to the growth of these metaphors. The only problem with this metaphor is that it robs us of "agency".