In a world where we consume and regurgitate information on an almost endless basis, it would be prescient for us to think of our information consumption in terms of diet.
What do we know about healthy eating right now? Basically, good consumption habits boil down to one simple rule for most people: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of course, there are acceptable variations on this rule for human flourishing, but the simplicity and truth of Michael Pollan’s statement stands. Too much of any non-plant-based food is generally bad for us. And we know that sugar (especially refined sugar that is added to food) is particularly bad for us.
I’ve been thinking about what the informational or educational equivalent of Michael Pollan’s rule above would be. Perhaps: “Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.” Right now, this is not the standard rule for most people. We don’t really need to be convinced at the moment that knowledge is a good thing, so I don’t think I need to defend “Gain knowledge” here. Humans are knowledge-amassing creatures by nature.
The second sentence presents a bit more of a problem. “Not too much.” Really? Is there such a thing as “too much” knowledge? I think the answer is likely “yes.” We live in the age of information. Much like the fact that most Westerners have access to a nearly limitless amount of food, we also have access to (what feels like) an infinite amount of information. How many of us spend our time standing in the “stream,” (see Mike Caulfield’s distinctiong between the garden/stream metaphors when we think about the internet) consuming text, images, and video at a rate that prevents us from comprehending that which we consume? It stands to reason that access to an infinite amount of information is a bad thing. Or, at minimum, that such access prevents us from having the ability to form useful, coherent understandings about the world as it is. Constantly standing in the stream of infinite information means constantly consuming disparate hot takes on whatever today’s events are, or whatever people are outraged about right now, or whatever entertaining meme or video happens to catch the eye. Further, infinite access means our attention is constantly disrupted, which therefore disrupts any chance we have of thinking deeply about one issue.
Finally, our final sentence: “Mostly from books.” Maybe this is an unfair one. The internet is extremely helpful in many ways; without it, many of us would not know many of the things we know now. And that includes understanding social and political issues in new ways. But let’s come back to our analogy — Michael Pollan is making an argument that most of our food that we eat should come from plants and not meat, animal products, or (presumably) refined and processed ingredients (such as refined sugar).
I’d like to focus on the sugar bit, because that’s the most likely candidate for making a connection. Refined sugars are particularly bad for us, and they are also particularly addictive (I’m not going to link to anything. A ten second Google search will prove me right). Sugar gives us a quick, easy burst of energy, but it often goes unused, and so our body stores that energy as fat. This leads to obesity, sluggishness, and a high likelihood of disease in a variety of forms. In the age of access to infinite information, the information we often have access to is no different than the sugary, highly processed, low-nutrient food that we all have constant access to. And that information is often consumed by us, and forms us so that we become intellectually sluggish and unable to think clearly or rationally about the world. Books (and other long-form literature), however, give us a chance at a different kind of intellectual formation. They demand our attention. They help us to train those intellectual muscles that otherwise become weak when our intellectual diets are pulled from social media feeds. Why? Because those feeds are bent towards outrage, and are actively grabbing at your attention, which ultimately leads to a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.” This doesn’t mean that all books contain and bequeath good quality knowledge. But I’d be willing to bet that books are more likely to properly form our intellects in ways that a pure digital diet cannot.
So: Gain knowledge. Not too much. Mostly from books.