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Information Sustainability, Mindful Consumption, and Healthy Engineering

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  This article is part of the series: Ethical Product Developer

It's easy to build an analogy between information and food: both of them are substances we consume daily, and unbalanced, too much consumption will result in serious physical, mental, and societal problems. Make sense, right?

Even so, the capitalist society is filled with a bulk of cheap, mass-produced, and processed products, which are very "tasty" thanks to corporations' engineering efforts. And human brains are designed in a way to be hooked by such strong attractive tastes1. We can't stop craving salty, sugary, and fatty food. That's what journalist Michael Moss reported in Salt Sugar Fat, and to me, the story of food giants resembles a lot with tech giants in the ICT (Information and Communications Technology) industry as we can't stop scrolling through Instagram feeds, YouTube videos, and online shopping sites. Often there is no intention (autonomy2) in one's decision-making process, and we just follow what our brain responds to the stimuli.

But remember, ultra-processed, too-tasty, and toxic foods are made by companies prioritizing profit over our health. Thus, blaming McDonald's, KFC, Kraft, or Kellogg for your obesity won't be a smart move3. Instead, it is consumers who need to change with an intention as Maya Adam at Stanford advocates mindful eating: an active eating habit that lets us be conscious about what to eat and how much we know where they came from4. That is, our body is made of what we consumed, and every bite has certain consequences.

Similarly, for our information diet, practicing mindful "eating" with the right digital and social media literacy would be more appropriate than criticizing Meta, TikTok, or Twitter. Our way of thinking consists of what we consumed online, and "clicks have consequences," says activist Clay Johnson5. In his Information Diet, written in 2012 after working many years on US political campaigns, he stated that an essential issue in today's information-rich world is information overconsumption, not information overload. In other words, our distorted view of the world is a fixable symptom associated with many bad habits, just like an unhealthy eating habit.

Therefore, we can apply what we already do as best practices for food (e.g., measuring nutrients, making demands for quality products, and establishing regulations) to information diet, and treating information like food possibly unlocks new risk mitigation strategies we have overlooked since the beginning of the internet.

So, what is exactly the healthy information diet, if any? It of course depends on one's situation, but there is a simple rule of thumb: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants, according to journalist Michael Pollan6. This is what I originally learned from Stanford Introduction to Food and Health, and the point is, as long as you focus on eating a moderate amount of real, minimally processed food in a plant-centered yet balanced manner, you are generally fine. Though it would be great if you could precisely track the protein-fat-carbohydrate ratio and micromanage every single meal, avoiding the worst-case scenario doesn't require such an immense effort.

Finally, I'd like to point out that there is a fundamental difference between the food and ICT industry: information technology is highly democratized e.g., open-source software. It means that it is certainly possible to intervene in the power dynamics, and our experience, language, and technology—communications—are the superpower each of us owns towards liberation. It may be pointless to blame food companies, but we can challenge Big Tech more effectively in the era of ICT; it may be hard for us to become a farmer to self-serve our meals, but we can certainly be producers and consumers of information simultaneously no matter how small one's power might be.

According to philosopher Luciano Floridi in his book The Fourth Revolution, the rapid advances of ICTs can be seen as the fourth revolution that fundamentally changes our perception of human beings, following the past three revolutions: Copernicus's heliocentric theory, Darwin's theory of evolution, and Freud's finding of unconsciousness. Recent inventions in information science have indeed changed every aspect of our life, and the impacts are the same or more than in the past three. Yet I'd argue that the nature of information, which is mostly artificial, is not comparable with the first three revolutions that simply revealed the natural laws of physics and biology.

Copernicus didn't falsify a fact in the universe, Darwin didn't engineer genes, and Freud didn't put one's brain in a vat. But how about ICT practitioners? They can manipulate the rules however they want, both positively and negatively, and I see this as a fundamental uniqueness of the most recent revolution. Importantly, the flow of information can be controlled by humans that hold power in an information-rich society ("infosphere"). That is, how we perceive ourselves depends heavily on how other entities ("inforgs") behave.

Technology, remember, is a queer thing; it brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.

It was English novelist C. P. Snow who illustrated that technology is a double-edged sword7. That said, I still want to believe that the laws of information are flexible enough for us to deal with so that it brings greater gifts and fewer negative consequences. To get there, we need to consume and produce mindfully to make the flow of information sustainable. This is because I linked my recent learning from Food Sustainability, Mindful Eating, and Healthy Cooking Specialization to ICTs.

1. As reported in Salt Sugar Fat and discussed in Food Sustainability, Mindful Eating, and Healthy Cooking Specialization, science has revealed that dopamine is produced in a similar way as consuming addictive drugs when we eat highly-processed foods. Our brain's reward mechanism or sense of pleasure can be easily engineered by some tricks. Nir Eyal's Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products gives great insights about the topic.
2. Loss of autonomy is an essential problem in the information era as I discussed in "When We Lose Autonomy—Whose Life Are You Living?."
3. In addition to the fast food chains, Big Food Brands Struggling to Kick Junk Addiction from their products e.g., sold at grocery stores.
4. The idea of mindful eating is discussed in an online course Rebuilding Our Relationship with Food. As we can read from Mindful eating and common diet programs lower body weight similarly: Systematic review and meta-analysis, its effectiveness is (partially) shown by science and long-term effect has been actively studied.
5. Source: Is It Time For You To Go On An 'Information Diet'?, January 14, 2012.
6. In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto.
7. Source: New York Times, March 15, 1971.
  This article is part of the series: Ethical Product Developer



Life & Work Business

  See also

When We Lose Autonomy—Whose Life Are You Living?
My 30-Day Food Tracking Challenge from Sustainable Diet Perspective
Unusual Drinking & Eating Habits: Non-Alcohol, Decaf, Flexitarian


Last updated: 2023-05-21

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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