All you can eat

This week got me thinking a little bit about the way we deal with and consume information in our daily lives.

First of all, let’s talk about the way information is consumed. It cannot be denied that information on the Internet is mostly free and widely accessible. We live in an information-abundant society. There’s just so much information in so many forms: Facebook updates, tweets, news items, how-to articles and so on. That’s why I’m using an RSS reader (Feedly) to save time. I want to learn as much as possible of course, but time constraints pose the biggest roadblock to satisfying the appetite of a ravenous reader like myself. The quicker you can access the books, blogs, stories and news that move you, the more time you have to digest and enjoy them.

Yet my Feedly account is still bursting out. And the river keeps flowing. It never stops. Luckily, RSS readers provide some built-in controls that allow me to organize how I digest the information. In Feedly I can play around and configure some settings too. You can mark the sources you like the most as “must read”. This influences how Feedly filters your information stream and showcases featured articles. And if you are subscribing to a lot of sources, you can group them in categories.

Another thing to it (point two), is how information is presented. We want our information to be relevant, accessible and correct.

Let’s again look at Feedly. One Feedly feature I really love is the ability to assign the right layout to each source. As I already mentioned: we deal with various types of information, be it books, blogs, stories or articles. Now the good thing with Feedly is that it allows you to assign different views to each source. As such, you can use for instance the title only if you are a fast information scanner, grid if the source is very visual (example: Flickr, etc..).

But that’s just the form and style or the digital reading experience, and Feedly makes you in control on how the information is displayed.

I am a technology optimist and I think we can do a much better job. We could built smart algorithms that look at a number of parameters, like the frequency for instance to check how often information is updated. Then only decide how to present the information to the user. In the physical world, books are books. A magazine is a magazine. The newspaper has headlines and a frontpage. Now the trick is to tie this all together. It shouldn’t be that hard right? Read on.

Unfortunately our digital world isn’t perfect either. Are we becoming a better society if we let machines decide? The Internet is reigned by the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple. Facebook for instance doesn’t give you much options what you get to see on your news feed. It decides for us which information is important and which not. We are simply not in control. The below tweet talks about how Apple enters our private live, while it asks the valid question to install updates now are when we are asleep. Do we really want Apple to know when we call it a day?

“Wilt u de updates nu installeren of het vannacht proberen?” WTF moeit Apple zich met ons privé leven ??

— Tim Vande Walle (@TimVdWalle) November 16, 2013

Another example happened to me last week. Google Now knows where I live, without me ever stating the same. It just interprets my geolocation as I’m sharing the same and tells me my ETA. It seems like we have become transparant machines.

There is a general trend here. Computers are increasingly influencing our lives as we are more digitally embedded. And there’s the big caveat: machines are becoming smarter, but at what cost? What is the right model?

So I think it’s all about giving empowerment to users. Build in the controls. But with great power comes great responsibility as Spider Man learnt us. Let users do the work. Let them interact with the controls. Perhaps some of us need to go on an information diet. As with a food diet, diet plans are the first step to be taken when you want to lose weight and become healthier. There challenge is staying on track with it. It requires effort.

Clay Johnson is actually a thought-leader in this domain. He argues that they’re about your personal health, and the health of society. Just as junk food can lead to obesity, junk information can lead to new forms of ignorance. Johnson built an Information Diet framework for consuming information in a healthy way, by showing you what to look for, what to avoid, and how to be selective.

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