Informational Diabetes

We all recognize that in the Internet Age, it is easy to communicate and to access information.

For the infovores, this is a cause for celebration.

Others worry that this leads to “information overload”, and to the spread of “disinformation” and “misinformation”. While this is clearly true, complaints about it typically seem to come from elites longing for the days when they had the only microphone, before the Revolt of the Public. Its hard to banish “misinformation” without screening out differences of opinion and correct contrarians even if you want to- and for some, such “collateral damage” would in fact be the main goal. But clearly something is wrong with the current information environment.

In a recent podcast appearance, Balaji Srinivasan used a metaphor I like better- Informational Diabetes:

What are we optimizing today? Twitter likes. That sucks. It’s funny, people say that we have nothing in common around the world. Well, every politician in the world, every celebrity is optimizing their Twitter likes, or their followers, or what have you….. for those people for whom it is number one, this is just this mind-melting kind of thing, because you’re just optimizing popularity, which is benefiting Twitter, it’s just rows in their database. It’s not benefiting you that much. There’s some benefit out of it, but not that much, especially on the anger and rage that comes out of getting attention sometimes. So we just talked about diet, talked about the cause and effect of diet when you’ve got this IoT stuff. Now let’s apply that stuff to information diet. Currently, there’s that saying, if it bleeds, it leads. You can expand it. If it enrages, it engages. Legacy media and social media profit from fight club. Two people just go at it over some stupid polarizing article. And they might agree on 85, 90% of other things, they might live in the same community, they might know each other from work, or church, or whatever, but they just go at it over this thing, which frankly, neither of them would have even thought to bring up, but it’s optimized for being polarizing. Its what SlateStarCodex calls a scissor statement.

So a scissor statement, which is something which is obviously true to one party and obviously false to the other, which basically is like a natural selection process where media companies and social media companies are constantly sifting and selecting effectively for scissor statements because they’re so enraging, and therefore engaging. And so what happens in this fight club, whatever, it’s a thousand clicks, 10,000 clicks, everybody watches, fight, fight, fight, someone wins, someone loses, but most of the time both lose because both are harmed in this environment. But who gains? Twitter gains, the Times gains. They sold ads. It doesn’t matter. Made money. The issue here is, I think of it as analogous to our diet, diet, because over the last 50, 60 years as restaurant culture has become more, and more and more mainstream, you’ve gone from having family cooked meals where the person who was your food provider was also your healthcare provider, to outsourcing all of that to capitalistic entities that are not actually economically aligned with you. And so, therefore, it’s Coca-Cola, it’s sugary foods, it’s unhealthy foods that are delicious, that gets you to eat more, that’s huge portion sizes, but you pay later with diabetes or disorders of metabolism and so on and so forth. And it’s really something where it’s an externality. People have talked about this, like Fiat food, like how the food pyramid is totally upside down and it tells you to eat all these carbohydrates and grains, when actually that should be the thing that you avoid to the maximum extent because we’re showing it causes inflammation, causes type two diabetes.

This metaphor nudges us in what I think is likely to be a more productive direction. Where “misinformation” suggests banning Bad People and Bad Thoughts, “diabetes” suggests looking for ways to change incentives (Substack? Crypto, as Balaji later says?) and to improve your own “information diet” (e.g. Blogs & books > social media & cable news).

I recommend listening to the whole episode, it goes well beyond this to discuss crypto, founding cities, and take some shots at macroeconomics I don’t necessarily agree with. But in this and other appearances Balaji speaks in polished paragraphs and brings up more ideas per minute than just about anyone.

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