Our processed information diet

Our processed information diet

2020, Jul 15    

There’s a parable about Doritos - that they were engineered by taste scientists to be maximally appealing to the palate. Now, of course, the palate isn’t one consistent thing across societies, individuals, activity levels and environmental stresses, but American life is uniform enough across the continent that scientists were able to optimize the recipe in service of their objective function: profit.

There are numerous documentaries now on the nature of the food industry. Food science, once the stronghold of scientists like Norman Borlaug, who helped bring revolutionary agricultural practices and geopolitical independence to millions, is now the willing tool for commoditized F&B brands to develop some competitive advantage against others in a crowded marketplace full of principal-agent problems. In the meantime, as stocks soar, the physical (and therefore mental) health of Americans is ruined. Eventually, this same food science will bring its destruction to other areas of the world as well.

I have particular theories about food and how we should relate to our body which are probably best kept for late night drinking sessions when we are all coming out with crazy ideas. But metrics don’t lie. Americans are much less healthy now than they were 20 years ago. City design, suburban isolation and the increase in quality of TV shows almost certainly play a role as well, but the proximal cause is the insane amount of processed, non-nutritious calories available at dirt cheap prices.

The distal cause for this is the capitalist incentive structure applied to saturated markets. No one says “Y’know I think Americans have enough stuffed cream puffs on the grocery shelves.” - they enter the market and attempt to compete and capture the whole thing. Consumers, spoiled for choice and out of touch with the needs of their bodies, often end up consuming far more than they would normally, all of it non-nutritive and slowly poisoning.

This same capitalist incentive structure has now focused its attention…on our attention. Whatever happened to our appetite a few decades ago - hijacked, excised, dissected and served back to us in unhealthy forms - is happening now to attention. The rage attention economy is finding the same buttons in the human psyche that trigger re-engagement the way Doritos scientists found the super-MSG shot that triggers it for our taste.

Can we now make predictions about what the future of human attention will be, based on what we saw as backlash against the processed food industry?


Learn more about the world around you physically. The internet makes it easy to access reams of information about history, geography and daily life from around the world. This disembodied method of learning is expensive and carries few rewards. Learning more deeply about the place around you will lead to better chains of feedback.


Avoid industrialized content farms like BuzzFeed - focus on articles that don’t have the same structure as others. Funky-looking articles and articles that don’t look like articles, published by people who have been at it for some time and go deep into the craft behind how they made it are probably ‘healthier’ for the information ecosystem and your diet.

(I’m putting aside my own deep concerns with organic agriculture here. There are clear parallels between the failure modes of organic agriculture and the cognitive biases that groups of people fall into.)

Homemade, friend-made

Food and information, both, were driven by community for a long time. We should be getting better at cooking and getting better at synthesizing our own information, processing it together with friends. This seems like exactly the problem with WhatsApp forwards, etc. - we are processing things with our friends, but there’s a huge difference between eating fast food together versus picking up ingredients and putting them together to see how they taste and how they sit in our stomach.

Michael Pollan’s Food Rules

I think many of Pollan’s rules could apply just as well to information. Stay out of the mainstream, avoid anything templatized,consume information together and always leave a little hungry.

One thing that isn’t covered by these rules is that food is physically processed and digested and dropped off. We are trained from a young age to absorb nutrition in one place and drop off waste in another. We are simply not taught the same thing about information. Many of us become information obese as a result - holding on to memories of our own lives, obscure facts with little relevance and Simpsons quotes. Looking at our information system like our digestive system, as a set of neurons that learn a deep model of the world from consistent, healthy feeding, might also help stave off many of the problems associated with the mind. After all, the gut has a brain of its own too.