Information diet, redux

The idea of an “information diet 🌐” has sort of established itself in the common consciousness (its merits have been sufficiently discussed elsewhere), but the base idea is very simple: there are “fast food” or “junk” sources of information with analogous characteristics (attractive, addictive, ultimately unhealthy, etc.)

However, the analogy of information as a food source can be extended further.

Hunting & Gathering

The two canonical modes of obtaining food also map to the way information is sought out on the internet:

Hunting

This mode corresponds to active research with a purpose - finding a paper on a certain topic, locating a specific website, etc.

It is not an accident that in the Information Foraging theory 🌐, there is a key idea of an “information scent” - cues in the environment that indicate the presence of the desired information. The scent can get stronger, weaker, etc. Certain search queries (paths, areas) elicit a stronger scent, whereas others indicate that the direction will likely be fruitless.

Foraging

This mode corresponds to browsing, doomscrolling - far from being purely a time-wasting activity (see Procrastionation is not unhealthy), it often results in worthwhile insights and inspiration.

(How often they come up and how really worthwhile they are is of course up to everyone’s personal habits 😃)

Scrolling through different firehose feeds (twitter, mastodon, reddit, Hacker News) is basically a form of foraging - less immediate yield, less concrete goal, but the outcome is fairly certain given that the resource is not exhausted.

Cooking, preparation

Of course, no matter how one gets their ingredients, they need to be prepared first, which forms a completely separate activity from either hunting or foraging - it is done with different instruments, to different aims, etc.

Admittedly, it’s here that analogy breaks down the most - in the information realm, I’m mostly referring to creation (i.e. writing based on the hunted and foraged info bits) rather than preparation for consumption. But it’s fun to think about it in this manner.

Okay, but why?

So why did I bother with this worn-out and slightly awkward analogy?

I think it’s worth keeping in mind just because of the completely different requirements and aims of the three modes of information work, which aren’t really currently reflected in the current crop of Operating Systems / Browsers. (See Modes)

Hunting places a lot of emphasis on scent, and information hunting requires fairly systematic exploration of the space.

For example, simple tabbed layouts as present in most browsers are fairly inadequate, as they do not reflect the underlying structure of the “hunt” - certain sites may be fruitful and one needs to return to them often (e.g. “Further reading” section of an article), others are worth keeping around only for base reference (e.g. paywalled abstracts). “Tree tabs” are good, but designing for this use cases in the base UI of the browser would be better. Additionally, you probably want to do this hunt in a separate window, because otherwise other tabs will get into the way.

Foraging on the other hand, doesn’t really require this sort of systematic focus. Also, unlike hunting, since the end goal isn’t really well-defined, what this calls for is a “basket” into which the various bits will be put and sorted out later. Bookmark systems are horribly useless in most browsers, so here services like Pinboard and Pocket are worth using (unlike in hunting, where the vast majority of the opened sites do not really need to be retained for later).

Finally, the preparation phase calls for a completely different interface altogether; you are not browsing anymore when you are synthesizing from what you have gathered. Here, most of the “browsing” features of the browser actually get in the way, as you want a relatively clutter-free view of your work, and only the bits and pieces you’re working with on clear display - anything else is a distraction or hindrance.