There are two words that have more to do with the quality of your life than any other: health and wellness . Do you know the difference between them? If you answered “no”, you’re not alone. Most people don’t.
Simply put, health is your state of being, and wellness is a way of living that gets you there.
It’s why we try to hit the gym, eat a balanced diet, and get at least 7 hours of sleep each night. These things that we know are good for our health, and many others, are what we call wellness practices.
But our bodies are only half the equation. What about how we feed our minds?
Today we’re launching a series on the subject that should change the way you see your information life. If you care about your health, your mental performance, or the impact of our information habits on society, this series is for you.
First, an overview.
Is your mind getting fat?
There has never been more mainstream awareness about physical health and wellness than there is today.
If you walk into a grocery store, health considerations are in the back of your mind for almost everything you buy. You check food labels. You do rough calculations. You’re careful. Furthermore, if you pig out, you’re immediately conscious of the steps you should probably take to offset this, with exercise and healthier eating the rest of the week.
Now think about your information habits. Today, there are no such considerations. People often speak of needing “nutrition labels for news”, but the reality is that if our lives were anything like how we live with information today, it would be like nutrition science not existing at all. Labels don’t help when there’s no awareness around why they matter.
We demand more and more information about our food, what's in it, and where it comes from so that we can know how it will affect our bodies and how we should think about it. But we ask nothing of where our information comes from, the very thing that shapes our minds. We don’t consider, in specific terms, how it impacts us. Why is that? Where is that obsessive critical thinking?
It’s not your fault. The terminology and science haven’t existed.
A matter of language, frameworks, and consequences
If you spend an hour going down a rabbit hole of celebrity tabloid gossip, versus spending that same time on award-winning content, there is no tangible difference. We don’t currently have the labels, the language, the data, the feedback to think about the difference or the consequences easily and clearly. To have it automatically in the back of our minds, just like when we’re browsing the grocery store aisles; like the logic we use, and the way we feel, when we eat a salad instead of a fast food burger.
There is a simple reason for this: the effects aren’t as obvious, or as difficult to hide.
Your mind doesn’t get visibly fat. Intaking nonsense won’t make your skin greasy. We don’t see it on ourselves or others directly.
Rather, we feel it. The impacts manifest primarily internally, in our minds. There, the impact is as tangible as it gets. Anxiety. Anger. Tension. Paranoia. Depression. It is no coincidence that the world is facing an escalating mental health crisis. And as a result it eventually does become visible to others, in how we speak and how we behave.
We are a species that relies as much on the quality of our minds as we do the quality of our bodies. And the quality of our minds is significantly shaped by the information we pay attention to.
Your information, your society
When we speak of information health, it’s essential we think of it not only as individuals, but also in the context of our families, communities, and countries. Just as we would with any physical health crisis. If a virulent new illness makes one person sick, it’s not long before it’s a pandemic. The term infodemic is apt. We are social creatures, making our illnesses social too.
It should come as no surprise, then, that (mis)information, information overload, and (media) polarization, are at the heart of most of society’s most glaring tensions and challenges right now.
But where is it all coming from?
The collective information we all rely on is what’s referred to as our information commons. Once upon a time this was best represented by the libraries of the ancient world and the philosophers and scientists and scholars that shaped them. Today, the commons is best defined by our modern internet, and this version of our commons is like no other before it: never in history has it been more influential, more accessible, or relied on by so many — and it has also never been easier, more profitable, and more blatantly beneficial, to pollute these commons at scale . Anyone can shape it, for better and for worse.
This makes today’s internet a symbiotic reflection of our information health. We all feed on it, and into it. It is the intellectual land we harvest together, the estuaries we drink from to think. When we have no language or frameworks to think about our information health, we are woefully unprepared to handle the pollution. Our minds, communities, countries, are easy targets.
Fighting for more sensible laws, and healthier internet business models, including less polarizing news and more ethical social platforms, is an externalized way of fighting back. It puts the responsibility on businesses and platforms and governments. And they should take responsibility! But that’s only half the story. Nobody can help you if you don’t help yourself. Reining in fast food chains goes hand in hand with consumers who are taught to actually watch what they eat .
Words of concern for our environment, government, institutions, food system, education system, and most recently our democracy abound in today’s national and international conversation. But upstream from any concern about the health of these systems, and many others we care about and depend on, is our information health. It dictates our ability to tackle any other issue.
Which is why we need Information Wellness. It starts with every individual, and radiates out.
The new field of Information Health and Wellness
This post marks the beginning of a series where we’ll explore all of the ways we can measure, think about, and improve our information health, through information wellness. Both on an individual level, and in the systems of our society. We’ll cover everything from information nutrition, to pathological information, infobesity, information pollution and much more.
Just like the broader field of mental health is finally getting its due, and making a tremendous difference in people’s lives as a result, It’s important we put words to our information health and wellness, so we can give it the space, discussion, and awareness it deserves.
This is important new territory we’re charting, and we hope you’ll join us on the journey, both in practice and in discussion. It’s becoming clear that the future of our society depends on it.