Digital Nutrition

Digital information environments are still a relatively new thing for our species. We’re still looking for ways of understanding what these things are and how they affect us. Inevitably, we talk about them through the lenses of what’s come before—the things we’re familiar with. If (like me) your background is in architecture, you may think of them as types of places. But of course, that’s not the only way to think about them.

In an essay in Medium, Michael Philip Moskowitz and Hans Ringertz draw the analogy with food. They identify five pillars (diet, exercise, sleep hygiene, vocation, and interpersonal relationships) that are important for good mental health, which they identify as the leading cause of disability worldwide. To this they add a possible sixth:

What we, the authors of this essay, have come to believe through our separate paths of enquiry over the past decade is that a possible sixth pillar of health has emerged in the era of smartphone addiction and ubiquitous computing. We call this element “digital nutrition,” and in our view, healthy digital habits urgently warrant adoption.

What is digital nutrition?

We define digital nutrition as two distinct but complementary behaviors. The first is the healthful consumption of digital assets, or any positive, purposeful content designed to alleviate emotional distress or maximize human potential, health, and happiness. The second behavior is smarter decision-making, aided by greater transparency around the composition and behavioral consequences of specific types of digital content.

The way I’m reading it: you are what you eat—and also what you read online. Your digital media diet may be making you sick.

It’s an interesting analogy, but not one that I’m fully on board with. Information (what the authors call “digital assets”) is very different from food. We can identify what foods that nurture or harm us, but even with our advanced science this knowledge is still imperfect. (Think of the continually shifting opinions about the benefits of foods like red wine and coffee.) Still, it’s possible to envision nutritional science getting more accurate over time. How would the equivalent work for information, digital or otherwise? Information is too contextually dependent—too personal—for us to define universal guidelines of what constitutes a good digital diet at anything but the highest levels.

To the point: the authors anticipate the emergence of a “new labeling system for digital content — one that goes further than today’s film and TV ratings and more closely resembles nutritional information on food packaging.” This seems like dangerous ground. Who would do the labeling? To what ends?

It’s Time to Embrace Digital Nutrition