Information ‘Obesity’: an offensive metaphor?

I’m very conscious that I’m inexperienced about writing about this topic and am very keen to not be insensitive and cause offence. I’m very happy to be corrected about my use of language and am happy to make changes where necessary, so please either comment or email me.

I bought a book the other day on the recommendation of a senior colleague of mine who was making some recommendations for content I’ve not yet covered in my literature review in relation to concepts in information literacy. It’s Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness by Tara Brabazon. This kind of language is also used by academics like Drew Whitworth, whose book Information Obesity has played a central role in my engagement with concepts of critical information literacy. I want to briefly write about the problem of the use of this kind of metaphor in relation to information, because I find it offensive and I don’t think it’s helpful, but I’m not completely certain about the degree to which it is offensive (and I certainly don’t think it was intended to be) but would like to discuss it with people so I can work out where I stand.

I want to make it clear that I’m not suggesting that the authors aren’t making valid or important points in their work, because an awful lot of it is completely spot on and I find it challenging and I do use a lot of it myself. However, it seems wrong to let the problem pass me by without saying something about it. I’ll certainly be including a critique of it in my literature review, and thought it was worth maybe opening up a conversation about it here because I haven’t come across many criticisms of this kind of language use so far.

For Whitworth, information obesity is defined as “a failure to turn information into knowledge, and thus use it to sustain our minds, bodies, lives and communities. But just as physical obesity is not simply the result of too much food, so information obesity is caused by more than just “information overload”.” He says that other factors responsible are:

  • reductions in the quality of information
  • problems with mental “fitness”, that is, a lack of skills, training etc. in the consumer of information
  • external pressures, whether from “information industries”, peers, or organisations within which we work, to consume information before we have properly judged its worth.

The problems associated with information obesity are:

  • a lack of creativity and flexibility in graduates or employees
  • plagiarism at school and university
  • the “dumbing down” of TV and other media
  • counterknowledge, such as conspiracy theories, creationism, health panics, and so on
  • an increasing lack of privacy and state control over information, instead of individuals having control over the information which is important in their homes, communities, environments, workplaces and cultures.

Similarly, Brabazon discusses the need for a “digital detox” (p.16) or “digital diet” (p.30), in order to encourage students to use better sources of information and improve their media and information literacy.

Writing about information obesity tends to draw links between unhealthy relationships with food and unhealthy relationships with information. This is problematic on a few levels. There is judgement about people who are fat or obese. It is presented as bad, dysfunctional and the opposite of the ideal state of being. It is presented as outside of the norm and outside of what it is to be healthy.

A common fatphobic stereotype is that fat people are intellectually inferior. Cecilia Hartley suggests that fat women are typically seen as “sloppy, careless, lazy, and self-indulgent” (2001, p. 65). The idea that laziness is a cause of information obesity seems to sit too closely to that. For example, in her closing statement Brabazon (2013, p.316) says: “if each of us spends less time eating and more time reading, then…we can fight for intelligence rather than ignorance, and wisdom rather than gluttony.” The juxtaposition of these ideas reproduces this idea.

The metaphor conflates issues of obesity, disordered eating, dieting, detoxing and unhealthiness. The assumption is made that people who are obese are obese because they eat too much, not because of other possible reasons. Being obese is bad and the solution to becoming good or ideal is dieting and detoxing. Dieting and detoxing are seen as mutually exclusive, which they are not. An example of the way concepts are conflated is this section of Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness:

“Returning to the metaphor of this book, consider the nature of fitness and exercise. I wrote much of this book while living in Eastbourne…I would go for daily walks along the coast. The terrain was flat and well-paved. It was easy. But there is a moment each day where I would make a choice between continuing on the flat surface on the promenade or turning right and commencing a 25 degree incline up to the summit…Going up the incline for 15 minutes is difficult…But once at the top of Beachy Head I view a landscape that was not revealed from the coast. Without the effort, the extraordinary vista would remain obscured.” (p.44)

The thing is, the metaphor of this book isn’t quite clear, because of the fact that health is possible at every size. The idea in this passage seems to be that making the effort pays off. This works in an information context, in that making the effort to find better quality information that isn’t always the first thing that turns up on google (or subject databases, for that matter) can pay off in terms of better information to produce better assignments. However, it doesn’t seem to work within the metaphor itself. There are other ways of getting up that hill, for example. But the value judgement here is that getting up there by walking is the only acceptable way of doing it. (Actually, this is making me think about the judgements that are made by librarians and academics – that unless you’ve sweated your way into the dusty journal stacks or searched through complex advanced search functions, the information you’re using isn’t virtuous.) The idea is that what you’re doing should be hard but that’s okay because the pay-off is a beautiful view. I don’t know, the “returning to the metaphor of this book” just sits wrong. The idea that the ‘fitness’ that is being sought cannot be achieved without daily walks up hills and the outcome is that you are no longer ‘obese’. It has also been pointed out to me that there is an intersection with disability, in that somebody might not be able to walk up the hill because for example they may use a wheelchair. This applies to the issues relating to information – a lot of information is presented in ways that many people may not be able to get hold of or use because of accessibility issues.

The point of challenging ‘information obesity’ is about making sure people use information properly/effectively. It feels unpleasantly ironic that this relates to the problem of “counterknowledge”, which includes health panics, and that the rhetorical device used, that of fat shaming, directly contributes to that. It also sits very uncomfortably that Brabazon talks about how as a result of writing a book that some people found offensive, she received unpleasant messages which were “invariably about [her] nationality, gender, body shape or qualifications” (p.4), but the central problematising metaphor for this book seems to stigmatise people because of their body shape.

I must say that both authors do discuss wider cultural and social issues regarding the causes of information overload, and talk about how it’s not always the fault of the learner that they have problems with sifting through an abundance of information and have values that run counter to those of academia. However, there isn’t an acknowledgement of social issues such as poverty, capitalism and mental ill-health that all have an influence on obesity. Brabazon does say that obesity is a moral panic rather than a real menace, and talks about how we live in a culture surrounded by and obsessed with food (p.52). Whitworth (2009) talks about how a culture of blame will not help to shift patterns of behaviour. There seems to be the idea, though, that instead of shaming individuals for their body shape, that we should teach them how to get rid of that body shape through exercise. This seems to me to be a reductive and simplistic presentation of issues surrounding obesity, its causes and ‘solutions’. It’s more complex than someone who is obese deciding to walk up that hill. It might work for some people, but there are far more issues at play that are not addressed for the sake of being able to use a metaphor. There is a repeated sense that ‘good’ information use and ‘good’ eating are a simple choice – salad isn’t as appealing as cake so we choose cake, for example (Brabazon 2013, p.60). There is no engagement with issues such as the affordability of healthy foods and relationships between obesity and socioeconomic status.

I think it’s really important to be conscious of the kind of language we use as information professionals, especially if we’re trying to encourage critical engagement with information. I’m not suggesting that the writers are deliberately trying to cause offence, I think it’s more likely that the metaphor seemed like it would be engaging and something that people could understand. The fact that the ideas aren’t developed far beyond being used as book titles, section headings and a basic concept of something to be overcome indicates that isn’t intended as a complete and well thought out criticism. However, I think it’s assumed that people will understand the metaphors used in section headings etc. and that their use is acceptable precisely because of the fat-shaming that is so dominant in our culture. I might have missed something huge, and am happy to stand corrected, but I think in the future we need to be more careful about our choice of metaphors because they can be powerful but incredibly unhelpful.

References:

  • Brabazon, T. (2013). Digital Dieting: from information obesity to intellectual fitness. Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Hartley, C. (2001). Letting ourselves go: Making room for the fat body in feminist scholarship. In K. LeBesco & J. E. Braziel (Eds.), Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (pp. 60-73). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Whitworth, A. (2009). Information Obesity. Oxford: Chandos.

Post-script: I must admit that I have not read widely around the origin of terms such as information obesity, media gluttony and binge searching. I intend to read Wright, A. (2007) Glut: mastering information through the ages. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. I’m keen to read more, so if anyone has any library and information science related articles or books that use this kind of language that they could recommend, please do.

Image CC Attribution-Sharealike by Ted Bigham

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6 thoughts on “Information ‘Obesity’: an offensive metaphor?

  1. Paul S.

    A common fatphobic stereotype is that fat people are intellectually inferior.

    I was immediately reminded of this guy.

    (Actually, this is making me think about the judgements that are made by librarians and academics – that unless you’ve sweated your way into the dusty journal stacks or searched through complex advanced search functions, the information you’re using isn’t virtuous.)

    Spot on. Our problem with Google (admit it, we still have a problem) has little to do with the objective quality or relevance of its results, and more to do with its almost unconscious, unthinking ease of use, which we feel is somehow unhealthy, like junk food.

    Reply
  2. scr

    I’ve struggled with writing this response coherently. I hope it makes sense!

    I’d never heard the phrase ‘information obesity’ until today when you mentioned it. I partly think you are being over-sensitive about the phrase since it is a clinical term that’s now entered the common language. I do take your point about the fat-shaming that has become normal in society due to increased overweight and obesity in the population, and the awareness of it.

    I’m glad you were able to draw parallels between information (il)literacy and overweight/obesity, as well as under nutrition, related to poverty, access, etc. A huge factor in nutrition/weight-related ill-health has to do with poor skills in preparing and cooking ill health, a form of information literacy as far as I’m concerned!

    Unfortunately, those studying and trying to figure out how help those who are overweight know all too well how complicated the issue is; it’s not entirely down to ‘eat less, move more’ as the headlines would have you believe. They are aware of all the problems around access to food, cooking skills, etc., but as with all things related to media, they simplify the message. We already know how responsible the media is for the problems surrounding body image in general so it’s not a surprise that a clinical condition has now become something beyond a personal health issue and a way for us to judge people’s health/habit/intellect/etc.

    I’ve been trying to think of a different way to describe the problem of ‘information obesity’. Is it simply ‘information literacy/illiteracy’? Have they coined this new phrase to highlight the fact that this is more serious than the phrase information literacy may convey? Are the authors of these books aware of the real complexities of obesity, and should they be in order to clarify and make arguments about the similarities between information and food-related obesity? It may be a lazy metaphor and simplifying it in the way Brabazon has done in the paragraph you’ve quoted doesn’t help to acknowledge the complexities of both physical obesity and information obesity.

    As you’ve pointed out, it is a relatively new phrase (concept?) so it hasn’t gained a lot of traction yet. It does seem that some debate needs to be had to really determine whether this is in fact anything different than information (il)literacy, or just a marketing ploy by these authors!

    I think trying to come up with ways to describe a concept is always difficult and using metaphors helps to overcome this. A friend is doing a PhD in fine art that is actually around the use of metaphors used in urban planning/architecture, a very masculine subject that uses very feminine language to describe concepts (e.g. fabric of community, ribbon estates, etc.). The use of language is a very interesting one!

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      Thanks for this Shannon 🙂

      It is relatively new and I’m kind of hoping it doesn’t gain traction without the language and its appropriateness being considered more. I think the main things I agree with about what you’re saying is that it is a lazy metaphor and the stuff I’ve read doesn’t go beyond contextualising the solution to the problem of obesity as being ‘eat less, more more’, whereas they do contextualise the problems associated with a lack of information literacy as being more than just an ability to search for things.

      I do think metaphors are useful for describing complex and new things, and I think they’re also useful for promotion. My concern is that there hasn’t been much attention given to the way that the metaphor is explained in itself and simplifies something that is clearly quite complex for the sake of being able to communicate another complex concept. My sensitivity isn’t around the use of the word obese or obesity, it’s about the value judgements being made in the way the concept is presented. I think I’d be less bothered if it was made explicit that the metaphor has its limits or that it isn’t intended as ways x,y,z but then that makes a metaphor clunky and nobody’s having any fun any more!

      Reply
      1. scr

        Apologies if the previous comment contained a lot of nonsense and irrelevant things, it was very much my head processing this new phrase.

        Thinking more about it, I am struggling to see how their definition of information obesity is actually different from information literacy. It seems like they are applying the concept of information overload onto information literacy, and muddling things up. As I’m only new to this there is probably a lot I don’t know/an missing from their train of thought.

        It seems like an (incorrect) relabelling of an exciting topic – information literacy – with a trendy twist.

  3. Alison

    Just managing to read this and I think you make some great points- I have only read the Brabazon book, and, like you, I haven’t read anything more than the basics about obesity.
    However, a couple of random thoughts:

    – Another interesting aspect is the concept of food deserts, which may be more common in the US than the UK- the problem of low vehicle ownership/public transportation options in areas with few healthy food options/supermarkets. I think this is a big contributor to obesity, but one that gets overlooked in favour of the moralistic media coverage etc. Interestingly, there’s a public library in Baltimore, MD working with these issues- you can get food delivered to the library. http://baltimorehealth.org/virtualsupermarket.html
    -If we’re going with that angle, do you think a metaphor with Open Access is pushing it too far? Food desert = Information desert? Food/Information inaccessible to people who do not live in the right area/have the right institutional affiliations to get hold of other options?

    -Another point that is making me think (and I haven’t read Drew Whitworth’s book) is the quote you mention above about “the “dumbing down” of TV and other media”. So much tediosity- I think it’s Clay Shirky who does a great job of explaining how TV nowadays is so much more challenging in an intellectual sense than in the 1950s- so this comment (again I don’t know the full context) just seems to smack of inter-generational strife- why are the kids so dumb nowadays attitude that is so demeaning and, imho, untrue- things are different that is all.

    -So that leads into my last point- and this goes beyond the obesity metaphor, – it seems that the ultimate aim of so many articles/books like this have flaws too. This focus on good/bad information seems weird- and seems designed to set the stuff found at the library as good, anything on the web as bad. It just stinks of librarian insecurity- we must keep promoting how our “stuff” is so much better otherwise we will be made irrelevant and out of a job. Another thing that frustrates me- if that’s all we think librarianship is, then the library deserves to be phased out. Librarians and libraries are valuable for so much more than being the Google police- and this sanctimonious attitude just muddies the water, and impedes any reflection on the point and need to engage in critical evaluation skills.
    -These points also touch on changing academic discourse, and the insecurity that comes with this- the failure to accept that scholarship is alive and well outside of the peer-reviewed article. Actually, information landscapes are complicated places nowadays, and we are doing students a disservice if we just focus on peer-reviewed sources from the library as gold standard- rather than looking at the bigger picture of how to conduct inquiry and the research process in digital or hybrid online/paper information environments etc etc.

    So I guess those were rather long points… It’s been a while since I read about this, so I may be mis-remembering things or reading too much into them- but the students I work with amaze me everyday with their knowledge and drive and application, which probably makes me over-sensitive to implied slurs on their awesomeness in books like these. Thanks for writing this!

    Reply
    1. Lauren Post author

      Thank you Alison!

      The more I read from this book the more frustrated I am that some potentially good points are weakened by not just the metaphor but also the attitudes they’re couched in. The assumptions made about obesity echo the moralising about information sources that occurs without justification about the superiority of peer-reviewed material over non peer-reviewed. The assumptions about the internet being too fast for critical thought to occur are being proven wrong in the discussions I’m having about the book, ironically, which passes over an awful lot of the benefits I draw from using the internet and social media for engaging in critical thought and discourse. Someone pointed out to me that if there’d been more engagement with some of the great content that’s available through critical fat studies blogs, then maybe the metaphor could have been used in a stronger and less offensive way, or perhaps dropped altogether because it isn’t of sufficient depth to work.

      Reply

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