SXSW 2013: Empty Information Calories

Cloud Image“We are drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

– Rutherford D. Rogers, Deputy Librarian of Congress

I recently presented at SXSW, and while there attended a number of other talks and presentations. One, given by a Buddhist nun, made me think in a new way about what it is we do as healthcare communicators. We create a lot of materials and services for people to consume, in essence “feeding” them healthcare information—but are we feeding them well?

The presenter used the concept of cheap nutrition as a metaphor for the modern habit of consuming low-value, high-turnover products and services without ever feeling full or knowing why. Everything, according to her, has the potential to become fast food, easily consumed and without real nutritional value:  the things we own, the entertainment we watch, the achievements we rank and catalogue…all of it can be had in a low-cost, transactional way, and it is all empty calories, taken on board without consideration and without satisfaction. The more you eat, the hungrier you get. To be fulfilled, we need to do more than consume—we need to connect, and to engage. I’m not a Buddhist and I like fast food as much as the next person, but as a metaphor for information available on the Internet, especially healthcare information, “empty calories” is as good as any.

Patients and caregivers seeking knowledge find a sea of information, often without context or a frame of reference to know if it is good information or bad, relevant or irrelevant, connected to their immediate need or concern or not. The information is readily available, it is designed to be easily digested, and rarely if ever does it leave us feeling that we know all that we need to know about whatever it is that ails us or a loved one: we sit at a keyboard, finding bite-sized information nuggets, and eat and eat, and remain hungry nonetheless.

The nun was right. Gorging on information will never truly make us full; what we need is information we can use, that can guide our actions in a meaningful way. Knowledge requires that we pay attention in a way that consuming information does not. Knowledge comes through deep interaction, through a relationship between the knower and the thing known.

We are healthcare communicators—what sort of food are we creating? Do we push ourselves to ensure that information is more than just digestible, and even correct, but is also presented so that people want to, have to engage? Do we truly think about the end user and her needs or experiences? Do we create “disposable interactions” that just help feed a need for consumption rather than a need for usable knowledge? Helping people acquire knowledge is our job, not just giving them access to information. I challenge us all, then, to create more than the next informational Twinkie.

Check out OCHWW’s other SXSW 2013 blog posts:

SXSW 2013: Small Data in a World of Big Data

SXSW 2013: How Zombies Are Helping Us Get Fit

SXSW 2013: BIG Data and Personal Technology at SXSW

SXSW 2013: The Mobile Healthcare Revolution

SXSW 2013: Bad Behavior – the Saga of SXSW
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