JP Rangaswami: Information is food

JP Rangaswami: Information is food

Translator: Timothy Covell
Reviewer: Morton Bast I love my food. And I love information. My children usually tell me that one of those passions is a little more apparent than the other. (Laughter) But what I want to do in the next eight minutes or so is to take you through how those passions developed, the point in my life when the two passions merged, the journey of learning that took place from that point. And one idea I want to leave you with today is what would would happen differently in your life if you saw information the way you saw food? I was born in Calcutta — a family where my father and his father before him were journalists, and they wrote magazines in the English language. That was the family business. And as a result of that, I grew up with books everywhere around the house. And I mean books everywhere around the house. And that’s actually a shop in Calcutta, but it’s a place where we like our books. In fact, I’ve got 38,000 of them now and no Kindle in sight. But growing up as a child with the books around everywhere, with people to talk to about those books, this wasn’t a sort of slightly learned thing. By the time I was 18, I had a deep passion for books. It wasn’t the only passion I had. I was a South Indian brought up in Bengal. And two of the things about Bengal: they like their savory dishes and they like their sweets. So by the time I grew up, again, I had a well-established passion for food. Now I was growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and there were a number of other passions I was also interested in, but these two were the ones that differentiated me. (Laughter) And then life was fine, dandy. Everything was okay, until I got to about the age of 26, and I went to a movie called “Short Circuit.” Oh, some of you have seen it. And apparently it’s being remade right now and it’s going to be coming out next year. It’s the story of this experimental robot which got electrocuted and found a life. And as it ran, this thing was saying, “Give me input. Give me input.” And I suddenly realized that for a robot both information as well as food were the same thing. Energy came to it in some form or shape, data came to it in some form or shape. And I began to think, I wonder what it would be like to start imagining myself as if energy and information were the two things I had as input — as if food and information were similar in some form or shape. I started doing some research then, and this was the 25-year journey, and started finding out that actually human beings as primates have far smaller stomachs than should be the size for our body weight and far larger brains. And as I went to research that even further, I got to a point where I discovered something called the expensive tissue hypothesis. That actually for a given body mass of a primate the metabolic rate was static. What changed was the balance of the tissues available. And two of the most expensive tissues in our human body are nervous tissue and digestive tissue. And what transpired was that people had put forward a hypothesis that was apparently coming up with some fabulous results by about 1995. It’s a lady named Leslie Aiello. And the paper then suggested that you traded one for the other. If you wanted your brain for a particular body mass to be large, you had to live with a smaller gut. That then set me off completely to say, Okay, these two are connected. So I looked at the cultivation of information as if it were food and said, So we were hunter-gathers of information. We moved from that to becoming farmers and cultivators of information. Does that really explain what we’re seeing with the intellectual property battles nowadays? Because those people who were hunter-gatherers in origin wanted to be free and roam and pick up information as they wanted, and those that were in the business of farming information wanted to build fences around it, create ownership and wealth and structure and settlement. So there was always going to be a tension within that. And everything I saw in the cultivation said there were huge fights amongst the foodies between the cultivators and the hunter-gatherers. And this is happening here. When I moved to preparation, this same thing was true, expect that there were two schools. One group of people said you can distill your information, you can extract value, separate it and serve it up, while another group turned around and said no, no you can ferment it. You bring it all together and mash it up and the value emerges that way. The same is again true with information. But consumption was where it started getting really enjoyable. Because what I began to see then was there were so many different ways people would consume this. They’d buy it from the shop as raw ingredients. Do you cook it? Do you have it served to you? Do you go to a restaurant? The same is true every time as I started thinking about information. The analogies were getting crazy — that information had sell-by dates, that people had misused information that wasn’t dated properly and could really make an effect on the stock market, on corporate values, etc. And by this time I was hooked. And this is about 23 years into this process. And I began to start thinking of myself as we start having mash-ups of fact and fiction, docu-dramas, mockumentaries, whatever you call it. Are we going to reach the stage where information has a percentage for fact associated with it? We start labeling information for the fact percentage? Are we going to start looking at what happens when your information source is turned off, as a famine? Which brings me to the final element of this. Clay Shirky once stated that there is no such animal as information overload, there is only filter failure. I put it to you that information, if viewed from the point of food, is never a production issue; you never speak of food overload. Fundamentally it’s a consumption issue. And we have to start thinking about how we create diets within ourselves, exercise within ourselves, to have the faculties to be able to deal with information, to have the labeling to be able to do it responsibly. In fact, when I saw “Supersize Me,” I starting thinking of saying, What would happen if an individual had 31 days nonstop Fox News? (Laughter) Would there be time to be able to work with it? So you start really understanding that you can have diseases, toxins, a need to balance your diet, and once you start looking, and from that point on, everything I have done in terms of the consumption of information, the production of information, the preparation of information, I’ve looked at from the viewpoint of food. It has probably not helped my waistline any because I like practicing on both sides. But I’d like to leave you with just that question: If you began to think of all the information that you consume the way you think of food, what would you do differently? Thank you very much for your time. (Applause)


  1. Amazing! Just as my nutritional diet has worked well over the past year, I intend to make my data diet work, too! Sweets – FB, Games, Fun Internet Content. Vegetables – TedTalks, podcasts, etc. Meat – Textbooks.(I'm still in college!) And of course, water… Books!

    Thank you for the suggestion!

  2. It's a weird way to think about food. The more I do the more it makes sense to me. I just don't want to become fat.

  3. What would an information stool look like?
    Would forgetting be like undigested ideas?
    Is there an IBS for data?

  4. So when we eat a lot of food and not put that energy to use we get fat and have useless energy. If we gain a lot of information and not put it to use, we get useless information?

  5. He is expressing one of the fundamental tenets expressed by Terrence McKenna, in which he states that " information is primary", so true, as long as the information is True.

  6. Relevant talk. I'm in total frustration over the fact that information intake is limited and that I need to prioritize. There's so much I want to learn, but so little time to do so. If scientists were working on virtual extention of the human mind with respect to dataflow, processing and storage, I'd volunteer as a test subject.

  7. The talk made no sense whatsoever. And it didn't teach anything usefull. The first talk i disliked.

  8. This totally explains America's decline in intelligence. As we've gotten fatter, we've also gotten dumber.

  9. Unfortunately you can point people to the truth and give them 1000's of pieces of evidence but propaganda and brainwashing can often be more powerful than the truth.
    I have also observed that people are more likely to open there minds when they find the information for themselves.
    It can be very difficult watching people repeat the atrocities of history. It is better to reserve you're opinions instead of trying to force them on people and wait for the right opportunities to share the truth.

  10. This was great, short, sweet and simple. Strangely enough, just last night I thought to myself about being careful as to what information I feed my mind. Information IS food for the mind. It allows us to become alive!

  11. I like the idea that getting outdated information is like eating expired food.

    What does that make the Bible? I now imagine it as a tin of 2000 years old conserved spam. And the Quran as a 1400 year old cheese – just imagine the stench…

  12. i love to see indian names on hollywood movies end titles, but there was only one name which is his name.

  13. Hmm… I think of the Bible as water; like a river. An abundant, living source of sustenance. While it appears relatively unchanged over the centuries, if you let it carry you, you'll find it takes you places.

  14. I wish all the damn conspiracy theorists that hunt me down for denying the new world order's existence would watch this.

  15. lol I don't deny that bankers intentionally fuck us over, but they do it because they are just making money for fucking us over. if they could make more money doing something that benefited humanity, they would do that but in the current system, the way to make money is to fuck everyone else over!

    and they hunt me down because I prove them wrong time and time again xD
    I see the way the world works as the result of a flawed system, they think the system was created flawed on purpose xD

  16. we are indeed, but there are groups out there trying to get the world to come out of it's apathetic state and realise the mess we're in can be solved by changing the system or making a new one altogether

    look for the film "owned and operated" on youtube, it's a good introduction to such groups, not focusing on a single group as other similar films such as zeitgeist addendum do. It's all about making the world empathic and aware 🙂

  17. So would you say the Odyssey, or Don Quixote, or Hamlet are also rotten foods? The error in your metaphor is the assumption that literature is the same as other information.

  18. There is such a thing as taking an analogy too far. And also taking a joke for more than it is.

    … And you just did both.

  19. The Quran calls for interest-free banking system

    The current system takes £100,000 of people's money, makes £40,000 profit & give the people £3,000 i.e 3% return.
    Islam allows the banks to make £40,000 profit, keep £3,000 for themselves, and return £37,000 to the people & renames 'interest' to 'profit share'.

    These are the reasons why Mark Twain said "My schooling did not come in the way of my education"

    This is enough info for those who are objective.

  20. A very interesting comparison, junk information is vomited out by mass media organisations and political ones too, too keep us feeling full for a short while and then hungry fo more junk info! Whereas quality info may cost more, and be harder to find but its consumption makes us more intellignent and less inclined to believe the junk!!

  21. We can use wine as well – in this example it has clearly turned to vinegar.

    But Lucretius is keeping just fine and I often take a little sip of his amazing poetry about how the world works.

  22. in that case, the Bhagavad Gita is like fine wine – it only gets better with age. Everything Whitey writes is junk food.

  23. Oh man – ypu are like nr 8 or something making a witty comment that this or that holy book is like old wine – and I have answered the rest with a witty remark that 2000 year old wine turns to vinegar. But now I'm so fed up with writing it that I'm seriously considering deleting the comment.

    I'll tell you this – do not ever wish for one on your comments to be thumbed up on a TED talk.

  24. Yeah, and vinegar can be used in salads. Junk food only destroys the body. Fuck your comments and fuck you.

  25. What the hell is wrong with people?

    Was I unkind in the comment I sent you? Did I write something nasty about you? Did I call you names or something?

    No – all I did was insinuate that your holy book may be slightly past the sell by date and you react like this. Religion truly is poison for the mind!

    It seems to me that your old vinegar has given you a nasty bellyache and you are now burping me in the face. Take your religious hatred elsewhere.

  26. Probably – and if I drew Krishna with a bomb in his hat or something you would probably think it reasonable to bomb the Danish embassy…

    Seriously – what the hell is wrong with you?

  27. Um, Krishna didn't wear a turban. But anyway, Fuck Krishna. I'd probably draw a picture of the Danish monarchy fucking one another with a bomb underneath their royal bed.

  28. Bible Quran or any ancient books we can think of as good old red wine..and the older it gets . it.keeps getting bette..the only thing is we need to know how to purify it remove the debris..and take what is needed and consume it to a level that we enjoy it and its healthy..the problem of our society is not the wine..the problem is how we consume it…

  29. Compared to De Rerum Natura by Lucretius or The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam the Bible falls miserably short on both knowledge, wisdom, morality, and beauty.

  30. Good perspectives, esp. looking at Info Overload as actually a Filter Program. Establishing good filters for our consumption of Info. @Peta_de_Aztlan

  31. The Bible is like wine, it gets better with age. But like wine, you really don't need it in your life, and too much will make you a pain to work with, will ruin your life and stop your life. You can feel good and be healthier without drinking it.

  32. yeah in a way u are can do it..but it depends on what else you are consuming other than wine…If u are eating MAc D everyday i guess the current print or Electronic media has a lot of junk…which we consume knowingly or unknowingly..then we need some wine for proper digestion of the junk…. anyway I prefer some wine these tons of reality shows..and this crazy news channels..which always makes us feel "ooh Shut" ..

  33. but we dont have a choice in this world…we need to consume the junk to understand the current world as what it is and what is happening here..and we need some wine so that we dont get too carried away by what we consume and end up with a 50 waist line… the only difference between food and information is thtat food only affect yourself, but information is infective and can affect everyone exposed to Your attitude and idea does matter to 10 people around you..

  34. so in other words and shortly If you believe everything TV amusement box say you get sick like from Macdonald. watch not only what you eat, but also what you're watching. Media get payed for to find ways in our heads and it is not valuable information supporting our life's. Their agenda to is to make impression that they do good serve public. Truth is if they will all disappear no one would feel a thing just a lots of stuff with out owners and you are not in debt any more to no one :O)

  35. I guess massage is stop consume information from main stream media it is not nourishing your life.
    Listen to your government is like eating in MacDonald’s you will get sick for some ones profit.

  36. This was a fantastic Ted talk! Wish I could like it 100 times! I totally agree, I think if we viewed information like food, we would know that a healthy diet , would be to harvest from many sources. Sometimes a little feast is ok every now and then.

  37. I love how the audience intellects reacts to the Fox news question. Information is the Conservative's wrost foe.

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