Jennifer Rauch's book
Slow Media: Why Slow is Satisfying, Sustainable and Smart
(Oxford) recently won a silver Nautilus award, in honor of its contribution to building a better world and its potent message of hope, wisdom, and joy. (Previous winners include Barbara Kingsolver, Andrew Weil, Jeremy Rifkin, Frances Moore Lappe, Eckhart Tolle, David Korten, Naomi Wolf, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.) Here, Mary Rothschild, a media literacy advocate and founder of Healthy Media Choices, talks with Jennifer Rauch about Slow Food, ethical consumption, the politics of time, and her six-month experiment in living offline.
MARY ROTHSCHILD: You say that the genesis of the book Slow Media
was in some changes in your own academic life and work, that it came from personal musings and personal efforts. Can you elaborate on that?
JENNIFER RAUCH: My unplugging experiment, or my "slow media project," as I called it at the time. I felt like my life was becoming a little one-dimensional -- literally, as flat as a screen. I was spending so much time just staring at computers, staring at phones, and I wanted to be a more well-rounded person. I've always had all kinds of hobbies: making art, going places in the world, experiencing things, and interacting with people face to face.
Whether it was the fault of the Internet or my own fault for letting myself get sucked into the Internet, I don't know. I decided that if I really wanted to engage in all of these other realms of human life, the best way to do it was to just say, "Okay, no more Internet." Maybe that's a slightly extreme version. But it was a fun experiment and I really enjoyed the challenge.
When I told people that I was going off of digital media for six months, a lot of them told me it wasn't possible, or it wasn't desirable. You know, why was I "punishing" myself? Why would I deny myself the pleasures of digital media and connection? I thought of it as pursuing different pleasures instead of this one activity that has kind of become the default.
My appreciation for digital media was actually enhanced by getting away from it. One way of thinking about it—to use that Ben Franklin idea, philosophical denial
—is that denial is like the the Yin to the Yang of pleasure. By not having a thing, then having it again, you appreciate it all the more.
MARY: How long did you give up digital media for? What did you find, as you gave it up? What did you need to do?
JENNIFER: The total project was about a year. It took me six months to plan for going offline. There were things like getting a landline installed, getting a fax machine, and warning people of what was going to happen. You can't go into it cold turkey. So for six months, I was planning and also had given up my cell phone. Then, for the second six months, it was no computers, no digital media. I didn't watch DVDs. I didn't read ebooks. I didn't go on the Internet—frame it as a positive ritual rather than in a negative way. It wasn't about what I was denying myself. It was about what I was making room for
. I was making space to leave my house and be out in the world. I was creating room to listen to records and to read books, instead of having hours sucked up and just surfing the web.
MARY: I appreciate the way you say unplugging does not feel like self denial when you focus on what you're getting, instead of what you giving up. It's more a question of the glass being half full, rather than half empty when you pursue limiting or being more intentional about digital media use.
JENNIFER: Right! A lot of people like to focus on the avoidance
part of it. They talk about unplugging
and about digital detox
, when it's really about what you're embracing. I saw it is replugging
—that I was replugging into relationships with people, into nature, and into my community.
MARY: Your book also draws upon the "good, clean, fair" model from the Slow Food movement. Can you say more about how that metaphor transfers over to your Slow Media ideas?
JENNIFER: A lot of people enjoy the fruits of Slow Food without necessarily knowing that there's an organization behind it that fostered all of these networks of greenmarkets and artisanal producers and promoted that kind of food culture. Even people who know about this organization haven't necessarily read books by one of the co-founders of Slow Food, Carlo Petrini, who theorizes some principles on which the movement is based.
One thing that he came up with is this slogan "good, clean, fair," which I really like because it emphasizes the sustainability aspect. When a lot of people are talking about food—or about media, or journalism—they're thinking about the quality
of it. Does it taste good? Is it healthy? Those things are important, of course, but the clean and the fair brings sustainability into it.
"Clean" represents whether it's environmentally sustainable, produced in ways that take care of the earth and don't create pollution or waste natural resources. "Fair" is the ethical part of it. Are the people who are making this food or this media earning a living wage? Are they being treated humanely? Do they have safe working conditions?
It's a helpful, ethical framework for thinking about the way that we produce media. The "good" is still dominating the conversation, but we're starting to think about the "clean" and the "fair." People are realizing that "virtual" media aren't as virtual as we think they are. There's a scholar named Richard Maxwell who's done a lot of important work on this, who says that your smartphone should have a tailpipe on it, so you understand that it is connected to the physical infrastructure that affects our planet. It's not just a magical box.
MARY: Let’s go further into the environmental part. Even though I've read Antonio Lopez’s The Media Ecosystem
, it's was still shocking to me, especially when you said that when Ted Smith, the co-founder of the International Campaign for Responsible Technology, looks at his smartphone, "He sees the faces of Indonesian or Ugandan miners who unearth the raw materials, of Chinese laborers who work long shifts exposed to hazardous chemicals, of the people who handle digital debris in a dump halfway around the world." That was so riveting—to see not just that coal is connected with all the things we associate with climate change, etc. but also that there are real human beings whose health and well-being and economic level are all impacted by the attitudes we have toward our throw-away digital media. It's really compelling.
JENNIFER: It's great to hear that that comment resonated so deeply with you, and hopefully with others! Digital products are just like any other product. We've become aware of the role that sweatshops and unethical practices play in making our sneakers and our clothes, but for some reason we think that media is outside of that material realm. We think that experiencing media virtually is more environmentally friendly than reading a book or watching a physical DVD—that somehow physical resources don't go into making them. We're just starting to realize that that's not true.
When I tell students this, they all feel guilty that they're watching as much Netflix as they are, which doesn't mean that they're going to stop.
My point is that we shouldn't
feel guilty, because we didn't create this structure. In a lot of cases we didn't even know about it. The past few years, it's been entering the public agenda, and there has been a lot of activism like Ted Smith at ICRT and the Good Electronics Network. Greenpeace has been doing a lot of work on this issue, to hold these companies accountable. Some companies are trying to improve the way they operate—to be more dependent on renewable resources instead of fossil fuels, for instance.
There has been some change, though we're nowhere near where we need to be. These areas of the economy are growing, and digital media is only going to have a bigger and bigger impact on our use of natural resources and on pollution. Electronics production and disposal industry involves a lot of toxic resources. We might only use our devices for two years, but they continue their life cycles. Many wind up in landfills, where these toxins are going to sit around seeping into our ecosystem for centuries.
MARY: It's pretty sobering. Right after I read your book, I got a promo from a publishing company that said, "Save a tree and read an ebook." There it is! I used to say to my students at Fordham, what if we call the cloud "the sewer?" Would we think differently about it, if we thought, "I'm just going to put it in the sewer."?
JENNIFER: The cloud is such an evocative metaphor. It's almost heaven.
MARY: A lot of religious iconography can come to mind about clouds, right? I think it isn't lost on the people who have developed these things. I wonder is there's a crisis of conscience within the corporations themselves. One of the fundamental things about our American corporate structure is that by law, profit has to be the first priority of a corporation. It's built into the DNA of the way our whole capitalist system works.
JENNIFER: One of my goals with this book is to focus on solutions and not just talk about problems. When it comes to Slow Media, which is intertwined with so many other things that we're dealing with in our culture, our society—a lot of what needs to happen is collective. I talked about some individual solutions, what you can do in your individual life. But obviously, our media uses are collective. If I want to take a break from media, that's great, but in a way, I need your
permission to do that.
Here's an example: I corresponded with an owner of a local bookstore recently. When I sent her an email, she replied, "I don't use computers on Sundays and Mondays, so I won't be able to get back to you until Tuesday." I thought that was so terrific. Not just that she does that for herself, but that she was communicating it to me so I knew what expectation to have her. And also to help normalize that behavior. If I want to take a break, I need you
to give me that break—and I should give you a break, too. We all need to support each other and help foster these changes.
At the collective level, there's been more attention to symptoms than to the causes of our cultural illnesses. You have a lot of corporations setting up yoga rooms and mindful media classes. They're helping employees deal with stress that is created by the nature of their job. Why not change the nature of the job, so it doesn't create the stress? Then people won't be crying out for yoga or meditation at work. It also robs yoga, meditation, a lot of other practices of the spiritual aspects. It has become an instrumental tool for productivity rather than nurturing the divine or bringing you in touch with something beyond. You don't need to justify your spiritual life or well-being by it being in the productivity interests of your company.
There needs to be more movement in that regard. Corporations, like you said, are basically growth-oriented, profit-oriented. There's not much chance in the near term of that changing—maybe with the exception of B corporations that are actually structured to take sustainability issues into account. In the absence of governments regulating industries, there is also little chance of telling them they have to act responsibly, which is starting to happen in Europe. You've had places like France who have said that employees can't be required to check their email on weekends, unless you pay them extra. Media is work
. There may be some play mixed into it, but then doesn't let it off the hook. Environmentally, European governments have been forcing producers to be responsible for taking back the products that they create. If you're going to make a product that's toxic to the planet, then either make it less toxic or deal with the aftermath. The producer has this extended responsibility; you're responsible for if from the moment of creation to the moment of its death, which is not the moment that people stop using it.
The government does need to do more. There's actually a big movement now towards a four-day work week. It'll probably take a while for that to yield any concrete benefits for us, but I'm heartened by that. Because basically, the reason that a lot of people think that they can't go slowly—that they can't afford to slow down—is because they don't have enough time. You have to address that problem: the politics of time.
MARY: Yes, you say that the fact that some people have more disposable time than others needs to be addressed as a political issue. When you step back, there are people who are making a lot of money, who are always expected to be available. And there are people on the other end of the economic ladder, who also are always expected to be available—nannies, for example. There's the always-on personal life as well as professional life, especially for women. How do we address this as a political issue?
JENNIFER: People at the lower end of the economic spectrum don't get paid an adequate wage; they have to work 60 or 80 hours to make enough money to care for their families. At a different end of the scale, a lot of the practices that I write about in this book are being promoted by people who are professionals, whom we might consider affluent, but because of the recategorization of professionals as "managerial" they don't get overtime pay. Even if they're making a six-figure salary, they're still working 60-80 hours a week. Everybody is feeling the time squeeze.
MARY: On the other side, there's the impact on development of children whose parents are unavailable—either they're in the room, but they're on a device, or they're just not there. There are so many levels where we pay for it, in terms of life quality.
JENNIFER: And being involved in your community and civic organizations and things like that. A lot of people say they just don't have time. Although, people do find time to watch a lot of television...
MARY: I was just about to say! One of the stunning statistics you bring in is that something like 80% of the web band is streaming videos. It really speaks to where we are in terms of our attention, which is a major issue underneath all of this. Where are our priorities?
JENNIFER: A lot of education needs to happen in regards to media, and in regards to news. Slow Food has done an amazing job of educating people about the food cycle—where their food comes from, who makes it, how they make it, and the effect that it has on the environment.
MARY: That is a great model to follow. Just how they did they educate us? I think of Annie Leonard with her "Story of Stuff," which is very accessible and visual. It helped people to see that cycle very graphically. I think there's hope there. Do you see anything happening on the political level in terms of educating people or re-prioritizing things or bringing information to people?
JENNIFER: Some states have experimented with giving government employees four-day work weeks. There's a lot of evidence that people get as much work done in four days as in five. There's also the opportunity for savings—we don't have to keep buildings and structures and lights running as long. It might push the four-day workweek forward if we can say it doesn't harm productivity and it actually might help budgets—and we can point to the externalities like it being good for people and helping them deal with stress.
There's research that shows that people who work less make better environmental decisions. Partly that might have to do with affluence, with education, with socioeconomic status. Doing the right thing takes time
. People who work longer hours eat out more, don't have time to garden or grow their own food. They don't have time to research on the origins of the things they're buying and to find things that are made responsibly.
All these problems are so interconnected. If Slow Media is going to flourish—and all of the other things that we've been talking about here—there have to be society-wide changes, cultural shifts, and political shifts. What's heartening to me is that so many people are talking about similar changes that need to happen. It's a Venn diagram with a really big overlap. If we're coming at the problem from enough different angles, it gives the public more opportunities to get involved in helping push for the change that we need.
MARY: I was reminded recently that 40 years ago, when I started baking bread, 100% whole wheat bread was a phenomenon! But it was only in Prevention
, this little magazine that was about composting and healthy food and how to make a whole wheat bread. Prevention
and the Rodale people were talking about that stuff at that time, but it wasn't really on the street.
It took a couple of generations for us to come to the point where healthier food choices, such as whole wheat bread, have become commonplace. There has been a tremendous societal shift in just understanding that a lot of what is in food aisles is not nourishing. I think that's gone right down to all of the socioeconomic levels. It is a little bit of a drip-drip-drip—flood situation. You just have to do what you can do and work toward communal efforts.
JENNIFER: My hometown in Pennsylvania is the birthplace of Rodale Publishing. I grew up with Prevention
—organic gardening and all of that. When I was in grade school, we used to take field trips to see them compost!
MARY: Oh, wow. No wonder you are the way you are.
Jennifer Rauch is an educator, scholar and author. She is a professor of journalism and communication studies at Long Island University, Brooklyn. She created the blog Slow Media and curated the resource guide Unplug Your Class.