UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The "slow food" movement began in 1989 with the goal of building an alternative system of distributing and growing food. Proponents of the approach said the industrial system was unhealthy and unsustainable for animals, crops and the people receiving the products.
Over the years, movements toward more community-supported agriculture and farm-to-table restaurants grew out of the slow food movement, as did the growing availability of organic options. As a result, people now have the option to make educated choices about the food they put on the table and into their bodies.
Now, imagine the same movement taking place again — only for media.
Some people spend a large portion of their lives staring at their screens, taking in copious amounts of information and getting absorbed into a digital world. Then, after a year or two glued to a device, a new upgrade comes out and everyone ditches their now outdated devices for the latest version.
Proponents of a "slow media" approach believe every time someone streams a video on Netflix or throws away a phone and buys a new one, that is not only having negative effects on the individual’s own mind and perspective of the world, but also on the environment.
That is what Jennifer Rauch, a 1991 Penn State alumna and current professor of journalism and communication studies at Long Island University Brooklyn, writes about in her book, "Slow Media: Why Slow is Satisfying, Sustainable & Smart." Rauch’s book will be available for purchase in bookstores and online Sept. 25.
“An important part of it is realizing slow isn’t really about pace, about doing things slowly all the time — how boring would that be?” Rauch said. “Slow really means sustainable, both in food and in media. It means doing what is sustainable for human beings and human life as well as for the environment that we live in.”
Rauch said the study abroad program she participated in while a undergraduate student at Penn State was an experience that, in a roundabout way, eventually led her to the concept of slow media. While studying at the University of Manchester, she was able to question her assumptions about culture and media, looking at all of her American societal experiences from the outside.
When she later learned about the slow food movement, she started thinking about how the same principles could be applied to the way people create and consume media.
“It is a gradual path — it’s not going to be a revolution that happens at once,” Rauch said. “To me, it was interesting in a conceptual way, but also in the way that it might guide people in making good practical decisions in their daily lives. Things like looking for better media products and experiences that offer quality over quantity.”
She said there are two main pieces of the slow media concept. The human piece is about using media in a way that doesn’t stress or burn users out. It's a movement toward using media in more of a limited and intentional manner. The second piece of slow media is understanding how media usage affects the planet.
“Digital media use up a lot of energy, including fossil fuel energy,” Rauch said. “It uses up lots of natural resources, minerals that we take out of the ground, water that is used to produce them, but then also, when we’re done with digital devices, they go into landfills and they do a lot of ecological harm there.”
Rauch said there are massive data centers the size of small cities all over the world that use up an enormous amount of energy to allow everyone to use the internet. These data centers are one of the fastest growing sources of non-renewable energy usage, she said. She said nonprofit organizations like Greenpeace have tracked energy usage and found video streaming to be an highly resource-intensive activity.
“There’s this myth that digital media does us a lot of good without having any negative repercussions,” Rauch said. “There’s also a myth that digital media are more ecofriendly, but they actually do a lot of harm. There’s potential for us to use them smarter and to use them in more sustainable ways, but society needs a little push to start actually doing that and to help digital media actually live up to its promise. “
Rauch also said the lifespan of technology has decreased over the years. People used to be able to keep a television set or a radio for 10 to 20 years. Now, people often go through cell phones every two years and go through tablets and laptops every five or six. Usually, these devices just get thrown away and put in landfills in third-world countries, even if the person throwing it away thinks they’re recycling it.
“In an advanced nation where people buy a new phone every two years on a pretty regular basis, we’re taking a lot of resources out of the ground and we’re also throwing them back into the ground, to think of it on a geological scale like that,” Rauch said. “We’re really having a big impact on the planet in the long-term.”
She said as consumers we can take part in the slow media movement by purchasing products made from more sustainable materials, or products designed to have longer lifespans. She said another great habit to get into is setting aside time to be “unplugged” or disconnected from the internet and using that time to interact with other people or the environment.
“With slow media, I’m not proposing people be slow all the time and only read printed magazines, but that you find small times or spaces in which you can get away from the world in digital media and appreciate this other realm of the senses,” Rauch said. “By going back and forth between the digital and analog world, you can have a fuller life.”
Rauch originally thought she coined the phrase "slow media" for her book, but upon further research, found to her delight that other people around the world have talked about the movement.
“These ideas have been floating around for 10 years, and nobody has really brought them together in a really comprehensive way,” Rauch said. “So I figured I should be the one to do it. My goal is really just to share all of these new ideas and practices with people. I think readers of all kinds will enjoy having these tools for thinking about media differently and ways of living their lives that are more satisfying and sustainable.”