September 24, 2011
By Erin Luhmann
When the demands of e-mail, junk mail, headlines, and upgrades begin to out-pace a user’s attention span, mass media fatigue sets in, often times leading to complacency. At home, the drone of television replaces family conversation and video games become a surrogate child-care provider. What does it take to rediscover inspiration? Can a relationship with media complement, rather than compromise, personal communication skills and creativity?
In his latest book, Fast Media/Media Fast, longtime scholar of media and culture Dr. Thomas Cooper, founder and co-publisher of Media Ethics magazine, invites readers to reclaim their sense of identity and family from the clutches of “media oversaturation.” As the Professor of Visual and Media Arts at Emerson College and founder of the Association for Responsible Communication, he recognized more than a decade ago the value that perspective, afforded by distance, would bring to his field. Resonating Thoreau’s withdrawal to Walden, Cooper encourages readers to take deliberate steps towards simplicity through a media “fast.”
Mindful of an audience that is conditioned to consume more information than it can digest, Dr. Cooper begins by listing the myriad benefits of participating in a media fast. Promises of rediscovering personal identity, sharpening senses, saving time and money, and tapping into hidden talents and energy grab the reader’s attention, like billboards on a freeway, inviting them to pull over. After outlining the guidelines for a successful fast – preparation, documentation, and reflection – he shares a candid account of his own experience. In preview, he reports, “As in a sustained food fast, parts of the body which were previously taxed with heavy workloads were becoming rested and then energized. The brain, nervous system, senses and heart (or emotions) all seemed to be ‘on R & R (42).’”
In contrast to popular notions of fasting, Cooper takes a pragmatic approach that values moderation over elimination – in other words, a media “diet.” There is a fine distinction between a conscientious effort to mediate media intake and reckless abandonment. For instance, Cooper rationalizes, “What I could not do was watch, read or listen to media for entertainment, education, therapy, habit, updates, or all the usual reasons. Hence, about ninety-eight percent of my consumption was cut down. The remaining two percent exposure to mass media came at those times when it was essential to briefly listen, read or look, so as not to disservice, alienate or endanger someone (18).”
The second section raises pertinent questions about reality, thinking, and identity. To what extent are they products of the media? How does one exercise freedom of emotion and action above the influences of the media? Cooper confronts the somber realities of media addiction in society and rouses readers into breaking such habits. Those who recognize the value of this crusade become vital role models for impressionable youth. In addition to showcasing the empowering effects of living “first-hand,” Dr. Cooper gives equal weight to the toll that mass media takes on the environment. He provides concrete examples of daily newspaper waste, and challenges the notion that new technology need not be tested for long-term environmental and health effects that food and drugs are subject to under the FDA.
Photo by Jodiepedia/Creative Commons license
Midway through his book, Dr. Cooper transitions to “group fasting.” He provides a loose manual for anyone interested in leading a group fast, which may entail students, those of a common faith, or members of various clubs and leagues. From the role of a teacher, Cooper suggests a timeframe of five weeks that combines reading from the book with media-free activities and plenty of reflection, in the form of journaling and group discussion. Whichever the scenario, a supportive and flexible environment sets everyone up for success.
Perhaps most provoking is an up-close look at modern societies that permanently fast from mass media. Plain People, such as the Old Order Amish, Mennonite and Brethren, fastidiously resist the encroachment of mass media on moral grounds. Dr. Cooper suggests, “What may best be adopted is not who they are but, rather, that they know who they are and know how to maintain that discrete identity (145).”
Bringing the issue of media penetration back to the individual, Dr. Cooper argues that the constant pressure to accelerate is spiraling out of control. There are physiological, as well as ethical, limits that demand due consideration. In a note of caution, he warns: “’Keep-up’ can make ethics a distant or deceased priority (178).”
After a bout of dismal commentary, Dr. Cooper unwinds with a tribute to the beauty and power of slowing down. Essentially, a media fast is a sure-fire way to reveal life-style ruts that we have fallen into and, more importantly, can choose to avoid in the future.
One of the basic appeals of Fast Media/Media Fast is its accessibility to the general reader. Dr. Cooper does not expect that his book be read from cover-to-cover; rather, he invites readers to skip around and use it as a reference for conducting a media fast (alone or in a group). In the appendices, he provides blocks of questions that can help enrich the fasting experience. Anyone from the curious reader to the provoking teacher stands to benefit from this guidebook. At the same time, Fast Media/Media Fast has a narrative that is substantial enough to read in full, with the understanding that the core principals of the individual media fast are echoed in the segment on group fasting.
In the spirit of simplicity, the subtitle captures the value of this book: “How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life in an Age of Media Overload.” Dr. Cooper relates to the shared human experience of feeling insignificant and losing a sense of identity in a flood of new media. From the beginning, he establishes a relationship of equal status with the reader, using his own fasting experiences as a gauge for offering advice. He even welcomes reader feedback as a valuable contribution to his continuing studies.