PROCESSED FOOD, PROCESSED MEDIA
There are a lot of parallels between late 20th Century food culture and media culture, which become more and more obvious to me as I continue to explore this subject.
With food, it was taken as gospel in the post-war era that better eating was possible with the help of our good friends: Science, Technology and Industry. Amazing advances were made in food technology, particularly in the realm of Processing; maybe your ham originated as a real pig somewhere, once upon a time, but Science, Technology and Industry figured out how to Process that meat to make it (in theory) safer, healthier, tastier, easier to store and transport, and of course, cheaper.
In the 80s and 90s, I grew up eating a lot of science fiction freezer foods, by no real fault of my parents, I think; it was just the zeitgeist of the times. Pizza Rolls, Lunchables, Toaster Struedel… these things tasted good to me, and I wasn’t stricken with E.coli or salmonella, and life was good.
It’s really a remarkably recent development that anyone looked around and went, “hey, maybe processed food isn’t necessarily always a good thing, especially given what we’re observing in these diabetic kids, or their parents, who happen to be developing heart disease and mysterious cancers at alarming rates?
My initial awareness of industrial food technology came from reading the early chapters of Fast Food Nation in, I believe, 2001 – I probably only made it through the first 30 pages, because what it revealed about my dear memories of childhood meals at McDonalds was too disturbing to continue. Then Michael Pollan picked up the mantle, writing bestsellers about food culture for popular audiences, considering the (revolutionary!) idea that humans’ relationships with the foods we eat are important, and worthy of both scrutiny and contemplation.
Today it’s a relatively mainstream idea, at least among American populations of privilege, that where food comes from, and how it’s grown and raised, is important to know. This is primarily important for reasons of health and sustainability, though there are ethical and spiritual dimensions to these questions as well. So, the term Local Food entered the lexicon, as did Whole Foods (and of course a massive eponymous corporation), Slow Food, Organic, Macrobiotic, Free-Range, Grass-Fed… A whole vocabulary for talking about where food comes from and how it’s raised, grown and prepared has become a part of the conversation alongside nutrition, efficiency and economics.
As far as I know, this conversation has yet to take place on any grand scale about the media we consume. Media culture today, in one sense, is still where food culture was in 1988. A typical media product – a cable television show, for example, or a mainstream cineplex movie – is delivered to the consumer at the end of a supply chain thousands of miles long and several years in duration, incorporating the labors of hundreds of people and millions of dollars. Hollywood is very straightforward about being an Industry, and the product it creates is Industrial in every sense of the word. Though filmmaking is nominally an art form, the mechanism of industrial film production usually involves the work of artists only peripherally.
As with our food systems circa 1988, we have wholeheartedly invested as a culture in the phenomenon of Industrial Media Production without seriously questioning the health implications – mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual – of our consumption of this industrial product. Sure, there are periodic outcries about children watching too much tv, playing too many video games – but it’s almost always a quantitative question rather than a qualitative one – where did that television come from? Who made it? How?
When media is processed, just like when food is processed, important elements are taken out, reconstituted, replaced, and reformulated into something resembling the authentic, original reality, but altered in both subtle and unsubtle ways. There’s a big difference between eating too many Doritos and eating too many carrots grown in a community garden. We may very well consume too much industrial, processed media – but the idea of Local Media or Whole Media or Slow Media hasn’t even really entered the conversation.
We have always had the freedom and the power to make our own media – the technology for this has evolved along with human civilization. Once upon a time, it meant standing on a (literal) soapbox in the town square, pontificating about whatever political or philosophical issue was on your mind. Then of course there were pamphleteers, underground printing presses, mimeograph machines, zines, ham radio operators…
While the technology of digital video and Youtube are certainly exciting and full of potential, the real issue around local media is the sense of empowerment or disempowerment to participate in its creation, and an awareness on the part of the community that it exists, and is in fact valuable and meaningful. Of course “social media” has been discussed ad nauseam already, but that discussion is more about the means of connecting than about the nutritional value and/or origin of the media content itself.
So, finally: what do I mean by Local Media, Whole Media, Slow Media?
The conversation about Local Food, as I understand it, posits that food is healthiest when it is consumed near to where it is grown – geographically and temporally. This helps local farmers, cuts down on the use of fossil fuels used in transport, requires less pesticides and genetic modification, and favors biodiversity in crops and nutritional diversity in diet.
Local Media would be produced near to where it is consumed as well, geographically and temporally. It would encourage people to know what’s going on in their own neighborhoods and their own regional cultures, both in terms of real events (documentary) and in people’s creative lives (fictional narrative, storytelling). This already exists as a value in live art forms such as theatre and dance – it’s possible to see someone perform and have a conversation with them afterwards, to watch their artistic growth longitudinally over a period of years or even decades, and to participate as an audience member and even a collaborator in community projects involving the artists to whom one feels drawn.
There’s no reason that this sense of a local art ecology couldn’t apply to media as well, in more than a series of Facebook posts – we all have the power to make media and share it with the people around us. This sense of local sharing already exists in the photos that people post on Facebook or Instagram, but the majority of the media content I see online is still the re-posting of media from far away. Perhaps what’s missing in this equation is a sense of the safety of the local – people are reluctant to share their own creative output when it means they lose control and authorship of that content on a global scale.
I believe that part of the question, also, is this sense of empowerment to create meaningful media – the willingness to share more than snapshots, the idea that local media is actually an important and valuable source of content, rather than snapshots and ironic quotes. The format of Facebook seems to discourage geographic specificity and the development of community identity – which is perhaps a subject for another post.
Whole Media, Like Whole Food, could be described as the opposite of Processed Media – A distinction similar to the distinction between the produce department and the frozen foods department. Most of what you see on television and in the movie theater is intensively processed – if it’s fictional, it was probably written by a team of screenwriters (3-7 of them is standard) in collaboration with the director and the producer, and vetted by a number of studio executives. Then, each line in the script is performed in a number of takes from a number of different angles, carefully lit by a lighting team, and re-assembled in an editing studio by 1-3 editors, again in collaboration with the director and the producer, again vetted by studio executives, then handed off for color adjustment and enhancement, sound editing and mixing, music, and special effects – in short, manipulated by a professional team not all that different than the team of scientists and food engineers who determine the exact color and texture of microwaveable Pizza Roll filling substance.
Whole Media, like fresh, organic produce, is manipulated as little as possible between the “harvest” (if it’s video, where it’s shot) and the consumer. In practice this means minimally edited and altered, to present something that’s ultimately less mediated – or at least, mediated by fewer people and less equipment and technology. I’m not talking about a militant pretense of “purity” or objective reality – all media, like all art, involves the influence, perspective and creativity of at least one individual – but I do believe that it’s possible to preserve much more of the original taste, texture and flavor of the raw footage in the experience of the viewer than in most of the industrial media product that is widely available today.
Slow Food, as I understand it, is presented as an alternative to Fast Food – it is an approach to cooking and eating that requires a great deal of time, energy, knowledge and care, and its inefficiency is treated as a core value, rather than an obstacle to getting food into the stomachs of eaters.
Movies and television require a lot of time and energy to make – thus, the process of making them, on any scale, is usually subjected to the extreme rigors of technological efficiency. Faster is always better, cheaper is always better, and any new technology that helps to streamline the process is celebrated as a modern marvel. This effort has been in overdrive since the 1990s, when digital, nonlinear editing became the norm. Then, in rapid succession, came digital video, HD quality, and of course streaming video online, each of which has been hailed as a revolutionary step in hyperefficient modern cinema.
All of these are valuable tools, and I have a deep appreciation for them – but I also hear regular reports about the pernicious effects of this cheerleading for efficiency within the film industry. When we consume a product that is churned out in the most efficient, cost-effective manner possible, it affects our health, our values, and the rhythms of our lives. We have learned that the most efficient farming techniques do not usually produce the best vegetables and meats, and we know that the finest restaurants don’t advertise the speed with which your dinner reaches your table. Why would our movies and television be any different?
Certainly, just because a movie takes a long time to make doesn’t necessarily make it a good movie, and something brilliant can be produced in an afternoon – I’m not advocating that making media always needs to be a slow and laborious process – but generally speaking, I believe that art shouldn’t be efficient or rushed, and that quantity of output is never a substitute for quality of output. Why even bother to make art, or to share meaningful media, unless you can give it the time and energy that it deserves?
INDUSTRIAL MEDIA vs. MEANINGFUL MEDIA
I don’t claim to have invented any of these ideas, or to be the first to express a preference for these ways of making meaningful media – but as far as I know this discussion isn’t taking place anywhere else, and I think that it should be. If it’s happening elsewhere and I’m missing it, please let me know.
As far as I can tell, all three of these themes – Local Media, Whole Media, Slow Media – are contrary to the conventional wisdom about mainstream media. I’m not terribly optimistic that this will change in the near future, or in my lifetime for that matter – but I think that at the very least, it would be useful and productive to introduce these ideas and this terminology into the discussion about media. It wasn’t that long ago that terms like Macrobiotic or Locavore were bandied about only by the bizarrest of fringe hippies.
Personally, I’m already trying to make film and video based on these values, some of which you can find on this blog. Figuring out how to share the ideas and write about them coherently is an ongoing process for me. Mainly, I want for this to be a part of the conversation – and I would love to have your help with that. Feel free to use what you find here freely, and if you’re willing, include links to this short essay, for the full context. And thanks.