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Sustainability in the Media Ecosystem

This activity authored by Bill Sonnega, St. Olaf College, developed in the course "Media and Contemporary Culture."
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Students will conduct a comprehensive MEDIA INVENTORY of all forms of mass media in their lives, followed by a MEDIA DEPRIVATION, in which they willingly deprive themselves of mass media for a period of 72 hours.

Learning Goals

The premise is that it is now productive to consider the implications of "media ecology." This means simply that the current mass media, in its pervasive and global effects, constitutes a natural environment, or ecosystem, in which we navigate and negotiate the conditions of being human. To the extent that we can study our relationship to this environment, through reflecting on our personal media use and the demonstrable effects of media on others, we can consider how media either helps or hinders human development, and what measures we should take to promote positive and sustainable uses of market-driven media programming. The goal of such study is to consider the moral and ethical implications of our media use, and the extent to which our personal choices promote sustainable policies and practices in the media ecosystem as a whole.

Context for Use


In this assignment you will create a comprehensive inventory of all of the media you currently own, subscribe to, are a member of, and routinely or periodically purchase or use. How many and what type of media technologies do have present right now in your dorm room, apartment or home? List them. How many and which newspapers or magazines, actual or virtual, do you subscribe to or occasionally purchase? How many and which online forums, chat rooms, or bulletin boards are you a member of? List these forms of media, as well. When you have completed your list of all of your media, monitor your media use closely for seventy-two hours, noting in detail the number of hours and minutes you spend with each media form. This includes the time you spend reading and responding to email, surfing the web, talking on cell phones, listening to ipods or the radio, playing video games, watching television or movies, as well as reading posters and billboards and spending time in places in which background music is present. Keep a notepad and watch or clock with you at all times: make note of your beginning and ending times with each activity-be precise. At the end of seventy-two hours, add up the total time you have spent interacting with media. Given the prevalence of mutli-mediating (using the computer, stereo, cell phone and television simultaneously, for instance), this figure may exceed seventy-two hours. If it does, don't worry, you are not alone.


In order to gain some perspective on how your interactions with media affect you chose a seventy-two hour period of time during which you will do entirely without mass media. (One-on-one media, such as telephone conversations or email, are permissible, though should be kept to a minimum.) Leave the television off; play no DVD's; walk or drive to class and work without turning on the radio or your ipod; don't read the newspaper or magazines; and so forth. You may need to make some compromises for this assignment-billboards or posters on campus may be unavoidable; other classes may assign you to read something; and those who live nearby may have to be persuaded to cooperate. The more effort you make in depriving yourself of mass media for three days (and nights), the more heightened will be your perceptions of the role of media in your life. This may be difficult, but give it a good faith effort.

Description and Teaching Materials

No special teaching materials are needed for this activity. It is helpful to preface this activity with reading and discussion of:

Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan
Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman
Mediated, Thomas de Zengotita
MEDIA_ECOLOGY.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 24kB Nov13 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students should be given opportunities to compare notes during both the Inventory and Deprivation parts of this activity.


Assessment typically involves a short reflective essay that seeks to integrate, in personal and theoretical terms (supported by readings in McLuhan, Postman and de Zengotita), the Inventory and Deprivation parts of the activity.

References and Resources