a human-scale alternative to Instagram
Seeking a cure for "it doesn't affect me" syndrome. Plus: book prize news! And wonder + urgency.
[Hi there—this is undefended / undefeated, a newsletter from Sara Hendren about ideas at the heart of material culture. You signed up for it at some point. It’s free, so please feel free to share it. And the unsubscribe button is at the bottom.]
I joined up with New_Public—an effort to build better digital public spaces—as a contributing editor to their magazine, and I wrote a piece on looking for a human-scale alternative to Instagram for their inaugural issue. Its theme is decentralization. I encourage you to follow along if, like me, you’re tired of folks just complaining about the systems-level ills of the social internet. New_Public will be making and thinking, convening and prototyping their way to more dimensional forms of civic digital life. I’m glad to be part of it.
My piece is a modest personal essay about how I started using Notabli (shown in the photo above) for sharing images with a small set of family and friends in lieu of Instagram—how its designed less-ness is a form of calm technology:
Notabli offers a sturdy few interactive possibilities. In the app itself, there are likes, comments, and easy archiving, but zero of the glitter and charisma that make an app its own never-ending destination. There’s no third-party data harvesting, which is reassuring to parents, yes—but there are also no advertisements, no interactivity around comments, no direct messages, no ephemeral features like Stories, no tricked-out graphics. It’s a very slow, very placid feed. And the app isn’t even a necessity: You can sign up for a digest of images (or videos, or sound recordings) sent by email at regular intervals. (My parents, in their 70s and without a shred of interest in Facebook or Instagram or really even digital life in general, love the email bit: an uncomplicated and uncluttered delivery of digital media straight to their door.)
I acknowledge in the piece that there are lots of ways to design some less into your social media. You can de-metricate and privatize your interactions; there’s also Freedom and similar apps for limiting your usage. But instead of mere containment when it comes to big tech, I like to point folks to good alternatives that are hiding in plain sight—in this case, a human-scale app that’s obscured by its domesticated marketing to parents.
In the end, though, I’m not so much trying to make a principled argument in that essay. I’m making a kind of resigned concession to a McLuhan 101 reality: The medium really is the message. And I’m old enough to be pretty sober about human behavior—including my own human behavior—in the face of magnetic shiny objects, and therefore to take seriously the matter of individual agency in contending with them. These tools are designed to affect behavior, and not just in the so-called “content” they deliver! So few people want to take seriously the idea that the very architecture of the tool really does shape our experience. Our experience, not just other people’s. With a longer word count, I would have explored a cognitive fallacy especially prevalent among smartypants types: the tacit assumption that an abstract understanding of some technological process—medium-as-message, say, or the vicissitudes of algorithmic attention, or intermittent rewards for refreshing the feed—will automatically confer immunity to that process. To put it simply: “I can name that effect, so it doesn’t affect me” syndrome.*
The older I get, the more ardently I seek a right-sized model of self in my mind’s eye: not too big and not too small. Yes, big problems with capital aren’t addressable by ethics at an individual scale. We shouldn’t render our sense of self too big, making it responsible for systemic rot. And yet: Our choices help us form an inner life that’s variously deepened or flattened by everyday habit. And our choices do form a lifetime; they also form nodes in our networks as social contagion, for good or ill. In my haste to recognize systems-level operations, I don’t want to render the self too small, discounting the dignity of making conscious choices. Choices about our many freedoms, and the role of limits, in turn, to set free.
Anyway, let me know what you think.
In other news: My book won a Science in Society Journalism award! I’m just thrilled. The judges said that “few books are capable of making you see the world in a fundamentally new way, and this is one of them,” which is the best compliment I could hope for.
Next month will bring the first in-person event of any kind around the book(!), but that recognition is a dream, because I had in mind a popular science reader during the writing process. I even drew up this schematic below and pinned it to a bulletin board above my desk. It was a way of organizing my approach to the material: design as an unexpected side door to the surprising work of wonder, seeing our familiar surroundings with new eyes. And then, through rhetorical stitchery, trying to move the reader along to see the urgency of access and its many human questions: What is a good and happy life, with and without assistance? Where is robust independence worth seeking, and where does interdependence make us whole?
You can see that I had in mind the writer Oliver Sacks, a humanitarian master at the “wonder” piece, alongside Atul Gawande’s workaday writing for the sake of urgency. Both are popular science writers whose work has nourished mine, so the recognition by the National Association of Science Writers is particularly welcome.
Thanks for reading. Much more to come!
* Does a name for this fallacy exist? I asked my colleague in psychology, Jonathan Adler, about it and he asked his community, but so far no smoking gun. Maybe it’s a sub-genre of one of Kahneman’s cognitive biases? If you know, please do say.