#178: I Can See It (But I Can't Feel It)
The Blackbird Spyplane newsletter recently made a valuable contribution to the pantheon of essays about how the internet has transformed the physical world: a hopeful manifesto in praise of the “Un-Grammable Hang Zone,” the definition of which will be obvious if you’ve spent enough time in the Instagram-optimized settings that have proliferated in cities during the past decade—places that BBSP describes as a “high-efficiency, low-humanity kind of eatery where you point yr phone at a QR code and do contactless payment before eating a room-temp grain bowl under a pink neon sign that says ‘Living My Best Life’ in cursive.” Beyond their aesthetic qualities, these environments actually make people behave differently; people enter them “dazed and automaton-like” and take bleak selfies. Two years ago, Molly Fischer ventured a similar description of this style in digital and physical space, calling it the Millennial Aesthetic. Affirming the interchangeability of “millennial” and “Instragrammable” as descriptors, Fischer pinpoints the force that really drives them: Instagrammable “does not mean ‘beautiful’ or even quite ‘photogenic’; it means something more like ‘readable.’ The viewer could scroll past an image and still grasp its meaning, e.g., ‘I saw fireworks,’ ‘I am on vacation,’ or ‘I have friends.’” If Instagram as a medium demands readability, in other words, it puts pressure on the physical environment to simplify itself accordingly, at least in the long run.
The opposite of the Un-Grammable Hang Zone, then, is easy to identify—it’s legible, as we would expect. Fischer published her piece the week before the United States started shutting down due to COVID, on March 4, 2020—the final days of the Old Normal—while Blackbird Spyplane made its observation just last month, noting that the pandemic only accelerated “this dismal impoverishment of gathering spaces.” Ironically, the pandemic derailed Instagram in a way that it hasn’t yet recovered from: The era of social media undersharing is not over, even if it peaked in 2020, and the post-influencer preference for online anonymity is as prevalent as ever. But the alignment between the two essays suggests that the Millennial Aesthetic serves more than one objective—visual legibility and DTC/fast-casual efficiency go hand-in-hand. The former facilitates marketing while the latter maximizes revenue by keeping us moving (and together, the two facilitate “scale”). The pandemic elevated both priorities above the more noble pursuit of just hanging out, a pastime that COVID momentarily reframed as a vice. But the resurgence of hanging out, as it were1, brought new norms with it, and un-optimized post-Instagrammability is a welcome development. We emerge from the pandemic’s depths with a revitalized appreciation for what BBSP calls “the kind of warm, welcoming, unpretentious place that proliferated in the ‘90s, back in the quainter, earlier days of globalization.”
Despite the best of intentions, that phrasing—particularly the ‘90s mention—trips my nostalgia alarm. You can’t go home again, after all, and if we return to the early days of globalization, we will do so using 2022 technology. It’s more likely that a new logic is replacing “Instagrammable,” no longer visual but equally machine-readable. We may have begun to collectively sour on obvious Instagram bait, but we have moved on to the kinds of legibility that the post-Instagram internet still encourages. Our present reality is thoroughly mediated by memes and meme logic (probably more than ever), and our visual landscape has transitioned from the picturesque to the informational. There is a popular restaurant in my neighborhood, Bernie’s, that I would characterize as relatively un-grammable, and I think BBSP would too—it has the “suburban-Milwaukee lookin’-ass bar & grill style stained-glass fixture” aesthetic that the essay praises. The restaurant has nonetheless become wildly popular, recently described as part of a “haute suburbia” fad (although that article says it’s too curated to be an un-grammable hang zone). I am publishing this newsletter from [redacted], a nearby establishment that (in my humble opinion) is at least 85 percent as good but less than 50 percent as crowded and supremely un-grammable. Bernie’s became a sort of meme while its neighbors didn’t, and while visual appeal played a negligible role in that divergence, the internet is still an accelerant of it. Maybe this is why the word “vibes” is everywhere now—it’s the placeholder for all of the variables we can’t see.
Last month I wrote an essay for design agency Modem Works about the digital transformation of the home and the need for new domestic interfaces that are less intrusive. Check it out here.
This newsletter is supported by paid subscriptions, which give you access to an extra issue (in addition to the free Friday issue). Sign up to get the full experience.
Adam Tooze on the Canadian trucker protests and the weaponization of infrastructure. The protests reveal “the limits of public control of public space when not just human bodies but substantial objects—machines, barricades, vehicles, coal shipments, etc—are brought into play on the side of protestors.”
No Signal: Amazing supercut of movie scenes in which characters can’t get a mobile phone signal as a plot device: “You got a signal here?” “No, just games.”
My new favorite Twitter account is Midwest Modern, a peaceful timeline presence that slowly trawls the midwest, documenting the often-surprising architectural wealth of its mid-sized cities and smaller towns, one at a time. This week they’ve been in Kokomo, Indiana—a place I always disregarded despite growing up near it, but suddenly want to visit again.
I thought it would be funny to say “hanging out, as it were.”