Final 3D-printed version of the Möbius Machine. Green plastic allows a canvas strip of instagram feeds to pass through in an infinite loop on a spindle.

Instagram Möbius Machine: An Assignment in Digital Composting

An open-ended assignment where students and teachers collaboratively invent a new way of orienting themselves toward existing, ubiquitous forms of digital media.

Introduction

This article provides instructions for building a small machine designed to turn a Möbius strip printed on each side with selected images from two different Instagram profile feeds. The machine is the product of a series of assignments called “digital composting” from a seminar on Contemplative Media Studies. While this Blueprint recommends building the machine, it argues that readers should also conduct the digital compositing assignment and see what other inventions arise from it. The purpose of the assignment and the machine itself is to cultivate attention and use it to reorient ourselves toward the devices and institutions that we take for granted in today’s digital economy. These simple exercises in attention-building are a small but important step toward the greater goal of critical media scholarship, namely the transformation of the digital economy to more ethically and environmentally sustainable modes of development and use.

Animation gives way to live video showing the assembly of the Instagram Möbius Machine and its operation with an image strip combining the IG feeds of Beyoncé and Pope Francis.
Figure 1. Promotional video for the Instagram Möbius Machine.

Project Background: A Contemplative Approach

I developed this assignment based on my experience teaching undergraduate students at the University of New Hampshire, where I began working in 2012. The majority of UNH students are white residents of New Hampshire and neighboring New England states, with about 12% of students identifying as Hispanic/Latino or students of color. The university also serves a small percentage of international students. The Department of Communication, my academic home, is an undergraduate-only program housed in the College of Liberal Arts. Many of my students take advantage of the department’s optional concentration in Media Practices or Business Practices, which requires a semester-long internship. Generally speaking, my students are practical-minded and career-oriented, with a healthy concern for their own mental and physical well-being.

Throughout my ten years at UNH, I have heard students voice concerns about their generation’s “addiction” to smart phones and other devices, and I try to provide opportunities for them to cultivate a greater sense of control and agency over their digital lives. My background in political-economic and critical-cultural studies of media have led me to believe that good scholarship and teaching have a transformative aim beyond the well-being of savvy users, however. My approach to teaching therefore aims to cultivate good citizenship among students and, in the long term, political and economic justice in the digital economy as a whole.

One of the most important things faculty can do is help students reorient themselves to the technologies they take for granted. Reorientation stands in contrast to detoxing (or fasting) from tech use, which usually yields the same low success rate as the latest diet fad (Ellis and Davidson 2019; Stieger and Lewetz 2018; Wilcockson, Osborne, and Ellis 2019). Instead, helping students reorient themselves to habitual-use technologies opens new possibilities: not only for healthier day-to-day use, but for more sustainable technologies and institutional practices, especially as students move on to become professionals and industry leaders.

The path toward transformation is comprised of many small steps, and the first of these is simply to notice. When we begin noticing our own habits, not just of use but of thought, we create a cognitive space to break existing patterns of belief and behavior. We can then replace old habits with new ones better aligned with our values. In other words, the possibility for transformation hinges initially on the cultivation and exercise of attention. Projects and assignments that cultivate attention might begin in the classroom but can have far-reaching impacts insofar as they enable participants to imagine broader transformations beyond individual habits of use.

The link between attention and transformation forms the premise of my Contemplative Media Studies (CMS) seminar, from which the idea of the Möbius Machine emerged. Elsewhere I have defined CMS as the application of contemplative practices and principles to the critical analysis of media content, technologies, and institutions (Healey 2015). Suffice it to say that the cultivation of attention is a key element in CMS. This is fitting, since attention is precisely the object that popular digital technologies are designed to capture and manipulate. As is stands, the digital economy turns attention into a commodity to be bought and sold. By contrast, CMS aims to recalibrate our relationship to technology so the power of attention belongs primarily to empowered user-citizens rather than elite engineers and corporate executives.

The process outlined in this article (including not just the Möbius Machine itself but the assignment from which the project concept emerged) represents one facet of CMS, namely its emphasis on embodiment and materiality. The process outlined here is not about rejecting or abstaining from digital media, but experiencing it anew as something material and tangible, literally putting agency “in the hands of” students who represent the future of our shared digital economy.

Digital Composting

The overarching goal of my Contemplative Media Studies seminar is to have students develop an “integrated contemplative practice” (Oman 2010, 7). An integrated contemplative practice does more than merely supplement typical digital media habits with stress-reducing exercises like yoga or mindfulness meditation. An integrated practice has four required elements: setting aside time for practices that cultivate attention; adopting “centering” practices that can help one regain focus throughout the day; cultivating personal character strengths like compassion, wisdom, and courage; and identifying moral exemplars (artists, spiritual leaders, etc.) from whom one can draw long-term guidance and inspiration. While an integrated contemplative practice may help students to cope with stress, its longer-term benefit is to cultivate the capacity for engaged citizenship. More than a mere coping strategy, engaged citizenship is a tool for transforming the political and economic structures that tend to cause stress in the first place.

In the context of a media studies seminar, an integrated contemplative practice has the specific goal of bringing greater awareness and intentionality to our relationship with digital media technologies. By awareness, I mean a recognition of our individual and cultural habits of technology use. By intentionality, I mean a values-oriented perspective, which insists that our devices and platforms ought to reflect shared values and contribute to the common good rather than simply boosting profits. To generate awareness and intentionality along these lines, I have developed a series of assignments that help students notice their own habits of media use—the unnoticed aspects of our relationship with digital devices, where corporate values insinuate themselves at the expense of individual well-being and the common good. I use the term Digital Composting to refer to this set of assignments. The metaphor here is simple: while backyard compost takes elements of our daily meals and turns them into nutrient-rich soil where new life can grow, digital compost takes elements of our daily media use and turns them into thought-provoking fodder for conversations from which a new vision of the digital economy can emerge.[1]

A simple, introductory example of Digital Composting is the “compostable” birthday card assignment, which involves creating a printed and hand-crafted birthday card from a friend’s social media feed. This assignment provides a meaningful replacement for the perfunctory “Happy Birthday” message which social media users often post online without directly visiting a friend’s page. There are a few ways to execute this assignment, but the main goal is to take personalized content from social media, print it out, and create a hand-made collage to send via snail-mail to the birthday celebrant. If others have already posted birthday messages on a friend’s timeline, those can become fodder for a birthday collage. If not, anything on the friend’s timeline can become collage material—photos, comments, posts, etc. When I have asked students to do this assignment and send their collage through snail-mail, many are surprised to realize they have passed an official US Postal Service drop box on the way to class every day without noticing it!

A more sophisticated version of this assignment takes the “composting” concept into the realm of politics and culture by working creatively with news content that appears in our social media feeds. In my article, “Contemplative Photo-collage in Media Studies Pedagogy,” I provide a detailed description of how students can use photo collage techniques to reorient themselves to online news content (Healey 2019). Though students frequently encounter news content online, and while they often regard social media as helpful in their understanding current events, research shows that emotional and cognitive responses to news usually occurs without students’ awareness. The photo collage assignment pushes students beyond passive news consumption, cultivating a critical subjectivity that involves “noticing and re-seeing habitual ways of being” (Kinane, 2019, 8). The arts-based approach in this assignment encourages the development of empathy and compassion—elements that are typically missing from habitual modes of news consumption, but necessary for many forms of social transformation.

The Instagram Möbius Machine

The idea for the Instagram Möbius Machine emerged from a Digital Composting assignment that I typically conduct later in the semester, after students have already begun to rethink their social media habits. This version of the assignment pushes students beyond questioning their personal use of existing social media platforms, whether as friends or as citizens. Instead, it asks them to reimagine the platform itself.

The first step in this Digital Composting assignment is for the class to decide on a particular app or platform to serve as the basis for critique and invention. Undergraduate-aged students have been moving away from Facebook for several years, and tend to prefer Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. Twitter is less popular among younger users but is ubiquitous in the public imagination and would work just as well. Once an app is selected, the class must invent a new way to use the platform, fulfilling the following two criteria:

  • It must represent a kind of use that the app’s original inventors would not have anticipated.
  • It must somehow transform digital content from the app into analog format, making it tangible in material form.

This assignment is deceptively simple, and in my experience students may be stumped and need encouragement to start the brainstorming process. When I first conducted this assignment with my seminar, students decided to focus on Instagram. Their first ideas usually fulfilled the first, but not the second, requirement above. For example, many suggested that a new button should be added to the app which would produce a surprising new feature. One student suggested adding a new filter button that allows users to control which content appears in their feed, and in what order, based on their preferences on a given day. Of course, as I explained several times during that first session, adding a button to an app does not transform the app’s digital content into analog form.

While the phrase “think outside the box” has become cliché, the puzzles with which the phrase is associated are still useful in sparking innovative thinking. One of these is the nine dots puzzle, which became popular in the 70s and 80s. An older but equally useful puzzle is Duncker’s candle problem. Descriptions of these puzzles are readily available online, and I recommend implementing them in classes where students need to think in innovative ways. What these puzzles provide (when the solution is discovered or revealed) is an experience of realizing and moving beyond the self-imposed boundaries of our own thought patterns. This experience primes students to see a question or problem in an unexpected light.

With some coaxing along these lines, my students eventually arrived at the idea of selecting two profile feeds, either contrasting or complimentary, and printing these onto a strip of paper fashioned into a Möbius strip. I created a few of these and brought them to class during our next session. An extension of this idea that subsequently arose was the idea of stringing multiple Instagram Möbius strips into a long chain, which could then be hung on display, or even used as garland for a Christmas tree. Students appreciated how such linked strips could serve as a metaphor against the backdrop of political and social fragmentation. After several follow-up conversations with colleagues, it became clear that the scrolling motion was central to the experience of Instagram. Thus was born the idea of mounting a printed Möbius strip onto a motorized machine, reproducing in analog form the experience of scrolling endlessly on the digital app.

Prototype and Design Iterations

I created a prototype for such a machine with household items, as seen in Figure 2.

Prototype of the Instagram Möbius Machine made from simple household materials.
Figure 2. Prototype.

With the prototype in hand I approached designer-engineer Benjamin Stack, co-founder of Stark Contrasts and Sublight Dynamics. Ben created the schematics for a 3D-printed version of the Möbius Machine, which I then printed and tested in collaboration with the staff at the UNH Makerspace. The first iteration of the machine, shown in Figure 3, was functional only with cumbersome ad-hoc modifications and therefore was not suitable for download and licensing.

First 3D-printed version of the Möbius Machine.
Figure 3. First iteration.

The second and final iteration of the machine (Figure 4) resolved several initial design problems. For example, the final design hides the battery pack under the machine, and includes ridges to prevent the Möbius strip from slipping off its turning wheels.

Final 3D-printed version of the Möbius Machine.
Figure 4. Final design.

Build Your Own Möbius Machine

Licensing and downloads for Möbius Machine became available in July of 2021 under the tagline “Selfies with a twist!” Step-by-step instructions, a materials checklist, and 3D schematics are freely available from the UNH Innovation Lab product licensing website.

3D-printer schematics for the base of the Machine.
Figure 5. Machine schematics, base.
3D-printer schematics for the roller arm of the Machine.
Figure 6. Machine schematics, roller arm.

The instructions outline 15 discrete steps, but these can be summarized as two main tasks.

  1. The first task is to print and assemble the machine. You can download the schematics in .STL file format from the UNHInnovation (UNHI) licensing website. My institution provides access to a Makerspace equipped with Cura printing software, as well as a limited allowance of PLA filament for all faculty. You may need to purchase your own filament. In addition, required materials for the machine itself include: a push-button switch, a gear motor, a battery case, six screws, and glue. Details and specific suggestions for product purchases are included on the UNHI licensing page. You may also wish to use some quick-drying clay to secure the gear motor in place. Once the machine parts are printed, assembling the machine requires only basic knowledge of electronic circuits.
  2. Photo of machine assembly in process.
    Figure 7. Assembling the machine.
  3. The second task is to print and assemble the Möbius strip. This task requires some basic image editing skills. Knowledge of Photoshop is helpful but not necessary. Required materials for the Möbius strip include: transfer paper, canvas material, and fabric tape.

The selection of the two profile feeds is a significant step, since it presents another opportunity to manipulate the platform’s content in unexpected ways. Essentially, this step provides an opportunity to reflect on the nature of platform algorithms. Platform algorithms often make judgments about content (what is visible when, and in what context) in ways that are opaque to users, even if those judgments are based on the algorithm’s interpretation of a user’s own behavior. Furthermore, databases tend to force content into preconceived and structured categories. Even if categorization is not strictly binary (either this or that), algorithms and content databases tend to favor clarity and certainty over ambiguity and uncertainty. The intentional juxtaposition of two Instagram feeds, not just side-by-side but in the form of a Möbius strip, is a form of subversive creativity, boosting the agency of the user over and against the persuasive, procedural rhetoric of the platform. Ideally, the selection of feeds will provide a thought-provoking contrast while inviting reflection on how the feeds share complimentary qualities. For example, the model I share with students features a juxtaposition of Beyoncé and Pope Francis, as seen in Figure 8.

Printed canvas strips featuring Beyoncé and Pope Francis.
Figure 8. Printed strips of Beyoncé and Pope Francis, prior to assembly.

To prime students’ thinking about content choices, I recommend doing a brief think-pair-share exercise to generate a set of general categories. Ask students to create a list of common pairs of opposites, categories commonly understood to be incompatible, or groups that often conflict. Some categories might include science and religion; conservatism and liberalism; art and math; hip-hop and country music. In the sharing part of this conversation, students might notice disagreement about these categories, with some students insisting that they are opposites, while others suggest that they are complimentary or overlapping. This simple exercise will help students focus when selecting specific Instagram profile feeds to mount on the Möbius Machine.

Discussion

As students select two Instagram feeds to mount on the Möbius Machine, the overarching goal is to provoke thoughtful discussion about a) the content of the app, and b) the Instagram platform itself. With regard to content, the aim is to provoke an understanding of the relationship between two feeds that the platform itself does not easily afford, one that includes the two profiles’ differences as well as their similarities. This aim is consistent with a key element of contemplative practice, which is to prioritize “both/and” over “either/or” modes of thinking. For most of us, the latter comes more naturally, while the former is more challenging. The challenge pays off, however, since both/and thinking tends to yield deeper insight and generate new possibilities for resolving cultural or ideological tensions. When I want to push students’ thinking beyond the binary of conservatism versus liberalism, for example, I conduct a close in-class reading of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which is historically significant precisely because it integrates conservative values (tradition, memory) and liberal values (justice, inclusion). When my goal is to have students see past the binary of religion versus secularism, I conduct a sorting exercise where they are forced to place an ostensibly secular event (e.g. a football game or a Congressional hearing) into the category of “religion” and then defend the categorization. The Möbius Machine encourages this type of thinking on a micro-level scale. Or, to put it more modestly, the machine represents and reminds us of the possibility of such thinking.

Consider for example the selection of Beyoncé and Pope Francis. This juxtaposition tends to elicit amusement at first, since it maps neatly onto a culturally engrained secular-versus-religious binary. What could make for a starker contrast? As one spends time with the machine however, its contemplative function becomes apparent. We know that the profile images are literally separate in this printed form, since each appears on a different own side of the paper strip. Yet as the machine scrolls to display each figure, one after the other in turn, it appears as if the two profile feeds are unified as one. How could they be part of the same feed? As the machine implicitly prods us to answer this question, we begin to see realize the line between secular and religious experience is fuzzy indeed: Beyoncé is arguably a spiritual leader as well as an artist, while Pope Francis is decidedly a social media celebrity, if not a brand unto himself.

The machine thus embodies a kind of procedural rhetoric, i.e. a form of persuasion by process. In this case, the Möbius Machine argues in favor of seeing these distinct figures from a both/and perspective. This form of procedural argument is not integral to the Instagram app itself. Instead, we have generated it by transforming or “composting” the app and its content into a material, analog format. In fact, I would argue that the Möbius Machine posits a counter-argument to the Instagram app’s built-in procedural rhetorics. (To understand this difference, simply compare the insights that arise from creative use of Möbius Machine to the algorithmic suggestions that appear in Instagram’s search/explore function.)

A few other noteworthy juxtapositions arose from my class. One included former President Donald Trump and climate activist Greta Thunberg. Another was more abstract and conceptual: we juxtaposed art and science by printing strips from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In these examples, the both/and perspective afforded by the Möbius Machine has a different political resonance than the example of Beyoncé and Pope Francis. Notably, Greta Thunberg has publically criticized Donald Trump for his policy inaction on climate change. In this light, the stark contrast between Trump and Thunberg persists even as the machine presents each figure in turn. In this case, the Möbius Machine implicitly asks: What is our common path forward, given the presence of such diametrically opposed views? In other words, the juxtaposition makes palpable the volatile, and therefore unsustainable, nature of contemporary global politics. By doing so it prods us to imagine possible paths toward resolution.

In these ways, the Instagram Möbius Machine serves as a good model for the pedagogical goal of transformation via the cultivation and exercise of attention. More accurately, it is not the machine alone which serves as an exemplary model, though it does provoke both/and thinking as noted above. The work of transformation begins with the process of generating an original idea in response to the prompt in the Digital Composting assignment. In other words, the point of this Blueprint is only secondarily to encourage readers to build their own Möbius Machine. The primary purpose is to outline a process where students and teachers collaboratively invent a new way of orienting themselves to existing, ubiquitous forms of digital media. That can only happen if readers conduct the process themselves and invent something other than the Möbius Machine. It is not the machine itself, but the holistic process of its invention and the subsequent experience of its use, which provides the pedagogical model I wish to articulate here.

Ideally, this article will encourage more than multiple instances of student-led Möbius Machine building projects. That would be a good outcome, however limited. Beyond that, the next and more promising step would be for others to embark on a similar process of invention, with the Möbius Machine serving as one source of inspiration among others. Other provocative and transformative ideas are readily available in the literature on “adversarial design” (DiSalvo 2015), “artful design” (Wang 2018), and “non-intrusive design” (Case 2016). I recommend assigning readings from such authors as students embark on their own projects. To summarize, the Möbius Machine is not a solution or an end in itself, but rather a useful tool in the practice of breaking our habits of use while reimagining the digital economy in which we live.

Notes

[1] For a similar application of the “digital compost” metaphor see Dufva (2021).

References

Case, Amber. 2016. Calm Technology: Principles and Patterns for Non-Intrusive Design. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

DiSalvo, Carl. 2012. Adversarial Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Dufva, Tomi Slotte. 2021. “Creative Coding as Compost(ing).” In Post-Digital, Post-Internet Art and Education, edited by Kevin Tavin, Gila Kolb, and Juuso Tervo. Palgrave Studies in Educational Futures. London: Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-73770-2_16.

Ellis, David, and Brittany Davidson. 2019. “Digital Detoxes are a Solution Looking for a Problem.” The Conversation, January 17, 2019. https://theconversation.com/digital-detoxes-are-a-solution-looking-for-a-problem-106460.

Healey, Kevin. 2015. “Contemplative Media Studies.” Religion 6, no. 3: 948–68. http://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/6/3/948.

Healey, Kevin. 2019. “Contemplative Photo-collage in Media Studies Pedagogy.” International Journal of Creative Media Research 2. https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2019.19.

Kinane, Karolyn. 2019. “The Place of Practice in Contemplative Pedagogy and Writing.” Across the Disciplines 16, no, 1: 6–15. https://doi.org/10.37514/ATD-J.2019.16.1.02.

Oman, Doug. 2010. “Similarity in Diversity: Four Shared Functions of Integrative Contemplative Practice Systems.” In Contemplative Practices in Action: Spirituality, Meditation, and Health, edited by Thomas G. Plante, 7–16. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Press.

Stieger, Stefan, and David Lewetz. 2018. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking 21, no. 10: 618–24. http://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2018.0070.

Wang, Ge. 2018. Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Wilcockson, Thomas D.W., Ashley M. Osborne, and David A. Ellis. 2019. “Digital Detox: The Effect of Smartphone Abstinence on Mood, Anxiety, and Craving.” Addictive Behaviors 99: 106013. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2019.06.002.

About the Author

Kevin Healey is an Associate Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire. He writes and teaches about ethics, religion, and digital culture. He received a University Teaching Excellence Award from UNH COLA in Spring 2017, and the Communication Ethics Teaching Award from the Communication Ethics Division of the National Communication Association (NCA) in October 2018. His most recent book, Ethics and Religion in the Age of Social Media: Digital Proverbs for Responsible Citizens, was published in 2019 by Routledge and received the Book of the Year Award from the Religious Communication Association in 2020.




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