Spinning in Place

Below is an excerpt from one of the chapters in my book.

Spinning in Place

Before the invention of traffic signals, the flow of cars through a city was chaotic. As the automobile increased in presence in the early 1900s, it drove alongside horse-drawn carriages, trollies, and pedestrians, all vying for passage through the snarled streets. People depended on the police officers in a busy intersection to guide traffic smoothly, and on everyone knowing the right-of-way laws. This rarely worked well and required a significant investment of labor by police forces to have multiple officers stationed at all busy intersections. On September 28, 1916, the city of Macon, Georgia, installed its first traffic signal at the corner of Second and Cherry Streets. Though not the first traffic signal in the United States, it symbolized for this region of Georgia an entrance into the modern world, where mechanical inventions would regulate the flow of traffic. Like the pneumatic tube mail system discussed in the previous chapter, the traffic signal was a sign of modernity and cosmopolitanism, putting cities like Macon in league with Paris, where traffic signals had been running with great success. However, unlike pneumatic tubes, this form of modernity slowed people down rather than sped them up. Bringing people to a halt and making them wait so that traffic could flow in an orderly way—and thus more smoothly and reliably—was the key to this next step into modern times. The Macon Daily Telegraph reported, “This signal is similar to the ones now in use in large cities and, according to reports, have proved satisfactory wherever they have been used, greatly reducing the number of accidents.” Three days after this initial report, on October 1, the headline in the Daily Telegraph read, “Traffic Signal Wrecked.” The reporter noted that the “dirt dug up for the new traffic signal was still fresh” when a taxi driver plowed into the new signal, forgetting that the new technology had been installed. His car’s radiator plowed right into the signal, “twisted it and also twisted the ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ hands on the traffic signal into curves.”

Unlike people today (and perhaps the taxi driver who wrecked the first traffic signal in Macon in 1916), people at the turn of the twentieth century were enthusiastic about the installation of traffic signals in their cities. The waiting imposed provided a technological solution to the problem of increasing density and modes of transportation in a city. The speed of modernity required a technology that would force people to wait. A London railroad manager named John Peake Knight had introduced the first traffic light in 1868. It used a semaphore arm system, where one arm stuck out to read “Go” or “Proceed” and another read “Stop” or “Closed.” A single police officer, using a series of levers, ran the mechanical system that retracted and raised the arms. At night, gas lamps illuminated green and red lenses indicating passage or the need to wait for cross traffic to pass. The first system soon came to an end after one of the gas lamps exploded onto the commanding police officer. Traffic signals like this were not used again for decades. However, the need to regulate traffic become increasingly dire with the rise of the automobile, and people all across the United States and the United Kingdom were inventing different versions of the traffic signal as a means to handle the congested streets.

Soon, electrical systems were established to run the traffic signals, with the first being installed in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1914. In this version, electric lights on each of the four corners of the intersection lit up the words “Stop” and “Move.” The pace of these lights could be altered to accommodate emergencies and the need to keep people waiting at one section of the intersection longer. Today’s lights have similar features, allowing cities to set up a light pattern timed—theoretically—to allow a driver going the speed limit to remain at that speed through each light on a major street. However, regulation of driving pace may be disrupted by weather, which can throw off the inner timing mechanisms of the system, or by drivers who have their own sense of how quickly they should be going down that street. The technology either fits with our rhythms of daily life or interrupts it, breaking our sense of timing and flow.1 Every driver knows the frustration of hitting every single red light while moving through a journey.

We have an acute awareness of duration, especially as we wait, and that awareness is always linked to prevailing technologies that shape how we understand and experience time. This is true from the telegraph to the pneumatic tube system to the traffic light; each one gives us a sense of speed, connection, and the role that ideas of “bandwidth” play in how fast we can or can’t go.

One such technology reshaping our contemporary sense of a moment is an otherwise unassuming little piece of interface design: the buffering icon—the animated image on our browsers spinning in place as we wait patiently for our content to load. The icon suggests that some complex code is being processed behind the scenes, as the internet traffic speeds through the lines to our devices. In lieu of access to that code, we are given this animated indicator to hold our attention, and to reassure us that our request is being processed. The buffering icon’s activity is meant to help us sit back and enjoy our passivity. These icons are meant to shift our expectations, modifying our willingness to wait. But the image of a buffering symbol, which has kinship with the red light at an intersection, has come mainly to trigger anxiety. As the scope of our technology use has expanded with transmission capacity, bandwidth limitations have remained a choke point, and that means that users are left waiting. As Neta Alexander has asked in her research on buffering icons, “Is buffering a punishment? And if it is, what sin have we committed?”2

Waiting is a part of most interface designs that we encounter. Waiting can mean vastly different things for each of these designs. For example, certain games use waiting as a core feature of play: you may have to wait an hour before your character gains another life. Some designs use waiting as an important part how customers interact with a product, like building anticipation around the launch of a new device. Conversely, many businesses wrestle with waiting as the one factor that has potential to send their customers away. Thus waiting is a part of the design of everyday life, from managing automobile traffic to using our digital devices to create experiences for customers who encounter a business and its products.

Waiting stamps desire on one side of the coin and frustration on the other. Anticipation lives on one side, and on the other, annoyance at the inability to get behind the scenes of these systems. Waiting is a powerful tool to build our sense of connection with a new technology, and it can simplify that connection as well. The buffering icon or the simple red light gives the person one command: wait. And we wait without knowing the complexity of the larger systems in place, whether that be the code and infrastructures needed to send us an online video or the traffic patterns that allow cars to move safely without congestion in a city. Yet this ease of interaction has a cost. We often are restricted from getting to know our systems in a deep and meaningful way and are thus further detached from the inner workings of our technologies.

Again, there are times we actually prefer to wait. The times when we expect to wait can signify thoroughness and a desire that our waiting will be worth it. Waiting is a cost paid, and we want to wait in ways that will produce our desired outcomes. Waiting can represent our hopes for a positive resolution and thus waiting comes to symbolize our longing for a different future.


When the Xerox Star, among the first commercial networked computers, was released in 1981, it allowed people to do things at a speed that they hadn’t been able to achieve before. The Star, officially called the Xerox 8010, connected people online and gave them the ability to exchange files and send messages to one another. Instead of using a command line as the main interface—the text-based entry system that required users to input the correct commands to make the computer carry out its tasks—the Star was one of the first computers to give users a “graphical user interface” (GUI), which remains the standard interface for our contemporary computers. Thus it sped up how people interacted with their files and with one another. Yet as Brad A. Myers, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, told me, people felt that it was incredibly slow. Though early adopters of the computer could actually carry out tasks far more quickly than they had before the Star, the overwhelming sentiment was that it was slow at everything. People’s feeling about this computer was that it took forever to load. It took forever to exchange files. It took forever to exchange messages. It took forever, even though it was faster than anything that had come before.


Wait cursors like the Windows 95 hourglass (left) and the Macintosh wrist watch (right) make us willing to wait longer — three times as long as designs with no visualization to indicate something is happening behind the scenes.

The Xerox Star used an hourglass cursor to indicate a processing lag. This cursor carried over to Apple’s Lisa computer in 1983, Apple’s foray into the GUI interface machines, which was launched a year before the famed Macintosh. The Macintosh shipped with the wristwatch icon in 1984, designed by Susan Kare, who rightfully noted that “more people had experience with a wristwatch than an hourglass.” Many of Kare’s designs still inspire those used on Apple computers today. A year later, though, Microsoft Windows would go back to the hourglass. Each of these “wait cursors” was static and did not animate the passage of time by spinning in place. The wristwatch wait cursor showed a perpetual 9:00 as the code loaded in the background. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that wait cursors started to be animated, when Unix machines introduced a black-and-white pinwheel spinning in place as the machine processed the data. It was called the “beach ball of death” because it would often spin indefinitely, until the user, finally grasping that the computer was never going to complete the process, manually restarted the machine. This wait cursor carried over into Apple’s HyperCard for Macintosh. The spinning rainbow beach ball of death (the colorful version of the one on Unix machines) launched with Mac OS X in mid-2001.

The first internet version of the buffering icon was the Netscape Navigator “throbber,” launched in 1994. As users waited for content to load on the browser, an animated icon would appear, with shooting stars flying inside a capital letter N. Around 2006, Microsoft Vista was released; it used a circular spinning blue icon, the ancestor of what we know as the online buffering icon. Now buffering icons come in a wide range of shapes and styles, from the typical dotted circle that spins in place to website-specific loading icons customized to fit a brand.

Buffering icons and wait cursors like the beach ball of death spin in place, an apt representation of our feelings about waiting. The term “spinning in place” signifies action without progress. Phrases such as “spinning our wheels” have been used over the past century to denote actions that don’t produce anything but wasted time. The twiddling thumbs that spin without creating anything or the wheels that spin in place without moving anywhere are useless. These phrases demonstrate the ways that waiting has been understood, as unproductive, a waste, since it does not propel us forward. This sentiment carries over into our feelings about the wait cursor or buffering icon. It spins and we don’t know when it will stop. It is what’s keeping us from moving forward and being productive. This sentiment, however, is produced because these symbols keep us from seeing how the system is actually working; we’re not given a behind-the-scenes view of how the process is actually progressing, so we are kept at arm’s length, spinning or twiddling our thumbs as we wait.


That said, the waiting icon produces its intended results. Waiting icons make us willing to wait longer—three times as long as designs with no visualization to indicate something is happening behind the scenes.3 But we tend to respond even better when we receive some direct feedback about the progress being made behind the scenes. A better design is the “percent-done progress bar,” an approach—first popularized by Myers before he started his career in academia in the early 1980s—that promises a specific end.4 Myers began attaching percent-done progress bars to many of the tasks his company was creating for the computer. Until he introduced this feature, most lengthy processes on these machines gave little to no indication that anything was loading. There was almost no feedback about the data that was being processed behind the scenes. Myers felt that processes that would run a bit long should give this feedback to the user, and immediately customers began responding in enthusiastic ways. Despite the positive reaction to percent-done progress bars, buffering icons remain prominent. Now we have a proliferation of “indeterminate” indicators (icons that give no clear indication of when the process will finish) instead of “determinate” indicators (an icon that lets you know how much of the process has loaded and when it will finish). When I asked Myers why indeterminate indicators still predominate, he noted that conditions on the internet fluctuate widely, and a progress bar that had been moving smoothly only to stall at 99 percent is more frustrating and dissatisfying than an opaque buffering icon.

Progress bars, and the equivalent progress icons for downloading apps on a mobile device, also may have little to do with actual data-transfer rates. Designers often manipulate the visualization that purports to track download progress, front-loading it so that it moves slowly at first but then speeds up at the end.5 This allows the download to please us by seeming to beat our expectations, which were established by the contrived slowness. Once again, technologies can establish a perception of time and duration that is independent of actual measurable seconds. Such insights have shaped the ways that Disney gives its guests feedback about wait times for ride lines at its theme parks. These wait times are almost always overestimated so that when guests reach the front of the line in ninety minutes instead of two hours, they are positively surprised that they got there sooner than predicted (rather than feeling put upon that they have had to stand in line for ninety minutes).6 If wait times beat expectation, customers leave the experience with positive feelings rather than negative ones. On the same principle, manipulating buffering icons to beat expectations is a way that interface designers can give users a positive feeling about interacting with their software and online content.


The wait time displayed at Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride. The Disney parks typically overestimate the wait time to give people a positive feeling when they arrive before the anticipated time. Photo by Theme Park Tourist, CC-BY-2.0.

Part of our experience of waiting is cultural, and how time elapses while we wait can vary from person to person and context to context. We wait differently and we have different expectations that are grounded in our specific cultures—from the cultural expectations about waiting in lines in Japan to a common practice in Uganda of arriving hours early to the bus stop each morning so that people can wait together as a community gathering. But while part of our perception of duration may be linked to these cultural experiences of waiting part of our awareness of duration is also a cognitive process that is wired into how our brains function. After a period of working with a particular device, according to computer scientist Ben Shneiderman, our brains begin to set expectations for how quickly it should respond.7 If these expectations aren’t met, we move on to the next task quickly (often around the two-second mark) unless something calls us back. How we wait is a combination of technological expectations (how quickly we believe that our technologies should be working), cultural expectations (how the contexts in a society set up certain expectations about how people should wait according to their position within that society), and how our brains are able to pay attention while waiting.


Though each person—depending on his or her culture—may experience the wait times differently, users across the spectrum want to feel that their waiting isn’t in vain. This is especially true when users are confronted with complex systems that aren’t visible, as with computer code being processed or data being sent through lines. Feedback becomes an essential tool for letting users know that the system is working, making the invisible arenas of computing life seem less threatening and off-limits.

As the mechanics of our machines recede from view behind seamless devices, we can feel detached and disengaged. Our bodies feel less connected to a machine when its systems and infrastructures aren’t a visible part of our daily interactions with that machine. Allucquére Roseanne Stone traces the history of this detachment from our systems to the designs of machines in the 1930s, when the “guts” of the technologies began being hidden behind smooth and glossy surfaces. This is seen in the sleek designs of car bodies and even in vacuum cleaners. Technology often markets itself as “sleek, gleaming, seamless, efficient,” Stone notes, but this is a recent experience. Previously, looking at a machine could inform you about what it did; its “affordances” were apparent just by looking at it.8 Stone writes that the “newly constituted ‘shroud,’ described as streamlined, futuristic, and decorative, not only conceals the operation of the device” but creates a new relationship to the interior of the technology.9 This interior was where things really happened, but it was a space to which people were not given easy access.

Sociologist Anthony Giddens writes of “expert systems,” systems that recede from view, removing the lay person from a full understanding of how the system works. Imagine, for example, that I am driving without knowing exactly how the car works, in a city where I don’t know how the computers are coded that change a light from green to yellow to red.10 For us to have trust in these systems, users ultimately require feedback. I am willing to wait, but not if there’s insufficient feedback about why I’m waiting and no information to give me a sense of control about how I wait.

Buffering icons and wait cursors confront this challenge, giving us feedback that reshapes our everyday expectations and experiences of time and duration as computers process the data being transmitted. For Myers, this was the power of the percent-done progress bar: It allowed users a sense of control over their experience. I’m willing to let a particular piece of software take eight hours to download as long as I know it’s going to take that long and I can use that time in ways that I have control over (for example, I can do other tasks on my computer while the download continues in the background, or I can leave my computer altogether and do something else while this software loads). This may also reveal the allure and pleasure of multitasking; it gives us a sense that we’re fully using our time instead of spinning in place. If an online movie is buffering on my browser in the background, I can jump over to email and respond to a recent message and feel that I’m not wasting my time.

That said, waiting will never be eliminated, and deep down we don’t want it to be. The visible feedback about our waiting on digital interfaces should not make us think that the ultimate ideal would be to make waiting disappear. An embrace of the moments where waiting becomes visible can remind us not of the time we are losing but of the ways we can demystify the mythology of instantaneous culture and ever-accelerating paces of “real time.” Notions of instantaneous culture promise that access to what we desire can be fulfilled immediately. However, this logic that dominates the current approaches to the tech industry misses the power of waiting and the embedded role it plays in our daily lives.


Buffering icons are design that gets us to wait longer than we would otherwise, and they therefore fit into a long lineage of designs meant to give us a different perception of our wait times. Famous among architects and urban designers is the story of how people stopped complaining about wait times for elevators in New York City’s skyscrapers. As the New York Times detailed, “The idea was born during the post–World War II boom, when the spread of high-rises led to complaints about elevators.”11 The manager of one building brought in mechanical engineers and elevator companies to help him solve the problem faced every day: people were waiting too long for the elevators, and they were getting angry about it. After looking at the issue, the engineers and company representatives found the problem unsolvable. Then a psychologist who worked in the building addressed the conundrum. As one version of the story goes, “The young man had not focused on elevator performance but on the fact that people complained about waiting only a few minutes. Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom.”12 With the approval of the building’s manager, the psychologist put up mirrors around the elevator waiting area so that people could look at themselves and the other people who were waiting. Waiting became interesting. Not only did the complaints cease immediately and completely, but some previous complainers actually applauded the building staff for improving the speed of the elevator service.

This example suggests that the most problematic elements of waiting are lack of feedback and boredom. The anxiety and stress caused by waiting arises from several factors. First, in a society that links productivity to time, waiting is seen as wasteful because nothing is being produced. Once people began “being on the clock”—and time was linked to salary and to the products being produced—that time was understood to be work time. Waiting in lines or on the phone for the next customer service representative is seen as wasteful because nothing is being produced that can be sold or valued: waiting is contrary to capitalism. Sociologist Benjamin H. Snyder has come up with two different theories to understand a capitalist approach to time. The first is the theory of regularity, which is our ability to create structured routines that help us use our time. The second is the theory of density, which demands that we pack our day full of activities that we believe are virtuous and worth the energy.13 The result of these two approaches, however, is a population that feels overworked, busy, and burned out. We fill our time so densely and with such regularity, that we end up having little time to spare.14 In this context, waiting is a disruption.

The anecdote of the elevator also illustrates the feeling when we are waiting that we don’t have control or agency over a situation. It’s not simply that we’re waiting; it’s also that we’re not sure how or when things will be resolved. Coupled with this unease can be a deep sense of injustice. Because our time is valuable, we feel that people who cut in line or keep us from utilizing our time to the fullest are disrupting just systems where “first come, first served” is the law. In the summer of 2012, about eight miles from my house, a man was stabbed three times at a post office in Silver Spring, Maryland, because he was judged to have cut in line. The victim had been working with a postal employee to send two packages and had been asked to step aside to fill out paperwork for those packages. When he was finished, he returned to the window, as instructed. The perpetrator, who observed the customer’s direct approach to the window without knowing the circumstances, went to his car to get a knife. He waited for the victim to leave the post office and stabbed him three times, saying, “You think you’re smart? You cut in line?” The assailant’s sense of justice had been violated, so he retaliated. (He received nine years in jail for the crime. The victim recovered from his wounds.)15

Related to the dynamic of waiting and justice is that of waiting and power. While the societal norms are clear governing waiting and lines, often those with power are able to skip the line entirely. Wealth and power often bestow immunity from the stresses of waiting, as can be seen in the “waiting economy” that is cropping up in major cities. One company called Same Ole Line Dudes, for example, will stand in line for customers to purchase tickets to the high-demand musical on Broadway or will camp out overnight to ensure that the customer will be first in line to get the latest iPhone. Other companies will stand in line for the wealthy at Department of Motor Vehicles to speed renewal of a driver’s license or  registration of a new vehicle.

In many circumstances, the uncertainty and precarity involved with waiting functions to reiterate the harsh divide between those with wealth and power and those without. Javier Auyero, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the ways that poor peoples’ practices of waiting often reinforce their marginal positions in a society. For six months, he studied a group of people in Buenos Aries, Argentina, as they arrived at the welfare office to pick up their checks. The results of his study of this group echoed what had been argued by theorist Pierre Bourdieu: “Waiting is one of the privileged ways of experiencing the effect of power, and the link between time and power.”16 Those who arrived at the office to receive their welfare checks would confront a scene that reiterated their position within the society. “The waiting room at the welfare office has only fifty-four plastic seats for a welfare population that far exceeds that number,” Auyero writes.17 As a result of the design of the room, many are left waiting for hours while standing or sitting on the floor. The people who come to this office take a day off work (losing that salary) and often travel long distances to arrive early to make sure they are seen before the office closes that day. People in Auyero’s study reported being given the runaround, told that their money was not yet ready and they must come back another day. As a result, he argues, the urban poor of the city feel subordinated through “innumerable acts of waiting (the obverse is equally true; domination is generated anew by making others wait).”18

“Waiting implies submission,” Bourdieu wrote.19 While waiting is an unavoidable part of living in the world as a social being, we flee from it whenever possible because it puts us in positions of powerlessness. Yet businesses often create moments when their customers must wait. How a company’s designs manage the experience of waiting can shape whether a customer avoids a business (if other options are available) or returns. Thus companies must manage customer waiting through creative designs. As the mirrors near the high-rise elevator show, our experience of duration can be readily manipulated through design, and businesses have been exploring other strategies. Some retailers are especially concerned with wait times online. As mentioned in the Introduction, an Amazon study showed that for every tenth of a second of delay that customers average on its site, it loses 1 percent of revenue.20 Such findings have prompted the company to build servers next to those of partner companies in “co-location facilities” to cut down on the time lag, or “latency,” of data exchanges. The internet hub at 60 Hudson Street discussed in the previous chapter is one such location; it repurposes the building’s pneumatic tubes to connect internet servers from different companies in the building. In the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, Amazon hosts its cloud in facilities located in Ashburn, Virginia, where companies can connect to one another by simply linking their servers, some of which are just a few feet apart. This proximity reduces the time it takes to send and receive data between servers and thus reduces lag time when a customer tries to access online content. One core area of online content whose management is hyperaware of the problem of latency is online video and streaming. According to one study, after five seconds of buffering, 20 percent of people who started to watch a video will leave; after ten seconds, half will be gone. After twenty seconds, it’s up to 70 percent.21

Here the buffering icon serves users in similar ways to the mirrors that surround an elevator. It holds our attention for a bit longer by giving us something to look at that feels like feedback. The buffering icon’s minimal feedback seems to be enough to hold our attention. While it spins in place, we will spin our wheels for a handful of seconds before moving on.

Ultimately, the reasons that the buffering icon is sometimes experienced as torture is linked to all of these examples. It is indeterminate, giving us a sense of uncertainty about when the buffering will end. It robs us of our agency, because if we knew the video would be buffering for three minutes, we could leave the browser and do something else while the video loaded. The buffering icon is an opaque system that doesn’t give us a behind-the-scenes understanding of what’s happening, so we end up feeling a sense of detachment from our technology. Yet the icon offers enough distraction to keep us around a bit longer, like the people standing on the ground floor waiting for the elevator to arrive, staring into the mirrors.


There are other circumstances when we prefer to wait. In 2016 Facebook began offering security scans of user profiles, sending back details of any potential threats it could detect from users’ profile settings. Facebook could conduct these scans rapidly and at first would spit back the information instantly to users. When it did, people didn’t trust it. They didn’t believe the scan was thorough, and many declined to change their settings. When Facebook inserted a bit of code that made the system pause, people began to trust the results more and make changes to their profile’s security settings.22 Travel sites also modify the speed of results, building in a false latency to try to make consumers feel the searches are more thorough. Technology is actually ahead of our expectations, yet our temporal expectations of thoroughness dictate how we experience it and the code that is written for it.

Similarly, the desire for waiting is built into launch events, as when Apple implements anticipation as a core feature of new products. Apple announces a product and makes us wait, building our desire. The company recognizes the power of having the customer’s imagination at work during that wait time. These launch events themselves are pitched months in advance, and the excitement builds as images and specs of the new device are released. Leaks are often exploited to feed the anticipation of these launch events; for example, previously unreleased photos of the upcoming iPhone are routinely given to tech websites long before Apple reveals details about the new phone. On the day a new iPhone is released, people stand in long lines outside of Apple Stores all around the world. Waiting for the release leads to waiting in long lines, sometimes camping overnight, to transform the release of a device into an event that builds anticipation and customer connection to the product.


Customers wait in line for the release of a new Apple iPhone in France, 2012. Launch events use waiting as a way to build desire for a new product, creating our connection with this new commodity. Photo credit: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP/GettyImages.

In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes describes the eroticism of waiting. He writes, “Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move. . . Am I in love?—Yes, since I am waiting. The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn’t wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late; but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover’s fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.23 The lover is not only willing to wait for the object of desire but is defined by that willingness to wait. While we wait, our desire grows and comes to define our relationship to the person (or object) we long for.

Sometimes the waiting is the very act that gives us pleasure in these erotic connections to people and things. Barthes recounts a Chinese tale of a man in love with a courtesan, who tells him, “I shall be yours when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me.” On the ninety-ninth night, the man “stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.”24 Waiting was the practice of dwelling in the fantasy about the object of longing.

Waiting is such a powerful part of our relationships—with people we long for, with objects like iPhones that we may long for—because that’s where imagination does its work. For consumers and users of contemporary technology, waiting is deeply connected to our fantasies about who we are and what our purchases say about us. This was famously detailed by sociologist Colin Campbell in The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Campbell argued that modern consumers shape their identities by fantasizing about how a product will lead to the lifestyle they are daydreaming about, what he calls “autonomous, self-illusory hedonism.”25 For Barthes, the same is true of how we wait for the ones we are in love with and long for. When the thing longed for finally arrives, it can rarely live up to the excitement generated by our imaginations.

Though it is counterintuitive, a similar logic is at play in our online lives. For me, in my moments of boredom, as I turn to my phone and refresh my social media feed, I imagine that what’s on the other side of the buffering icon might be the content that will rid me of boredom and produce a satisfying social connection. The buffering icon here represents my hopes for the many ways that my social media feeds can satisfy my longings at any given moment. They rarely do, though I believe that we are half in love with the buffering icon because it represents the promise of intimacy or excitement across the distances that separate us.

Buffering shapes the relationship between duration and desire. Similar to one of the issues pneumatic tubes faced, the buffering of online content is a result of bandwidth limitations. Online content is subject to buffering as its scale increases, as more and more messages are sent across the lines in higher file sizes. The buffering icon has become one object among many that shapes our experience of time. It weaves itself into our daily lives and signals a patience that is required for what we desire. In the end, it can simultaneously create a feeling of helplessness due to the lack of feedback and stoke our desire for content that will satiate our needs. Buffering presents us with the promise of living without boredom, of connecting to our loved ones in deep and meaningful ways. Buffering symbolizes the distraction from spinning in place that we feel as we wait in the digital age.

  1. For an excellent analysis of the rhythms of urban life, see Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (New York: Continuum, 2004).
  2. Neta Alexander, “Rage Against the Machine: Buffering, Noise, and Perpetual Anxiety in the Age of Connected Viewing,” Cinema Journal 56, no. 2 (2017): 1.
  3. Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, “A Study on Tolerable Waiting Time: How Long Are Web Users Willing to Wait?” Behavior and Information Technology 23, no. 3 (2004): 153–163.
  4. See Brad Myers, “The Importance of Percent-Done Progress Indicators for Computer-Human Interfaces,” Proceedings of CHI (ACM SIGCHI, 1985): 11–17.
  5. See Woojoo Kim, Shuping Xiong, and Zhuoqian Liang’s discussion of “power” and “inverse power” icons in “Effect of Loading Symbols of Online Video on Perception of Waiting Time,” International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction DOI: 10.1080/10447318.2017.1305051.
  6. Alex Stone, “Why Waiting Is Torture,” New York Times, August 18, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/why-waiting-in-line-is-torture.html.
  7. Ben Shneiderman, “Response Time and Display Rate in Human Performance with Computers,” Computing Surveys 16, no. 3 (1984): 265–285.
  8. See also Donald Norman, The Design of Everyday Things (New York: Basic, 1988), 9–13; James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (New York: Psychology Press, 2015), 119–135.
  9. Allucquére Rosanne Stone, “Split Subjects, Not Atoms; or, How I Fell in Love with My Prosthesis,” Configurations 2, no. 1 (1994): 178.
  10. Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 27–36.
  11. Alex Stone, “Why Waiting Is Torture.”
  12. Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track (Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2008), 41.
  13. Benjamine H. Snyder, “From Vigilance to Busyness: A Neo-Weberian Approach to Clock Time,” Sociological Theory 31, no. 3 (2013): 243–266.
  14. Claudia Hammond, Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 280–288.
  15. Dan Morse, “Montgomery Man Gets 9 Years in Stabbing at Post Office,” Washington Post, May 13, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/montgomery-man-gets-nine-years-for-stabbing-at-post-office/2013/05/13/c535110e-bbf5-11e2-97d4-a479289a31f9_story.html.
  16. Pierre Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 228.
  17. Javier Auyero, “Patients of the State: An Ethnographic Account of Poor People’s Waiting,” Latin American Research Review 46, no. 1 (2011): 11.
  18. Ibid., 24.
  19. Bourdieu, Pascalian Meditations, 228.
  20. Jimena Canales argues in her book, A Tenth of a Second: A History, that this measurement of time was a key force in shaping modern society. Technologies that were able to detect and measure a tenth of a second, coupled with new scientific discoveries over how long it took a sensation to move from nerve endings to the brain (roughly a tenth of a second), shaped how we understood bodies and the knowledge create in this new world. René Decarte’s argument, “I think therefore I am,” came under significant scrutiny once the time lag between stimulus and response was identified. This discovery shifted entire fields of thought, belief systems, and scientific approaches. See Jimena Canales, A Tenth of a Second: A History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
  21. Kim, Xiong, and Liang, “Effect of Loading Symbols,” 7.
  22. Mark Wilson, “The UX Secret that Will Ruin Apps for You,” Fast Company, July 6, 2016, https://www.fastcodesign.com/3061519/the-ux-secret-that-will-ruin-apps-for-you.
  23. Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), 38–40.
  24. Ibid., 40.
  25. Colin Campbell, The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987), 77–95.

Jason Farman

Jason Farman is a Professor of American Studies and the Associate Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is also a faculty member with the Immersive Media Design Program and the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. He is the former Director of the Design Cultures & Creativity Program, which he helped launch in 2010. He is author of the book Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World, which was awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. He is also the author of Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media, winner of the 2012 Book of the Year Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, NPR, National Geographic, 99% Invisible, Atlas Obscura, ELLE Magazine, GQ, Aeon, Vox, and others. He earned his Ph.D. in performance studies from UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television.

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