If you spot a “throbber,” you’ve probably got an issue with your hardware. These small digital animations, more commonly known as buffer icons, only appear when your internet connection or browser speed is too slow to manage the volume of incoming data. In the 1990s almost every webpage used to buffer before it loaded; the old Netscape throbber (depicting a meteor shower over a hilltop) was practically the unofficial logo of the World Wide Web for many years. These days you will only see a throbber when handling large media files like video, or when a so-called “infinite scroll” page loads a new segment.
A throbber frequently resembles a rolling wheel, spinning bar, bouncing ellipsis or (more uncommonly) a set of grinding gears. These forms are designed to suggest that, while no immediate change is evident, the computer is nonetheless hard at work behind the scenes. In the absence of a percentage bar, we simply have to wait and trust that the throbber’s motion does indeed represent some form of progress.
The throbber is a sign of temporal rupture. It is the last barrier to a perfectly smooth and seamless virtual experience. It draws attention to an asynchronous maladjustment, or misalignment, between the space of our bodies and the infinite atopian fluidity of the digital world. As such, the throbber stands for wasted time, with all the implications of subversive indolence and anti-industriousness this evokes. The elimination of the throbber is therefore integral to the fantasy of “real-time,” a paradigm of total coherence in which events are instantly known to all agents in a network. For several decades the neoliberals that posited such an exchange assumed real-time would improve the quality of collective decision-making and resource distribution. It is only now, as technology catches up to the vision, that real-time systems are revealed to be as ineffective as any other model. They perpetuate the hegemonic inequalities of previous systems, and in fact accelerate the polarization of wealth and power. They make the same logical errors as before, only much faster—and they often create disproportionate feedback loops in the process. Any improved efficiency of real-time exchange (which is, in the long run, minimal, as demonstrated by the Grossman-Stiglitz paradox) stems purely from its speed. The pursuit of real-time increasingly means either abandoning human engagement in the network altogether (as with fully-electronic trading platforms like the NASDAQ), or operating at the very limits of human conscious thought, in the half-waking peripheral glaze of the mind (as with models that require large data volumes for marginal consumer returns, like Instagram). The throbber, as a trigger for critical reflection, threatens to disturb this soporific state.
Advocates of real-time imagine humanity as progressing towards a utopia of self-regulating supplies and demands. To achieve this presupposes several conditions. First, all individuals have to be incorporated into a single global network. Second, the network must be universally robust, with all parts accelerated to a uniform speed. Lastly, any remaining inconsistencies or internal delays within the network have to be reduced or mitigated as far as possible. In truth, this process is almost complete: there are seven billion people in the world with 6.8 billion active mobile phones between them (of which more than a billion are smartphones). By the end of this year 85% of the world’s population will have access to a 3G network; by the end of next, 50% will be on 4G.
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