Monday, March 9, 2009

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Behold, a progress bar. That’s what computing is all about: progress, but also making you wait for things. Older people who approach personal computers for the first time are sometimes bemused by this. My parents for instance couldn’t understand why the operating system took so long to load on the machine I gave them before leaving for New Zealand, and most of their mistakes operating their web browser and email client were simply due to a failure to wait. I guess they were used to information technologies such as the television and the phone, where responses to commands are more or less instantaneous.

Another thing you learn pretty early about progress bars is that they lie. There really is no relationship between the time taken for the bar to get to, say, fifty per cent of the way, and how long it will take from there to reach completion. It’s a fact of life. At Microsoft (motto: “We put the H, the U, the B, the R, the I and the S in hubris”) they like to tell you how long exactly a procedure such as a file transfer is going to take, so in addition to the inaccurate progress bar you get a far more inaccurate time estimate such as 114 minutes remaining, which will quickly change into 12 minutes remaining and then gets stuck on 30 seconds remaining for three and a half minutes. At which point the transfer will hang.

So really the only function of the progress bar is to let you know that things are still happening. The alternative device, the ‘please wait’ dial exemplified below (and sourced here) is altogether more honest, but also more anxiogenic.

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For who’s to say that the procedure hasn’t in fact stalled, except for the script that makes the little dot go round and round? Besides, the positivist ethos of the computer age demands that progress be represented in a straight line; the circle is philosophically and existentially far too uncomfortable. There is in fact a third variant, a progress bar in the style of chaser lights that combines a constant loop with a sense of forward motion. But this is a horrible hydra, and the most anxiety-inducing device of all.

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Why anxious? Because it reminds us, and here comes a pronouncement, that we are always waiting for something (else) to load. It is the nature of networked computing. Electronic texts are seldom if ever self-sufficient, finite, finished units of meaning. They are interconnected, dynamic, unstable. You read, you skip, you jump. You write, you revise, you prune your dead links. A blog isn't a book, or even a diary: it's more like a pile of paper that gets reshuffled, or added to, for as long as its author(s) are able or willing to do so. Most blogs die of authorial exhaustion, as opposed to being neatly concluded once they've said and meant all the things they were supposed to say and mean. And a Twitter feed is like a bottomless scroll, a mystic roll of paper (in the Freudian sense) that is unwound as it is inscribed, for virtual eternity; and a Facebook page is like a magic blackboard that is constantly written and erased, by yourself and others, again for as long as there are people interested enough and willing to do so.

At the crossroads of all these activities, you're never quite finished reading, and you're never quite finished writing, and furthermore it becomes harder to tell where reading finishes, and writing begins. The simple acts of accessing, searching for something, logging in, signing up, choosing x instead of y, can themselves be authorial acts on a network. You read, you write, you are written. All very Escherly.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands, 1948

This may seem a somewhat gratuitous appeal to the man and his coolness, but consider the failure of more contemporary artist and art forms to describe and reflect upon such configurations. Here is for instance the sculpture donated by Alexa Internet (that would be the people behind the WayBack Machine) to the US Library of Congress in 1997, and exhibited for some time in the foyer of said library.


Titled World Wide Web 1997: 2 Terabytes in 63 Inches, the sculpture by artist Alan Rath, flashed pages at the rate of two per second per each screen from the half a million sites gathered by Alexa and stored in 44 digital tapes. You can watch a demo here, and perhaps concur with me that its rapidfire, utterly unconnected sequencing of images has got nothing to do with the sense one can make of, on and with the Internet. It strikes one rather as an unwitting parody, or an equally unintentional Luddite invective. But therein lies the key paradox of digital preservation: in order to save the Internet, you need to take it apart, and I'm not the guy who came up with words such as 'harvesting' and 'ingesting' to describe how it's done. The result, valuable and interesting as it still might be, would be an immense text without context, finite, finished, fully and finally loaded, but ultimately as likely to be understood as misunderstood.

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So, then: competition time. When I was endeavouring to work out what RSS was all about and how to implement it on the blog, I came across an article in which it was argued that you really need to come up with catchy, sexy titles for your posts as an added incentive for a site's subscribers to actually click through. It's a veritable key to success, the man said. So naturally it immediately got me thinking of how to achieve the exact opposite, and figure out what titles would be least likely to attract one's subscribers or the people who might stumble upon the feed. Which is how I came up with this week's offering. Next week there will be a follow-up post and the first reader to correctly guess the title in the comments will receive a copy of this here book.


If I had to describe it in my own words, I would say that John Kehoe's international bestseller teaches you practical techniques for achieving your goals by harnessing the power within! This fine, fine book will allow you to acquire potent tools in the areas of visualisation, contemplation, prosperity consciousness, self-image, intuition, beliefs and imprinting, fulfilling relationships and healing yourself.

The competition this time is open to a worldwide audience, with the possible exception of Jake (who might have been told the solution a while ago - then again, if it's not the case, go right ahead). I'd also be keen to hear your entries on dull post titles likely to turn people off (in the spirit of the I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue game where you had to come up with words that wouldn't make the audience laugh), and will select the winner amongst those if the correct one doesn't turn up.

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