On needing a novel metaphor for the web’s Endless Stream
When the Internet went sort of hysterical last week after Stephen Hawking published his paper, sort of suggesting that black holes don’t actually exist, I thought my old metaphor of explaining the infinite scroll was completely shot.
I previously and comfortably conceptualized the web’s infinite scroll in terms of very basic physics because it was the most obvious way to think about a unique infinity made possible by computer programming. It made sense. The infinite scroll on most websites today—Facebook, Pinterest, et al.—are all downward spirals to a bottomless pit of content. Not only that, for every article I read on The Verge, Gawker—the Internet in extenso, let’s just say—the moment I reach the Halmos black square is the same moment at which I am pummeled with more links, tantalizing me to bolster the company’s click-through rate. I can scroll on Twitter for hours, dangerously forgetting to take bathroom breaks.
However, my initial inclination toward this basic, pop culture-y logic of physics has recently become less useful to me after episodes of irrational but provocative paranoia. Every so often, in these hours-long marathons of streaming consumption, I am interrupted by my own natural stream of thoughts. I think about, one day, coming across a longitudinal study about the long-term effects of a computer or iPad’s ambient light. In my worst-case-scenario imagination, this [to-be-determined effect of the device’s] radiating glow usually involves carcinogenic, irreparable internal damage, or hideously, disfiguring facial morphs.
Disregarding the overreacting imagination for a moment, the suspicion nevertheless highlights the insidious source of the light—the infinite stream of content. When I say “natural stream” of thought, I mean “natural” in the most stark, binary sense, a sense explicitly contrasting the non-human unnatural. Thus, we can interpret this “natural” stream as our conscious attention. The stream for which a computer, device, or app’s own stream clamors and with which it seeks to become one.
This light, this paranoid discomfort, this digital poltergeist—it is haunting.
“He he… hehehe!”
What poltergeists are typically successful at doing is revealing something that is dwelling yet invisible. As a digital externality, the device’s glow gestures to something left unseen. This glow, this ambient glow, an infinite glow that waxes and wanes over my skin as I scroll down the screen, aiming for the end, an end that is nowhere to be found, that cannot be found, that refuses to be found. A glow that cannot be turned off. How could it be? There is no “off” switch on any infinite scroll. The glow is so bright… yet so unknown at the same time. It is everywhere.
It is, altogether, inescapable.
What was previously a naive and simplistic application of the black hole framework and pop science quickly dissolved. Physics turned out to be not only a boring and lazy lens with which to assess the implications of the never-ending digital storyline we encounter today.
More so than that, my glasses were ignorantly rose-colored.
But a different sensibility toward infinity became quickly apparent.
My instinctive eagerness to browse the web is tempered with a strong, visceral reaction to a contemporary design decision for endless online content. This decision now dictates the operational, commercial practice of this virtual bazaar.
I am tempered because the infinite scroll, or the “Endless Stream,” as we have come to know it in its UI/UX glory, is as unforgiving as much as it is merciless.
Most relevant digital media companies have realized the benefits of an Endless Stream strategy. (The struggling dinosaurs have, too.) In a world where more eyeballs and more time spent eyeballing the screen don’t absolutely guarantee, but merely suggest, toward a possibility of more cold, hard cash, this slight possibility is worth the visual inundation of unceasing information. In this world, we’re clamoring at the opportunity to jump through the throbbing red veins of these eyeballs. As Eric Jorgensen put it, “It’s constant and clamoring; aggressive and accelerating.” The Endless Stream, in its objective to optimize this opportunity, is, fundamentally, one of the most capitalizing—and capitalist—inventions of the digital industrial complex.
And in true capitalist fashion, the Endless Stream does not put forth a welcome mat for the digital consumer who is faint of heart.
The Endless Stream requires a market participant that can wade through the savage competition for attention. It does not put up any pretensions and masks itself as a discriminatory curator in the free market, although the attempts are valiant (Facebook). It gives you choices ad infinitum, even if you know what you want already (Etsy). It unravels previously paginated content and it leaves pieces, bits, and bytes of content in its scrollable, unpaginated, and unapologetic wake (Quartz, Tumblr, anything with that same snippet of jQuery, et al.). It values brevity, not quality (Twitter, Instagram). It is always more, not less. What’s more—it gives a lot, and takes a lot more. Most concretely, the endless stream does not care that it is three hours past midnight and you have to get up for work in four hours. It proudly admits to creating addicts.
The Endless Stream, quite literally, could care less.
Because there’s always more of it.
What is the use-value in the Endless Stream, then?
The value is in its almost—almost—chivalrous, cavalier, and charitable reliability. The Endless Stream will always be available and on time, all the time. It will shower you with attention. It will give into your demands, depending on who or what you’re following. It will bring you many, many, many animals in various GIF forms when you feel blue. It will let you wield itself as a weapon to fight against the momentary boredom that waxes and wanes with your everyday existence. The Endless Stream is always there at your disposal for your consumption.
But not necessarily there for you.
Because the momentary boredom that the Endless Stream alleviates with its doting and constant presence always, somehow, manages to return. The boredom returns with a pang even more substantial than the anxiety that was quieted for that brief period of false pretense. The GIF loop has ended, but the stream has not. The Endless Stream is showering you with attention by ceaselessly and trenchantly demanding your own attention for what it can offer you. The relationship is entirely transactional—you must give infinity something back for what it sells you.
The Endless Stream is not chivalrous. It is not charitable.
It is, one could say, a capitalist.
I fall asleep most nights with a gradual drift into unconsciousness as my natural stream of thoughts slowly disappear into the abyss. This stream is typically finite. Unconsciousness can be an incredibly effective “off” switch to human scrolling.
No longer is that the case. I am, perpetually, tethered to the oleophobic LED screen. In my hand, I cradle the posts, the news, the stories, the tweets. The light is omnipresent; the stream eternal. I lie there awake, consuming more and more, growing increasingly tired… but never quite being able to let go.
The Endless Stream capitalizes on my consciousness and seduces me with its addictive plenitude. And it is accomplishing this seduction with the utmost finesse and the least amount of resistance.
Even if Stephen Hawking may have sort of proven that black holes don’t exist, a part of me is still wanting to cling to his previous logic and the black hole as a conceptual metaphor, an easy-to-use metaphor that he’s introduced into popular culture and our collective lexicon. It’s much more simple. It’s uncomplicated.
But to make sense of the endless amount of data today that forces me into consciousness, I need an alternative logic. I need to explain my own acquiescent compliance toward the incredibly acute perpetuity of the Endless Stream, this stream that beckons me close with what seems (or unseems) like an invisible hand.
Because if I can’t even see the hand, that’s not a matter of science.
Well, sort of.
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Camera Obscura and the World of Illusions, Edinburgh. Photo by the author.