“The computer is taking back its control, forcing you, the friendly user, to wait.”
Spinning. Waiting. Initializing. A slight shift of opacity. Rotating clockwise. Progressing forward. The most essential stage in the process of starting a program, the loading screen. Typically a picture shown by the computer program itself. Dots, progress bars, percentages, a spinning pinwheel or simply the letters, L-O-A-D-I-N-G. Others, just a static picture. The signifier takes on many forms. Behind these visual cues, something else is happening. Lines of code being read. 1010101. Instructions being browsed. Libraries checked. Gradually placing the program into memory, preparing for its given task. Fetch. Decode. Execute.
The loader is ubiquitous. Playing a role in all operating systems. Video games, music, apps, interfaces, devices. A constant companion. Appearing in desktop, tablet and mobile spaces. A rare case in the canon of interface visual language. Unlike its friend the hover state, only appearing on desktop.
It hits all senses. Historically, clicking and banging from the turn of a crank as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine read through a string of Ada Lovelace’s bouliane numbers. The sound of hammers, metal, gears becoming your visual. Now, mysteriously, silence. If you’re lucky, the light spin of the fan. Signs of progress, breathing. Making sure the machine is doing what we asked it to.
The small visual establishes a moment of friction. Interrupting our smooth scrolling experiences. Waiting. For however long the process takes. Seconds. Minutes. Hours. Days. The computer is taking back its control, forcing you, the friendly user, to wait. Impatiently. The elements of time, questioned. How long have I been waiting here? An unavoidable part of life. Looking at the spinning dots. They become meditative. Dot. Dot. Dot. A friendly reminder, letting you know who is in charge.
Culture has continued to question the loader’s legitimacy. Customizing, avoiding its original intent. Trying to make the experience more enticing. Adding color, different forms. Masking its real purpose. Help threads call the Mac iOS staple a “spinning beachball of death.” Exposing our society’s appetite for boredom, pleading for it to go away. The icon rotates like spinning blades, despite its beachball-esk aesthetic. Artist Evan Desmond Yee glorified, even fetishized, this tiny visual. Translating it into a cult-like symbol. Magnifying the 12-pill-shaped icon to human scale in Chasing Eternity. Forcing us to confront the loader like a door into another world. Light illuminating from behind the hidden surface. While his work from 2015, It Fell From The Cloud, treats the spinning beachball like a technological lollipop. Cynically waiting for us to cave in. Abruptly interrupting our interaction within the digital ecosystem.
The waiting is crucial. That friction is important. Humans thrive off comfort. Expecting things to work the way we want them too. Not the loader. It continues to surprise us. We know what it’s there for. Slowing us down with a single click. It’s preparing us. Preparing us, for a moment of focus. Silence. I’m captivated by its silence. Making us reconsider, as we head into our daily consumption of information. Only to start over again. Spinning. Waiting. Initializing. Endlessly.
Still Processing is a collection of work from the participants of the two-week 2021 Design Writing & Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts. For more information about our Summer Intensive as well as our two-semester Master’s program, please visit our website or email us at email@example.com