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Digital hieroglyphics: what does the buffer symbol tell us about ourselves?

Staring at a buffer symbol, waiting for something on the internet to load can be both reassuring and distressing. We wait with the belief that something is happening out of sight.

The digital world is a world of symbols, and many of these reassure us in one way or another that something we may not be able to see happening is, in fact, happening. From spinning disks to turning sand-timers, the language of loading is one of movement and materiality. Clipboards, scissors, compasses, magnifying glasses, paint brushes, binoculars, envelops, microphones, gears, cogs, buttons, levers. Our interfaces are full of objects that have been severed from their origins, gouged from an analogue past and appropriated for the digital present. These are icons that make complex computational processes seem solid, industrial, relatable.

One icon we see on a daily basis is the buffer symbol; that swirling, ubiquitous circle we encounter as we wait for data to move, videos to load, action to happen. The spokes of the wheel brighten and fade as we wait with folded arms in the knowledge that transmission is occurring behind our screens. The symbol looms large in the English novelist Tom McCarthy’s new book, Satin Island. McCarthy, whose last novel C was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has a longstanding interest in transmission, whether it’s in his novels, his work with the International Necronautical Society or in critical writing like his 2012 essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix”. In his new novel it is the buffer symbol that sits on the front cover, enlarged and draped in oil, both familiar and alien.

U, the protagonist in Satin Island, is tasked with writing The Great Report, “the first and last word on our age,” as the company chief who employs him describes it. In one of the novel’s most memorable sections, U focuses his attention on the buffer symbol and what goes on behind it. He pictures “hordes of bits and bytes and megabytes, all beavering away to get the requisite data”. Beyond that he pictures servers in Finland, Nevada or Uzbekistan with “stacks of memory banks, satellite dishes sprouting all around them, pumping out information non-stop”. For U, the churning movement of the buffer symbol represents the Internet-machine in action and the thought of this is “sublimely reassuring”.

“The closest thing to compare it to maybe Egyptian hieroglyphics,” says Tom McCarthy when I talk to him over the phone. “In the way those symbols are created and then take on a life of their own. Especially when, millennia later, you enter the tomb and you’re surrounded by these symbols and you try to piece together what they mean, their syntax and grammar. My hero is an Egyptologist in a contemporary sense, entering this labyrinth of symbols and trying to work out the family network of those symbols.”

Tom McCarthy holding his Booker-shortlisted novel “C”. Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

You can imagine an archaeologist in the distant future entering the tomb of a 21st-century computer and tracing the meaning of symbols to their long-forgotten origins – for example, the toothed and twirling circles of loading, referencing the gears of a mechanical clock. Or the serrated squares and triangles-in-rectangles of email, referencing the ancient technology of stamps and envelopes. Symbols for transmission often make invisible actions seem material, but for McCarthy creating an opposition between a material past and an immaterial present is misleading.

“I don’t think there’s anything immaterial about digital culture,” he tells me. “There are black boxes, there are giant servers in Uzbekistan and Finland. I’m a total materialist. I think everything is material. In C or in this book there is always the black box at the heart of it all. The crypt with a body in it. A space in which encryption happens. There’s always a body at the centre.”

We stroke the screen of our phone and somewhere in the middle of the desert Google’s sprawling data centres deliver the information we need. But in Satin Island, U begins to worry: “What if it were just a circle, spinning on my screen, and nothing else? What if the supply-chain, its great bounty, had dried up, or been cut off, or never been connected in the first place?” Digital technology may still be material but does the separation of interface and hardware mean there’s disconnection between one end of the process and the other, between the individual and the network?

“There’s the utopian narrative that network culture offers us,” McCarthy says. “That Google and Apple sell us. ‘Don’t worry,’ they tell us. ‘You are connected. There is an infrastructure around you. You are held in place.  While this circle spins we are beavering away to get this stuff for you. There are a million data angels dancing on the pinhead of your connection. You’ll get it in just a sec. Another twelve seconds.’ The other side of this is, what if U is just sitting in his chair looking at a circle? That’s material as well but it’s a vision of disconnection. For U that’s underpinned by his obsession with a parachutist and the word play between buffering and buffeting. The parachutist has the same anxiety: ‘Don’t worry. You’re falling but you’re held in place. These strands of your parachute converge on you.’ But what if that one little buckle that holds it in place is gone and you’re just falling through the sky?”

Staring at a buffer symbol is both reassuring and, as it continues, distressing. We wait with the belief that something is happening out of sight. But when we wait too long that belief shatters. In that way, they are comparable to religious symbols, which also serve as grounded icons for invisible processes. They are tangible shapes that can be held, kissed and worshiped in the belief that they represent structures we aren’t able to see or touch.  “It’s about whether we are saved by some kind of structure which is underpinned by an absolute guarantor,” he tells me. “Whether that is God or a black box in Nevada. Or, whether we’re just moving through this disconnected, map-less space that we can’t navigate or get traction on any more.”

“The future has always been the trump card in a certain neo-liberal narrative of progress,” McCarthy says. “I think the very concept of the future should be interrogated and attacked. It’s much more interesting to look at a buffering zone where futures and temporalities are discontinuous and jarring and smashing up against each other. This is what Modernism understood. Time in James Joyce or Samuel Beckett isn’t linear at all. It’s elliptical and circular. Joyce talks about the Here and Now through which all future plunges into the past. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Happy Days you have this looping structure where characters re-enact themselves, and Beckett gets that from Joyce because that’s the model Joyce uses in Finnegans Wake, and Joyce gets it from Giambattista Vico, the 18th-century philosopher, who proposes this spring-like structure of time, rather than the linear one of the enlightenment.”

In a world where the entire archive of everything is only a click away, is it becoming harder to think of time as a continuous line of one thing after another? In Ali Smith’s How To Be Both a character is faced with a fresco that has been painted over and is asked what came first, the picture underneath or the picture on the surface. Browser windows overlap like frescos on our screens and, like the two sections of Ali Smith’s novel, they can be read in any order; they happen simultaneously. Digital hieroglyphics are in many ways what help us to navigate this space. They are the swirls, gears and objects that help us to turn time and process in the network into a narrative. In Satin Island, the buffer symbol is a place where comprehension breaks down. It’s a vision of “a kind of systematic delay and an out-of-jointness”. And it represents our state of digital disconnection, in which we are “simultaneously saturated with data and at the same time not able to render it”.

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon