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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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit