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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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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times