Rhythmic Pleasure Machines
In October 2009 Facebook’s newsfeed was updated. Phasing out chronological order, the newsfeed began sorting posts according to algorithmically defined engagement rates. Distancing itself from Google search, Facebook understood that the organizing and distribution of information and, more specifically, of images, didn’t have to necessarily follow user-defined informational or utilitarian parameters. In fact, the information presented to the user was not even determined by a prior search query. Facebook realized that the most economically profitable form of distribution followed the apparently arbitrary principles of leisure and distraction. It could also be argued that the device that made the scrolling revolution possible, the iPhone, was also obsessed with distraction rather than utility. The touch screen is first and foremost a sensorial (or even sensous) experience. It wasn’t more useful than the BlackBerry’s physical keyboard. And yet, the entire fantasy of an uber-device for the optimization of businessmen was proven wrong as a dying Balckberry couldn’t see that they weren’t making business tools, but rhythmic pleasure machines.
Facebook’s newsfeed update echoed developer Aza Raskin’s objectives when he set out to build an improved reading interface for his Humanized Reader app in 2006. An example of an aggregator or directory grouping content from different websites, Humanized Reader was an early version of our contemporary feeds. Reflecting on Google’s search interface in a blog post of that same year, Raskin points out that: “The problem is that every time a user is required to click to the next page, they are pulled from the world of content to the world of navigation […] Because it breaks their train of thought and forces them to stop reading, it gives them the opportunity to leave the site. And a lot of the times, they do. The take away? Don't force the user to ask for more content: just give it to them”. Raskin wanted to make navigation invisible, even natural, to the point where it can’t be distinguished from the users’ desires. Inadvertently, Raskin described endless scrolling as an extension of our biological functions. ‘Humanizing’, thus, acquired a slightly different meaning; one that rendered UI navigation as unavoidable as the “train of thought” in our mind.
Train of Thought
Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes popularized the expression ‘train of thought’ in the 1600s when he wrote that: “By Consequence, or train of thoughts, I understand that succession of one thought to another […] When a man thinketh on anything whatsoever, his next thought after is not altogether so casual as it seems to be. Not every thought to every thought succeeds indifferently”. More than two centuries later, philosopher and psychologist William James streamlined this metaphor by arguing instead for the expression ‘stream of consciousness’: "Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A 'river' or a 'stream' are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described.”. As Raskin did many years later, James favored an uninterrupted subjective life that is experienced all at once. Doing away with the conventionality that made thought and causality resemble the frozen-in-time chunks of ink or light we call text, James imagined both as what theorist Marshall McLuhan called an ‘acoustic space’ not determined by the clarity and distinction of visuality.
The elimination of discrete pagination in favor of a continuous scroll in web design can be read as the naturalization or invisibilization of the gaps between different pieces of content. Instead of clearly differentiating one from another, the scroll presents us with a single temporal image. That is, an image in motion, a moving picture. If figurative still images are two dimensional representations that, through the calculated placement of elements, open a window to a third dimension, the positioning of images in the scroll reveals not depth, but movement and an according flow of time. Early 20th century avant-garde movements, like post-impressionism, cubism, and futurism, considered time as a fourth dimension that revealed the conventionality of the invisible perspective space structuring our vision. In this sense, the scroll or the moving image is akin to text and analytical thought: it critically tackles the delusive synthesis of perspective. It’s an iconoclastic image; one that doesn’t show us space as fully constituted, but in the process of becoming. And yet, the scroll is experienced all-at-once, not like a train of distinct words, but as a stream that sucks you in with its overflow of sensorial stimuli.
Like all images, moving images are images made up of other images. But unlike linear perspective images, semantically organized through a vanishing point, moving images acquire meaning through the cut. Breaking down physical spaces into fragmentary frames, moving images set out to represent time. The relevant space for the cinematic image isn’t the ideal space of perspective, but the regular space within and between each frame in a celluloid film. That is, a standardized distance designed so interpretative machines merge adjacent frames in a strip of film into a single moving image. Film projectors are devices for the automation of interpretation tuned to transform space into a particular conception of time (and mind) as a stream. The scrolling film inside the projector has a preestablished order and speed of audiovisual stimuli that does not require the intervention of the spectator. A necessary concession to the machine in order for photography to access the long sought-after 4th dimension of time; a flow until then reserved to audition. The critical dismantlement of illusory space gave way to an image of time as a mechanical flow that, taking note from linear perspective, did not represent it through visual cues, but trough an out-of-sight infrastructure of movement.