The impossibility of quantifying micro-temporality

They call it spinner, indeterminate progress bar, or sometimes activity indicator. But what exactly is the throbber? And what actions happening behind the scenes is it hiding to the user?

NCSA Mosaic’s throbber. Earliest development of a throbber (designed by scientist Colleen Bushell)

Encountering a throbber these days is one of the most common things that can happen to you if you make use of any digital device rather frequently. Throbbers are animated graphics showing the user that something is loading and the computer is working on an unspecified task. We experience them every time we try to stream a video on a slow performing network, load a picture from a social network, or simply open a web page. The behaviour stops when the action has finished loading and the data is fully, or partly, ready to be accessed.

A type of progress bar found on iOS (Source: Gizmondo)

Many people see the use of the throbber as a frustrating implementation, arguing it should be replaced by the more informative progress bar. While the use of a progress bar does not influence in any way the speed of the micro-actions happening behind the scenes while loading, it often gives the end user the idea of a foreseeable timespan whitin which the task will be eventually executed.

The use of a wheel that rotates clockwise became the most common icon for the throbber because of its resemblance to a stopwatch. “Throbbers were built into early browsers. Netscape’s moving ‘N’ logo is often credited for giving this term its name, because it expanded and contracted — or throbbed — as processing occurred.” (Technopedia) More recently the wheel was redesigned as in form of circles and lines, which minimalist aspect is supposed to interfere the least with the task the user is attempting.

OSX and iOS style throbber with the typical fading lines.

In acting as an interface between computational processes and visual communication¹, the throbber does nothing helpful yet it allows the machine — the receiver — to receive all the packets necessary to perform a task. There is no direct connection between the machine and the network — the sender. The time that takes for this communication to happen is often not predictable because such decisions occur in real-time, or more precisely within micro-temporal intervals.² Hence, this explains the use of the throbber as opposed to the progress bar in many interfaces.

This brings us to understanding the concept of buffer. As defined by Winnie Soon in Executing Micro-Temporality (2017, EXECUTING PRACTICES, Published by DATA browser 06), a buffer is a temporal storage that usually stores a small amount of data in physical memory. While some data are stored in a buffer, other segments of data are being read and processed. This also means that software applications are not required to wait for the entire media file to be downloaded. What the user is experiencing when presented with a throbber is the gap between between the data that has arrived in the buffer and that which is processed. ³

There are instances, though, where stopping the flow of data is not recommended because of the intrinsic continuity which the data has to maintain on some streaming platforms such as Skype, Youtube, Facebook Live, etc. When issues with retrieving packets and chucks of data happen on, for example the aforementioned platforms, what the user experiences are dropped frames, a degradation of video and audio quality, or both. This occurs because, as already said, audio and video communications are supposed to be unceasing — therefore a throbber appearing during a What’s App call is rare, while glitchy communications occur quite often. Some live communication applications prefer to interrupt the stream of data by dropping the call or live stream— a signal that one or both devices are experiencing weak network performance. In deciding whether the data should be played-back or ignored, acceptable latency becomes a decision that is inscribed in the software and platform design.⁴

In contemporary art the throbber is seen as cultural icon “expressing various dimensions of time”⁵. Visually and conceptually striking are the works of Aristarkh Chernyshev — LOADING (2007) — and Lai Chih-Sheng — Instant (2013). Both artists have used their own versions of a throbber to play with the concept of indefinite timeframes and that of waiting for something which may never materialise.



1–2–3–4–5: Soon, W. (2017). EXECUTING PRACTICES (Executing Micro-Temporality). DATA browser 06.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, weekend photographer, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.