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Afterthoughts and Postscripts, 56.2: Neta Alexander
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“Buffering” as a Cultural Metaphor: Postscript to “Rage against the Machine”

Neta Alexander


In a news article published in The Washington Post on November 16, 2016, Amy Wang reported that, “Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after the contentious Brexit referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket....”[1] As Wang and numerous media outlets recounted, the prestigious dictionary defines “post-truth” as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”[2] This description of a turbulent year in which the “truth” turned out to be a signifier lack of any clear or fixed meaning is very much in line with the “perpetual anxiety” I described and studied in my Cinema Journal essay, “Rage against the Machine: Buffering, Waiting and Perpetual Anxiety.”[3] While the term “post-truth” was wisely chosen by Oxford Dictionaries, I wish to offer an afterthought on yet another contender for the “word-of-the-year” award: “Buffering”.

Etymologically, the word “buffer” originated in the early 19th century to describe “any device, material, or apparatus used as a shield, cushion, or bumper, especially on machinery.”[4] In the 21st Century, however, it holds various vernacular meanings, ranging from “a foolish or incompetent person” in British slang to a word used on the American television series The Riches (2007-2008) to describe non-travelers or to identify someone from the settled community.[5] To use the colorful language of an Urban Dictionary contributor who goes by the name “mikeschneider”, the most common contemporary use of “buffering” is to describe, “That stupid annoying f---ing shit that delays viewing of pleasurable video entertainment via the internet.”[6] While this “Top Definition,” which was originally posted to the popular website on May 2006, is not quite scholarly, it reflects the oft-ignored frustration and perpetual anxiety invoked by any encounter with slowness, delay and inefficacy in an age of “on-demand” culture and endless acceleration.[7]

Within the context of “post-truth”, this need of – and demand for – acceleration can be linked to the erosion of any certainty or truth. Taken together, the “need for speed” and the perpetual anxiety invoked and exposed by buffering and other digital delays (such as the ominous ellipsis known as a “typing awareness indicator” in chat services) are to some degree the result of what Dominic Pettman calls “hypermodulation.”[8] Pushing against the idea that contemporary technologies create an “hypersynchronization” in which we all share a “collective time” (due to our ability to connect to the web at any given moment), Pettman attests that, “the raison d'être of social media is to calibrate the interactive spectacle so that we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment… it is quite deliberate that while one person is fuming about economic injustice or climate change denial, another is giggling at a cute cat video. And – two hours later – vice versa.”[9]

This dispersion into “countless different emotional micro-experiences” can serve to explain why buffering is often ignored or forgotten: while every internet user experiences buffering, users experience it on different moments and in different places (at home, on the subway, in an airplane). And once the buffering disappears, the user might question whether it ever occurred, or was it nothing but a daydream or a digital phantom.  

Due to the nature of habitual new media, the recurrent encounters with buffering are described and studied as a nuisance or a temporary technical problem. This is why the word “buffering” stands for different kinds of slowness and delay due to circumstances beyond our control. However, while American and British teenagers use “buffer” as a derogative for someone considered a daydreamer or a slow-thinker, the term “buffering” has been recently re-appropriated; it is now not only used as a metaphor for slowness and frustration, but also as a much-needed reminder of the need to slow down, reflect and meditate on our lives and actions.

This new cultural shift, which reinterpreted the term “buffering” in the spirit of Buddhist catchphrases or self-help books, made its way to the New York Times Best Sellers list this October when the 30-year-old author and self-defined “YouTube personality” Hanna Hart published her memoir, BUFFERING: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded.[10] Hart, whose claim to fame is a series of viral YouTube clips called My Drunk Kitchen in which she inexpertly tries to make food while intoxicated, reminds her readers that by reclaiming, and practicing, “buffering they can attain inner peace. The millennial internet persona explains to her fans that, “buffering is that time you spend waiting for the pixels of your life to crystalize into a clearer picture; It’s a time of reflection, a time of pause, a time of regaining your composure or readjusting your course. We have a limited amount of mental and emotional bandwidth, and some of life’s episodes take a long time to fully load.”[11]

Using her favorite all-caps writing style, Hart provides a formula for soul-seeking digital natives in the age of over-sharing: “BOUNDERIES + PROCESSING = BUFFERING.”[12] In order to avoid revealing any information that might be used against them or publishing a photo that their prospective employer might find alarming, Hart invites her readers to take a step back and “buffer” instead of impulsively translating their stream of conciseness into digital streams of information.    

Throughout her collection of personal and intimate confessions, Hart uses the term “buffering” in a counter-intuitive fashion: not as a source of anxiety or as a technical problem awaiting a solution, but rather as an opportunity for reflection, relaxation, and learning. This shift corresponds to another definition found on Urban Dictionary, according to which “buffering” is “the process of breaking up weed to be put in a weed smoking apparatus, such as packing a bowl or rolling a blunt.”[13] In these examples, buffering functions as part of a toolkit for the anxious and stressed out digital native. Alongside yoga, meditation, silence retreats and Digital Detox camps, users are encouraged to reclaim “buffering” as a means for regaining control over their lives.

The fact that the same word can be used as a cultural metaphor for both anxiety-inducing slowness (performed either by humans or machines) and for a possible way to regain control over one’s life can help us rethink “buffering” as a pharmakon, a Greek philosophical term denoting three meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. As I demonstrated in my essay, buffering functions as a digital scapegoat: by venting their temporary rage on their gadgets or machines – only to quickly resume their actions and forget they ever encountered a disturbance – internet users are able to sustain the illusion that they understand and control the technology, the codes, and the invisible systems that shape their daily lives.

While my essay explored the various ways in which buffering can be perceived and described as a pleasurable experience – from its unique aesthetic to the libidinal economy it invokes and sustains – the fact that it is used by Hart and others as a remedy still comes as a surprise. It might be less surprising, however, if we return to the idea of buffering as based on the cultural logic of neoliberalism. As I argued in the essay, “the discourse of convergence and immersion (surrounding on-demand culture) effectively serves to deny contingency when faced with a complex system whose logic and infrastructure are mostly invisible to its users (much like the economic infrastructure of credit and debt and the derivative finance on which neoliberalism is based).[14]

Hart’s advice to her readers is a symptomatic response to a neoliberal logic that shifts responsibility from the state to the individual. The equation “BOUNDERIES + PROCESSING = BUFFERING” ignores the ways in which the infrastructure, interface design, and political economy of the “always-on” digital age create behavioral patterns that lead to addiction and over-sharing.[15] Her plea to take a step back and “buffer” – namely, reflect and reconsider – before posting personal, gossipy, or abusive information aims to “empower” the user and help her regain a sense of control. Unlike Sherry Turkle, who calls for a return to the analogue world and the forgotten art of conversation, Hart’s solution to the problem of social media addiction and over-sharing is not digital abstinence but rather slowing down by practicing “buffering.”[16]

 As a cultural pharmakon, “buffering” describes both the problem and its possible solution; it is an unwanted side effect of mediation as well as a means for meditation. It can be used to study and explore the affective economy of an invisible system of addiction and dependence, while simultaneously signaling a way out. This dialectic suggests once again that neoliberal capitalism has a contradiction at its core: it is based on a structure of “wounded attachment” in which possible modes of resistance – such as deliberately slowing down for “buffering” and reflection – serve to further sustain and support the very same infrastructure and political economy they supposedly resist (after all, Hart never calls her readers to disconnect or find other meaningful ways to communicate and share their experience outside the sphere of social media conglomerates).[17]

In fact, Hart’s reappropriation of buffering appeals to “emotion and personal belief” rather than objective facts, and functions in this way as a symptomatic response to the conundrum of “post-truth.” While it might seem as a viable strategy of resistance to neoliberalism and its demand for efficiency and acceleration, it exacerbates the problem by positioning the user as fully accountable and responsible for his or her actions while completely ignoring the role infrastructure, coding, design, and cultural expectations and discourse play in creating a culture of “over-sharing”. It is emotions and experiences, rather than facts, which speak loudest while creating the “hypermodulation” that prevents users from recognizing and mapping the system’s limitations, blind spots, and failures.  



[1] Amy B Wang, “‘Post-truth’ named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries,” Washington Post, November 16, 2016.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/16/post-truth-named-2016-word-of-the-year-by-oxford-dictionaries/?utm_term=.cf87320f8be8

[2] Wang, Ibid.

[3] For the full text see “Rage against the Machine: Buffering, Waiting and Perpetual Anxiety,” Cinema Journal 56.2 (Winter 2017): 1-25.

[4] According to Dictionary.com, the noun “buffer” originated circa 1825. See http://www.dictionary.com/browse/buffer?s=t

[5] These definitions appear both on Dictionary.com and on Urban Dictionary (a website using unedited contributions made by users). See www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=buffering

[6] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=buffering

[7] For an historical overview of the rise of “the culture of speed” see Judy Wajcman, Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 

[8] See Dominic Pettman, Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media, Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2016. For a useful discussion of the digital ellipsis see Jeff Scheible, “What do ellipses do for us?” University of Minnesota Press Blog, June 2015. http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2015/06/what-do-ellipses-do-for-us.html

[9] Pettman, ibid: 29.

[10] Hannah Hart, BUFFERING: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

[11] Hart, Ibid. 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=buffering

[14] Alexander, 2016: 17.

[15] This argument builds on the work of Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012.

[16] Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Penguin Press, 2015.

[17] For an analysis of liberalism and the logic of “wounded attachment” it creates and exploits, see Wendy Brown, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

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