The idea of an endless universe is profoundly disorienting because infinite things are confusing. It seems fair to say that to understand the world around us we impose structure in the form of hierarchy, and navigational landmarks in time and space (Collins & Loftus, 1975). This applies just as much to dematerialised digital environments as to city streets and subway systems. Some theorists (Jackendorff, 2002, Mechelli et al., 2004) suggest the structure of consciousness reflects the structure of language and is highly ordered in the way a language has syntax, grammar, intonation and rhythm. Hegel associates infinity with the divine and calls it a bad (or spurious) infinity – eine schlechte Unendlichkeit – since it stands apart from the finite, and finitude is incompletely negated. A good infinity is seen in dialectic, events supersede one another in historical sequence. A bad infinity is illustrated in the number sequence, it goes on forever and has no end. In order to make sense of experience things must be visible as finite, our mental models of the world depend on it.
“It’s like a springloaded scroll that spools out of an opaque cylinder case like some sort of measuring tape. One mis-step and you have to spend minutes slowly pulling it back out again. Meanwhile all the stuff you have already read is sitting around in a big mess, doing nothing but taking up space and getting in the way.”
Crito, Hacker News 2014.
The infinite scroll is a ubiquitous interaction pattern these days. Twittter is an endless waterfall, the Facebook timeline goes on forever, Pinterest is a limitless mood board. Instagram, Flipboard, WordPress, Google Image search results, they all specialise in a perpetual, relentless stream of content. Some people call it autopagerize, unpaginate, or endless pages, it evolved as an answer to paging through content which involves loading pages one by one and as a design response to the limited screen real estate on smartphones. From a usability perspective, the driving motivation for endless scrolling is user retention. In the attention economy, eyeballs are dollars and providers of online content need to keep us looking at their product for as long as possible. With decreased screen sizes (although that does seem to be reversing with large screen smartphones) chunking information means loading times are reduced and content can be called up when required. The new Facebook autoplay video function is a good example of this.
My problem with infinite scrolling is that it creates information anxiety (as Wurman would say) and information bloat. What if the most important piece of content is just past the next screen? Hacker News comments on endless scrolling include a “headlong sense of just rushing through the text” and “a sensation of speed and “flow” that doesn’t really impart any understanding.” We’re so busy skipping through the content to the next slim chunk, terrified to miss something, the system leaves us agitated, quivering with unlimited anticipation. Other comments: “What if there is some critical piece of knowledge just three flicks of my finger upwards?” and “We feel intellectually bloated, and yet completely unsatisfied”. Plus, of course, the system is usually algorithmically ordering the scroll in ways hard to detect. These include personal preference weighting, advertising imperatives, most read items, and paid for promotional content. It turns out we need interactional friction, a stop sign, a moment to pause and sit back, make sense of things.
My research suggests ways of imposing the finite on the infinite, (or as Hegel would say; the negation of the negation), and proposes design-led inquiry as way of doing it. In the context of browser activity, social networks, and email deliberate constraints are prescribed. Materials, temporal sequence, and operations integrate in dynamic gestalt – structure shapes experience, bad infinity is resisted.