Web/Mobile Displays and the Implications of Subvisual Infinity

© Copyright Christopher Montanari, Toronto Metropolitan University

Web/Mobile Displays and the Implications of Subvisual Infinity

Digital Project Website (google chrome only): https://nothingonthiswebsite.neocities.org/

Most people living in the digital age have at some point fallen prey to what has been aptly coined “doomscrolling”. “Doomscrolling” refers to the act of aimlessly surfing the web for an extended period to your own detriment. With web use at an all-time high on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone is prey to this form of web-use. Except for rare circumstances, the internet and the material objects through which we access the internet depend almost entirely on visual sensory immersion to be operated. It follows that a critical analysis of the visual aspects of the web/mobile display would be beneficial in understanding how these modes of web operation manifest themselves in experience.

Discerning the manners in which the web differs from other ubiquitous mediums highlights the visual aspects unique to the web. For example, books, newspapers, and televisions have one definitive difference from web devices. They all have externally imposed limits on the delivery of information. The web presents a reversal of this function, placing the limiting capacity for information distribution and gathering in its users. This concept is reflected in the visual nature of the medium. While using a computer/mobile device, the user is presented with what is typically a bounded field of visual sense perception, what we call the screen, with the bezels being the limits on the visual field (Fig. 1 & 2 – Black). However, since web mediums place the limit of information gathering in the user, those sensory limits are functionally altered. While a user is faced with a limited visual field, I argue that what they perceive is what I would term a subvisual infinity, or a subconscious perception of visual infinity (Fig. 1 & 2 – Red). An illustrative example of this concept would be the difference in asking a person to find the end of a book versus asking them to find the end of a social media platform.

Fig. 1 – Computer Display Subvisuality.                                            © Copyright Christopher Montanari
Fig. 2 – Cellphone Display Subvisuality                                            © Copyright Christopher Montanari

As presented in both figures, the web/mobile display is constituted materially in the visual perception of the subject while also forming a subvisual perceptive sense. It is this subvisual perception that increases to a relative infinity (ie. web pages may have dead ends, but relative to the subjects capacity to find those ends they can generally be followed forever). This subvisual infinity is manifested in subconscious perception through various queues presented within the material visual field of these displays, the most common examples of these visual queues being hyperlinks, hyperlink objects, and scroll bars (see project-website for examples). In other words, these web-objects represent to the user an infinite extension of visual space. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan suggests that the increased capacity for movement of information, which may be seen as culminating in mediums like the web, extend the visual sense to the point of disorientation (108). Such is the nature of the visual objects of a web display, though limited in the directly perceived visual sense, they represent a disorienting visually infinite pathway. As such, ascertaining where and how these visual web objects work is a valuable study for visuality.

Through the creation of a project-website I try to highlight the manner in which these web/mobile visual queues foster the subconscious perception of a subvisual infinity. I have taken the most common visual queues from popular websites and removed all the typical commercial and private content that they are presented with. These voided visual queues have been consolidated into one website called “There is Nothing on This Website”. While the website is empty, it can essentially be scrolled and followed for as long as the user wishes (all done within my capacity as the sole creator versus complex commercial codes and algorithms backed by capital). With all the visual queues stripped of their commercial content, I seek to make the user hyperconscious of the infinite dynamic of web and mobiles spaces. It should immerse the user in an everyday visual web experience with a fresh perspective on the nature of that experience.

The immersion into the perspective of the webs visually infinite dynamic on this project-site is directed towards a countervisual understanding. In Right to Look, Nicholas Mirzoeff outlines one approach to visuality that describes it as a “formation of a coherent and intelligible picture of modernity that allows for centralized and/or autocratic leadership” (Mirzoeff 23). Considering a massive amount of information gets moved through the web, and massive amounts of time are spent on it, it is essential to understand how its visuality influences the subject, and how that influence may or may not conceal domains of control and leadership. Mizoeff again describes this authoritative form of visuality as “one proper to the docile bodies demanded by capital, that develops means of disciplining, ordering, and organizing vision” (Mirzoeff 23). The composition of the project-site I have designed represents the webs capacity for the command of visual experience in its simplest form. The site, full of visually-liquidated hyperlinks and queues, draws user attention to the manners in which common websites order, discipline, and organize subject vision. The objective is not to suggest that using the internet is bad, as the digital means of information distribution have had both profound and varied impacts on the world. Rather, the goal of this project site is to offer a countervisual experience to an everyday visual reality for most people. It should hopefully suggest that the private/commercial visual content that fills these websites often exist as interchangeable placeholders for the structured visual queues underneath them.

The implications of the concept of subvisual infinity raise important questions about social web dynamics. Namely with regards to the relationship between web-visuality, subject autonomy, and the nature of internet addiction. There are growing concerns about how the visual queues mentioned, such as the youtube recommendeds bar, have the capacity to lead web users down extreme ideological rabbit-holes. Derek O’Callaghan describes the manner in which recommender systems draw people into ideological bubbles often associated with extreme right-wing content (1). Aside from the algorithms that recommend specific content, the project-site seeks to understand how the purely visual nature of these web objects foster the possibility for alteration of user autonomy. Furthermore, there is growing concern around the subject of internet addiction. While research on the subject is still focused on defining the behaviors surrounding this form of addiction, it exists, and internet use in the developed world is on a consistent rise, increasing susceptibility (Kuss et al. 2). In this regard, the project-site approaches the inner workings of web-visuality that may potentiate addictive tendencies. It seeks to highlight that there is some point when web-use transforms from “information gathering/standard web-use” to “queue-following”, or immersion into the visually infinite web dynamic.

In his book System of Objects, Jean Baudrillard suggests that our relationship to objects is such that we allow them to replace forms of human praxis and gesture, leaving us only with a “gestural system of cerebro-sensory vigilance” (ie. pushing buttons and flipping switches) (52). This concept translates well into our relationship with computers and mobile devices, and more broadly to the objective of this project. It is valuable to question how much potential human experience gets reduced or translated into minimally interactive visual web-spaces. Overall, The project-site’s goal is the reduction of these visual spaces to their simplest form, drawing out the visual underlayer of the web that ultimately aids in translating human experience into time spent “doomscrolling”.


Works Cited

  • Baudrillard, Jean, and James Benedict. The System of Objects. Verso, 2020.
  • Kuss, Daria J., et al. “Assessing Internet Addiction using the Parsimonious Internet Addiction Components Model—A Preliminary Study.” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, vol. 12, no. 3, 2013;2014;, pp. 351-366.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.
  • Mirzoeff, Nicholas. Right to Look. Duke University Press, 2011.
  • O’Callaghan, Derek, et al. “Down the (White) Rabbit Hole: The Extreme Right and Online Recommender Systems.” Social Science Computer Review, vol. 33, no. 4, Aug. 2015, pp. 459–478, doi:10.1177/0894439314555329.
  • Anderson, Janna, and Lee Rainie. “1. Concerns about Human Agency, Evolution and Survival.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 31 Dec. 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/12/10/concerns-about-human-agency-evolution-and-survival/.