A paper camera

A complete and total waste of time

I’ve just discovered “Hold The Button”. At this web site, you click on a blue button and see how long you can hold it while a timer clocks your endurance. It is, of course, a clever little meditation on the existential drudgery of our cyberage, remixed with a sort of little-boy-and-the-dike flava.

Except that after you finally give up and let go of the mouse button, the counter shows you the average amount of time that users in the last week have held the button. I only held it down for 6.93 seconds; the average user held it down for a staggering 14 minutes and 2 seconds, which means that to counterbalance my measly button-push, someone else out there must have held it down for over 28 minutes.

This transforms the game into a hands-on-the-idol type of battle straight out of Survivor — except that instead of $1 million, we’re competing furiously for the elite right to brag that we have more time to waste than any other loser online.

At which point the whole procedure becomes a breathtakingly subtle gloss on The State of Life Today. In particular, it made me think about how many of our digital-age activities involve endless waiting. Indeed, half the time we’re actually competing with other people to see how much of that ultimately nonrenewable resource — our lives — we’re willing to expend in gorgeously pointless tasks. Think about being on hold with any major corporation: Half the time, the voice-prompt will tell you how many people are waiting along with you and how much time you’ll be left hanging. (“You are now 76th in line! Your expected call wait is two hours and thirty-two minutes.”)

I’m also reminded of The Sims Online, where you tried to make money by engaging in numbingly repetitive tasks, such as making pizzas. But since you only made a small amount per pizza, game-players would sit there for hours and hours at the keyboard, hitting the “make pizza” button over and over and over again. Eventually, some players got the bright idea to simply jam a penny in the slot next to the relevant key, allowing them to go off and watch TV while their avatar spun infinite pizzas into the howling void. So the trick to succeeding at the game is, in essence, not really play at all. Who the hell designed this thing? Harold Pinter?

Of course, people may be similarly hacking “Hold the Button”. I notice that the current record-holder was able to keep the button pressed for over 13 days — which technically shouldn’t be possible, since the counter is supposed to only record week-long stretches. Though it may be that someone laid down a heavy book on their mouse button and left it there for almost two weeks, and actually overroad the counting program. That’s kind of like rolling over an old-school video game: In 1984, I rolled over the local Pac-man machine twice (it would only count to 1 million then start again) when I was a kid by playing it for almost four hours. I went home and proudly proclaimed my feat to my father, who regarded me with an expression of almost infinite sadness, and went back to watching football.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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