The spinner also conveys the impression that the individual has the power, even if only briefly, to overcome the laws of nature. The spinner looks like a simple plastic gewgaw, but hidden within its body is a bearing around which the mechanism rotates. The bearing facilitates long spin times. The curse of friction, both real and symbolic, feels like it can be overcome in a universe of fidget spinners. And yet, the technological slight-of-hand that makes long spins possible is obscured, as if it were natural. Makers of toy tops have been attempting to overcome friction for years: The record for the longest top spin stands at over 51 minutes. But that top is non-mechanical, unlike the fidget spinner—which only spins for a minute or so anyway.
But the fidget spinner is only partly a toy. As much or more, it is a topic on the internet and a product in the market. Online, the device becomes #content: posts, tweets, and Snaps from the public, along with thousands of words from the press—including my own here, in the takiest of takes. All strive to get to the bottom of every phenomenon, to contain it, to make it theirs.
In the case of the fidget spinner, the temporary victory of joining in the commentary also offers succor. In an uncertain global environment biting its nails over new threats of economic precarity, global autocracy, nuclear war, planetary death, and all the rest, the fidget spinner offers the relief of a non-serious, content-free topic that harms no one. At a time when so many feel so threatened, aren’t handheld, low-friction tops the very thing we fight for?
Then commerce validates the spinner’s cultural status. For no cultural or social trend is valid without someone becoming wealthy, and someone else losing out. And soon enough, the fidget spinner will stand aside, its moment having been strip-mined for all its spoils at once. The only dream dreamed more often than the dream of individual knowledge and power is the dream of easy, immediate wealth, which now amounts to the same thing.
* * *
The purest medium is the one that is unable to carry any content. For Marshall McLuhan, the best example was the electric light. Unlike the newspaper or the television, the lightbulb doesn’t disseminate images, ideas, or information. Instead, it changes the capacity to see in environments. Nighttime becomes activated, transformed into a place where labor can continue beyond sunset, or where baseball games can fill evenings and not just weekends.
Today, the internet-connected, global economy exerts influence like the electric light once did. Gizmos like the fidget spinner fuse just-in-time manufacturing, global logistics, marketing, retail, and publishing. They exist not to serve a purpose, like play or mental health, but to grease the machinery that fulfills the desire it also invents.
The same values that the fidget spinner symbolizes, like innovation and individualism, are supposed to produce a glorious future: life-extending technology, on-demand delivery, and hyperloop transit. But in truth, progress has ground to a halt. In its place: an infinite supply of gewgaws, whether apps or memes or tops. Each fashions a new itch, whose scratch offers a tiny, temporary relief that replaces broader comforts.