Metaphor, formerly Phil Spector’d, resurrected.

Infinite loop, meet one-song shuffle.

Republicans have no economic policy except tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.  You might say they’re playing their obsession on an infinite loop.

…except that the “infinite loop” metaphor is dying, almost dead.  At 41, I’m almost certainly one of the youngest people to use (in middle school, when it was already almost obsolete) a reel-to-reel tape player on which one could actually splice the tape containing some music or words into a loop for the machine to play ceaselessly.  Granted, “infinite loop” is also programming talk for a subroutine from which there’s no exit—hence Apple Computer’s corporate address—but that’s hardly common knowledge.  I suspect most younger people have no idea what an infinite loop is, nor should they.

Steve Benen, though has coined the twenty-first century version:

It’s as if someone bought an ipod, uploaded one song, and hit “shuffle.”


Update: OK, it looks as if I got it wrong (as Kevin Drum and his commenters noted, as well as many of the comments below).  The audiotape term was endless loop.  Infinite loop always referred to programming.  My mistake.

But as I note a fair way down in the comment thread, my point stands, in slightly modified form: to say something is “playing in an endless loop” is a dying metaphor, and Benen’s one-song-shuffle remains an outstanding update.

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

19 thoughts on “Metaphor, formerly Phil Spector’d, resurrected.”

  1. Wait, really? I'm 52, and probably my being a programmer since I was 15 plays into this, but I have never known that "infinite loop" referred to a tape recording, and in fact without more evidence I resist the conclusion that it's the _original_ meaning. Programmers have been using it since before I started.

    (And the Benen's joke really does need to be "shuffle", because the whole joke is that they act as if they're playing more than one thing but it's really always the same. "Repeat" doesn't capture that.)

  2. A lot of people who've used a "goto" command (in BASIC, for example) are familiar with the infinite loop, without ever having encountered a closed loop of magnetic tape.

  3. I of course don't know for sure that the magnetic tape meaning predates the programming meaning. But here are some reasons to suspect it does:

    —time: reel-to-reel tape has been around since the 30s (see here:… since before the programmable computer. In fact, early mainframes used reel tape for storage (a problem for historians, since the machines that could read the magnetic codes of the time have mostly been scrapped).

    —specific usage: one talks of an annoying sound "playing on an infinite loop," which sounds like reel tape, not computers.

    @Warren: I don't doubt that many more people have programmed computers than have personally seen closed loops of magnetic tape. The question is whether a lot of people *thought* about the latter when hearing the metaphor, since they had seen open loops and knew what would happen if the tape were closed rather than progressing. And I submit that they probably did–especially since that meaning, and not the programming one, would be comprehensible to people who lacked specific experience in the activity.

  4. I'm with DonBoy and Warren on the "infinite loop" reference. I never thought or heard of it in anything but a computer programming context.

    Andrew Sabl,

    In fact, early mainframes used reel tape for storage

    Please, Andrew. You make it sound like Bronze Age technology. Some of us can recall the advance from 1600 to 6250 bpi reels. Not to mention punch cards.

  5. On the one hand, I do recognize "playing on an infinite loop", but now I'm not positive that it's not more commonly "playing on an endless loop". Which gets 38k Google hits vs 9k for "…infinite", which I realize barely counts as evidence of anything.

  6. I been Lou Adlered, Barry Sadlered.

    Well, I paid all the dues I want to pay.

    And I learned the truth from Lenny Bruce,

    And all my wealth won't buy me health,

    So I smoke a pint of "tea" a day.

  7. I always heard the earlier (tape-related) expression as "tape loop," never to my recollection "infinite loop." After all, the audio loop *is* just a loop of tape, not an infinite loop. Infinite loop just sounds more like a programming or process term.

  8. Andrew,

    Everyone who has ever seen an 8-track stereo tape has seen an endless tape loop. Those things were medium-fi time bombs precisely because they are endless loops. Of course, the guts of the things are hidden in the case.

  9. @Bernard: I remember punch card computers from my childhood. I didn't mean to portray older technology as antediluvian—it's just that I teach college for a living, and therefore can't help assuming that my blog readers are about 22 and have trouble imagining life without contemporary technology. (My students can hardly fathom a time before cell phones!)

    @everybody: OK, maybe "endless loop" is/was the audio term and "infinite loop" was always computing. (That sounds right, on reflection.) In that case, I revise and extend my remarks to say that *endless* loop was a dead metaphor—-whether on reel tape or 8-tracks, which again I barely remember at age 41–and the ipod shuffle metaphor updates it nicely. But the argument has been fun.

    @joel: glad you got the reference! As for me, I've been Ayn Rand-ed, nearly branded a communist 'cause I'm left-handed..

  10. Andrew,

    One of the most disappointing things about teaching is how few of our students get even what should be commonplace cultural references. I had reason to ask today how many of my students had read Animal Farm. Less than half had read it, of those about a tenth remembered that the original motto of the Farm was "All animals are equal." None remembered the closing motto, "Some animals are more equal than others."

    And as far as the Randians go, I'd prefer that we find an island somewhere where they can all go Galt together.

  11. All that Animal Farm & 1984 stuff is just SO twentieth century. Pass the Soma cause it's a brave new world now.

  12. The right analogy is actually closer to: "It's as if Google only ever returned one result: tax cuts". "Shuffle" is better than "repeat" for the reason given above, but shuffle doesn't give the sense of looking for something. And Google is even more up to date than iPod.

  13. Is the phil spector you're thinking of the one who produced Dark Side of the Moon, or the one who threatens women with guns?

    Or is it the one who marries a woman about 50 years younger than he is?

    Inquiring minds…

  14. It's the Phil Spector mentioned in the Simon and Garfunkel song "A Simple Desultory Phillipic" to which the title alludes.

    Back then Spector was known as a record producer, not as a violent misogynist (though for all I know, he was always that too). Don't read too much into it. 😉

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