Iconoclasm

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Metastasized Software And Life 3.0

What can be said about the save icon? It is a diskette. It is often blue. And of course, as others have pointed out, many (soon to be most) people using computers today have never touched one and never will.

Yet you could say the same for a the “home” icon (millions will never own a house), the “phone” icon (used a model 500 lately?), the lasso, the magnifying glass, the dodge and burn tools. “Games,” represented by a checkerboard! Copy and paste, for god’s sake?

The simple fact is that there is a shared visual orthography in which some things are acknowledged worldwide, and this overpowers the logical suggestion to constantly update it. Many reading this would, 20 years ago, be unsure whether the icon represented saving or accessing the A: drive. Nowadays, many will never encounter portable storage in their life. Yet the diskette is firmly associated with saving changes, certainly more so than it is with removable media. So logic has nothing to do with it. Language has less to do with logic than it has to do with a shared interpretation of symbols. These symbols are widely used because they are widely understood, and they are widely understood because they are widely used.

The snake will not run out of tail to eat.

The Noun Project is a fun exploration of this concept — that there are, say, 32×32-pixel versions of every concept in the dictionary. But as computing (what a term!) grows out of this phase, in which its concepts are most effectively presented by flat, bit-mapped graphics and text, new ideas may become necessary.

But what are the chances these new ideas are going to be truly new? The things we create and interact with are almost without exception analogues to real life actions and objects. What in computing or the online world has no precedent, is not a virtual representation of “real-life” actions? Precious little, and what little there is is arguable. Try it; it’s surprisingly difficult to find anything at all that can’t be explained in terms of things that have come before.

Maybe I lost you there. What I am saying is that every action we create in the virtual world has by necessity an analogue in the real world. And by common consent, to represent those actions we go back to certain shared experiences that will not be misinterpreted. Lately it’s been hydrological phenomena. Cloud storage. Bittorrent. Streaming. Thunderbolt, to an extent. A few of you may remember that Zunes squirted. NFC is data osmosis, though of course no one calls it that.

What did you expect when our data started coming from nowhere and being beamed into the blue? We did a caveman and reached for our primitive sky metaphors. We reach for these things because, like all metaphors, they make new things intelligible by linking them to concepts we have already internalized. The diskette icon in fact rankles because it is recent, not because it is old. But much further back and you’re trying to make an icon out of banks of cathode ray tubes, any further forward and you’re looking at even more jarring things: discs, Zip drives, and the blank, robotic face of a 3.5″ hard drive (still the icon for Macintosh HD on this flash-based laptop, for the record). The diskette isn’t such a bad compromise.

So don’t be angry that the icon for save is a 30-year-old magnetic tape receptacle, or your freeform marquee tool is based on something used to round up cattle. The word icon comes from the Greek eikon, itself from the verb eikenai, to resemble. It’s good enough for the form to resemble the function; it doesn’t have to be a recent snapshot of it.

In the meantime, we will be seeing more and more creative reflections of the real world upon the virtual, and vice versa. The boundary is crumbling already, and the two have been leaking into one another through the cracks for a long time. I look forward to the developments in real and abstract representation of the virtual. Will files have weight? Will there be weather on the Internet? Will servers have personalities? These questions sound ridiculous today, but don’t forget that questions of the same type, asked 10, 50, or 100 years ago, may have positive answers today. Will our computers talk to us? Will robots clean our houses? Will we walk on the moon?

Looking forward, it is likely that the most transformative technologies will be those for which we have the least adequate metaphors. It sounds a bit silly, but what that means is that what we have created does not resemble anything in the world. If you find yourself at a loss to explain what it is exactly your device, site, service, or algorithm does, it may be that you are yourself verbally inadequate, but it may also mean that you are onto something fundamentally new and powerful.