To give credit where credit is due, this isn’t something that occurred to me unsolicited. I actually heard the idea brought up by Leo Laporte on one of his podcasts this week, and have found myself thinking about it since.

Every operating system, every user interface of every website, most printed graphic design used in advertising and marketing, utilizes icons. Go into the home screen of your smart phone, and you see a screen full of icons symbolizing where you tap to access different applications. The same concept exists on your desktop in a somewhat different format. The thing that is interesting about these icons, and the things that Leo points out, is this: many of these icons are symbols of old technology, things that would have made sense and would have been easily recognizable to mine or my parents’ generations, but which may well be largely unrecognizable now. For example, what icon symbolizes voicemail access on your phone? Usually a tape with a reel, or an envelope. When is the last time you used an analogue reel-to-reel tape device? For that matter, how often do you actually address an envelope and send it off?

I’m typing this in Blogger’s new interface now (which, incidentally, gets high marks from me), and I see icons along the side that include a price tag, an analogue clock, and a gear. Nearby is an old scene marker to symbolize a video. Do you wear a watch? I don’t. I check my phone when I need to see the time. Many people use a barcode scanner, either on their phone or in the store, to check the price of an item, or read the price printed on a sticker: they don’t read a pricetag dangling from the item on a string. I would guess that  most of us don’t think of greasy gears turning inside of mechanical devices, nor have most of us every handled one.

For that matter, as Leo points out, think about the icon for folders on your computer: typically, a manila file folder. With the rare exception of when I’m organizing hard copies of research for a project, I certainly use those infrequently.

I think it’s interesting that the icons we find in our daily digital lives are…well, iconic. It’s as though our modern technology is paying homage somehow to it’s predecessors, the technology that started all of this.

When I was in middle school, I had a best friend who was in high school at the time. He had an older sister who was ready to enter college. I remember her musing to me that she knew many people my age who could not read an analogue clock, who had to read digital time. Certainly, I learned digital first, and learned to read analogue clocks much later (and with much struggle). She anticipated that, in a few years, very few people of my age group would even be able to read analogue clocks.

As we move forward at an exciting, and sometimes frightening, pace in our technological developments, its good to think that here, at least, we remember our history and are able to recall those inventions of old which have become so commonplace to mankind, and upon the shoulders of which our ridiculously powerful smart phones stand.

I bet you’ll look at your icons a bit differently, now, won’t you?

Photo Attribution: kennymatic under a Creative Commons license

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