I find it fascinating that new technology retains a nostalgia for old technology. When my wife takes a picture with her iPhone, the phone displays a fictitious shutter that appears to open and close, accompanied by a sound effect meant to evoke memories of a mechanical camera snapping a picture. Why did Apple program this flourish into their digital camera-phone? They could have easily had the camera indicate that it has taken a picture with some new graphic and/or sound. But, maybe they wanted to incorporate the familiar into their technology to keep users at ease with the new. I’ve been looking around for other examples of new technology imitating the old, and here is what I’ve found:
Keyboards: Physical buttons are no longer necessary, but not only do keyboards have buttons in the same layout as the old typewriter QWERTY keyboard, but the buttons have to be pushed in and in many cases make a sound like an old fashioned keyboard so that you know you are really typing.
Video Editing Software: It’s still slowly evolving away from an interface that imitates the old-timey video suite – a Preview monitor on the left, a Program monitor on the right & jog/shuttle controls for the video decks. Since practically no one editing video these days has even seen such a set-up, it’s high time that they revamped the interface more significantly.
Video as Film: Speaking of video editing software, video clips are still often represented by images of film strips, complete with sprocket holes along the outside. This is funny to me since most people have never seen a piece of real film. The past as film: On TV and in the movies, childhood memories are still represented by video that’s been altered to look like 1960s 8mm home movies, replete with washed out color, graininess and even scratch marks. This representation of the past works for people in their 40s and older, but it’s used for characters too young to have been filmed with real film.
Electronic Book Readers: They are still in a transitional phase, trying to imitate the look and feel of printed books. I think it’s cool looking, the way the virtual pages can be turned with a swipe of the finger on an iPad, but I wonder what the designers would have come up with if they weren’t concerned with maintaining the familiar look of books?
Cell Phones: Originally designed to look like Star Trek communicators, cell phones started off as retro-future. One vestige of the past that many cell phones retain is by user choice – large numbers of cell phone users have chosen a ring tone that mimics the original telephone ringing sound made by the rapid striking of a bell inside the phone. Of course, the language of cell phones still clings to the old; we say we are “dialing” a number when dials haven’t been a feature of telephones in over a decade.
Icons: The save icon on PCs is a floppy disk image, even though floppy disks are no longer in use. The compose message icon often involves a pencil and paper even though a keyboard will be used to write the message. Document icons are usually represented by a graphic that’s supposed to look like a piece of paper with the corner folded. It’s interesting that software designers hold on to iconic representations of past technology. This doesn’t occur universally, after all, cars aren’t represented by horse & buggies, but some images from the past seem to cling to us long after what they represent has disappeared.
Light Bulbs: New florescent light bulbs are now being housed in glass designed to make them look like old incandescent bulbs. I guess the twisty bulb look just didn’t say, “light bulb” to consumers.
It’s as if we all want what’s new but get nervous if we feel we are losing our bearings. I have written the following poem to sum up our cultural ambivilence about change:
Everything new is old again
Everything true has been told again
We may vote for change but then vote to rescind
We start with Obama but Palin’s downwind.
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