Programming

Requiem for a Metaphor

We use metaphors when what we have to explain may not be obvious. Given the complex nature of software, metaphors are used regularly. Every time you jump on your computer you are looking at different metaphors which come in the form of the icon. If you click on a folder icon, it’s not taking you to a folder; it’s taking you to a set of information. The folder icon is a metaphor for the organization of your documents. It is both a graphic element and a tool of information architecture used for better understanding. But, there is a problem sneaking up on us. Most of our metaphors are based in analog.

Many things no longer need to look like what they do. A television used to need a giant tube, which dictated its size and shape. Over time it got flatter. And then a lot flatter. Now a television has become a slim black box with a screen. Telephones have had a similar evolution. Once they were large devices that had a distinct look that was dictated by its analog nature. Now they’ve changed.

The convergence of devices on your average smart phone breaks metaphors like never before. It’s a phone, but looks nothing like the phones we grew up with. It’s a camera, but looks nothing like the cameras we grew up with. It runs applications, but looks nothing like the computer you grew up with. Given the newer technologies in development, your phone will soon become your wallet too. And for all it does, what does it look like? A slim black box with a screen. With this evolution we have lost inherit visual cues that analog gave us. This effects how we communicate in the digital space.

We are comfortable with using icons as a base metaphor for information on Web sites and operating systems. Look at the Windows OS. Your information and documents are subdivided into folders. But, if you look at how documents are increasingly digital, at one point you realize the metaphor of a folder may no longer be a logical reference.

If there are no paper documents, then there is no need for folders to place them in. At some point in the future, this will happen. With smart phones and digital readers, it may not be as far off as you think. The folder metaphor as we now know it will become an antiquated reference to how we used to do things.

The number of cell phone subscriptions will hit 5 billion this year. I would also argue the average icon used to represent a phone is outdated. If you do a Google search on phone icons you will see an overwhelmingly large number of images that have little to do with your average phone experience.

Holding on to these analog references makes little sense. Sometimes it’s the language that doesn’t add up. Tapes and VCRs have a rewind button, but so does you’re DVD player and DVR. It was called rewind because you were physically winding tape back to the first reel. The term fast forward is still relevant, but we should ditch rewind and call it fast back. Other analog references are less innocuous.

The accepted QWERTY keyboard layout is rooted in analog. It’s been arguably shown that other keyboard layouts are more efficient. But with the invention of the keyboard, they wanted to create something that was familiar and easy for those using mechanical typewriters. Now we’re stuck with it.

I am certainly not being nostalgic. I don’t want to be stuck with the old. I don’t want to cater to analog. I say good riddance, but it forces new questions to be asked. Abstraction is the removal of details. Digital has hastened the abstraction of these objects we create for ourselves. Fundamentally, it becomes a communication challenge. I see it as an opportunity for new language and new metaphors, but digital metaphors.