When I send a text message on my cell phone an amusing icon appears: an old-fashioned envelope, graced with wings, flying into a sturdy, equally old-fashioned mailbox. The envelope and mailbox strike me as kind of lame. But watching the cartoon envelope fly across the screen the other day got me musing about the proliferation of icons on computers and cell phones, and how the past has been preserved in these graphic allusions to technologies passing or past. Glancing down at my MacBook dock I see a parade of miniaturized objects — a guitar, a curtained photo booth, a piece of paper with a pen resting on it, a desk calendar — whose function has been replaced by the much blander looking white machine I type on now. My word processor is even better, equipped with “tools” whose functions are described by visual analogy — a pencil, an eraser, a ruler, scissors, clipboard, magnifying glass.
The best icons are intuitive and practical. The mind grasps the meaning of a an “eraser” or “trash can” faster than the words that would explain those meanings. Some icons, though, strike me as strained in their attempt to “quote” a visual precedent. The winged letter falls in this category. Maybe because it serves no practical purpose. It merely alludes to an obsolescing technology of message sending because — hey, that’s what icons are supposed to do! I guess it’s the visual equivalent of a cliché (a word that itself alludes to a now long-gone technology, though that’s the subject of another post).
What’s most intriguing about these icons is that they may outlive the object they refer to. Future generations will know what an image of an envelope, postage stamp, or telephone means even when those objects have long since disappeared from daily life. Technologies past are preserved in all sorts of ways. In today’s media, icons are one of the most ubiquitous.