Skeuomorphs and Future Tools

The earth is a closed system. Matter, energy—nothing is created, and nothing leaves, generally speaking. Oh neat, we’d marvel, recycling.

But most things work like this. The earth’s crust is slowly coiling under itself, all the landforms around you impercetibly melting or rising. A flux of water falls and floats and pushes around the planet endlessly. Sped up, a forest boils. Literature, too, words, writing.

Hang on. Humans, we are poor recyclers. We squander resources in hatefully grandiose displays, laying waste now and cleaning up later, and by later I mean only when the consequences demand it. Our species, we cut down every single last tree on Easter Island. The very last one—we cut it down. It’s been barren ever since.

Even now, as our longer-term future scenario building is dawning on us as being more important than the short-term one, recycling is still a novelty to us, still a smaller box at the curb than the trash bin. We aren’t mushrooms, after all. Physically, we consume as a one-way street—entropically, eating ordered things like plants and animals and excreting disordered things like shit and heat. Like all animals, everywhere we go we increase disorder with our bodies. This is how being a non-recycler works. We burn down like a wick, energy in and ashes out.

Where are we now, among them, the other animals?

Studies suggest that domesticated animals’ brains have been shrinking over the past 500 years. A wild horse, for example, has more challenges to face in his lifetime, more socializing, and a far less repetitive existence than a domestic horse. He simply has to think more. More thinking requires more synapses firing, more neural network building, more memory storage and quicker access to it: more intelligence.

Little Horse on Wheels (Child's Toy)

Interesting to note then, that another, totally unrelated study suggests humans brains are also have been shrinking. Given that brain size in anthromorphs does correlate to intelligence—and we’d certainly assume we’re more intelligent now than our pre-modern ancestors—how can this be accounted for?

Perhaps the domestication effect has changed us along with the other animals. That we have domesticated ourselves—or, it might be better to say, we have domesticated each other, in the net of civilization, feels difficult to argue against any moment you step into the contemporary world. This domesticizing net, which by all accounts has increasingly valued cooperation over competition through governance and philosophy, and through moral storytelling in art/literature, as well as just plain old social shaming, has connected and conflated our consciousnesses helpfully—but also, maybe, mollified them.

Testing this theory on a concept, a value, a word that represents novelty—something our brains should be smart enough to do regularly, and something we laud as civilization-building—creativity. Is creativity entropic, or a recycled process? Where has it been and where is it going?

Here’s something to consider.

It’s “sliding button” on my phone that turns a setting on or off. It’s designed to look like a physical sliding button—in fact it looks exactly like the “real” sliding button on my iPod shuffle.

It’s a skeuomorph.


Your computer interface is full of them. There’s a little trashcan—or recycling bin—picture that represents the trash folder on my computer. It teaches me how to use it by imitating something “real”, something I should already be comfortable using. My computer has “folders” for me to file things in and “windows” to frame things. My whole computer is one big metaphor for old stuff.

Is this recycling an example of creativity?

Here’s another thing to consider first.
Early-human-hand-axe-008An early hand tool. Its design did not change for ten thousand years. Ten thousand years, and no one could come up with anything better?

Sure, there are restraints—our ancestors had far less free time to be noodling around with design. But still. Imagine a single tool humans now use that didn’t change form at all for even a thousand years, let alone ten thousand. It’s hard to imagine. We’re so different now, we’d think, than people a thousand years ago.

We are different. And the changes work like a ratcheting force, exponentially increasing with each generation.

What’s on the horizon?

Imagine, first, metaphorically speaking, that literature is full of skeuomorphs. That it is a skeuomorph. Take, for example, a Thomas Hardy novel or an Elizabeth Bishop poem. It’s a steady symbol of something we remember, something “real”—those pesky messes of the world: events, feelings, ideas, people. Crowbarring them into a translatable code—a virtual reality—the author is recycling. The reader recognizes the old stuff of his civilization. And understands, by drawing on cultural training, what to do with it. Moreover, it shines, here, with meaning. Hand-on-the-back ushering into excruitatingly planned epiphanies and lessons and hunks of cultural values is the whole point of reading literature, it could be argued.

I mean, that’s was nonconfrontational literature does, the regular stuff. And why it pains some readers so much to read something that won’t upload their recognizable world into a code that obeys their expectations. Of existence itself.

“Reality is not simply there, it does not simply exist: it must be sought out and won,” said Paul Celan, and “Who ain’t a Slave,” said Melville.

A slave to pattern play. These discarded hats, and these pants of our dead, these are our minerals. Nothing new under the sun? Except the remixers.


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