Sunday, January 08, 2012

Back, or Forward, to Hieroglyphics

  Many years ago when multimedia was a novelty and the world was young and innocent, twelve year old multimedia designers told us that the written word, in terms of alphabetic spelling, was going to become extinct. We were told that the more intuitive mode of communication for hypertext links and task initiation was in the use of graphic symbols; pictograms or ideograms, although young multimedia designers were unfamiliar with these terminologies. They called them graphic hot links back then.
   As a middle aged fogey back then, as opposed to the geriatric fogey that I am now, I begged to differ. After all, what is so intuitive about a quasi-3D button on a 2D screen and what is so intuitive about doing everything by pressing buttons anyway? My granddaughters would not understand this now, and their opposable thumbs are developing whole new skills and functions. I compromised and wrote captions on my buttons in my alphabetic dogmatism.
   Nonetheless, I fail to see what is so intuitive about a picture of a rabbit running across the bottom of the screen as a navigation symbol for the next page, or about a cartoon dog fetching items from a letterbox as an email link. Furthermore, the use of graphics shaped like electrical switches is not intuitive, it is merely utilising learned symbolic communication from older technology. Besides, I can never work out which is on or off anyway since they changed real switches from little levers that pointed up or down to rocker switches with a vertical line and a circle on them. These are ideograms in their own right, but not particularly intuitive.
   I think it was because the web started off as a text based medium that restored text links to respectability, even though it is now filled with everything that whistles and sings. Drop down menus had words on them, even if menu shortcut bars had symbols on them. We went back to believing in alphabetic writing for a while.
   I have noticed a recent return to graphic symbolism, but the symbols have become even more simplified and abstract. Gmail now has strange little monochrome graphics instead of headings that say "trash", "archive" or "label". I have to hover the mouse over them to make the words come up in order to know which is which. My antique Kindle (nearly a year old!) has real buttons which say "menu" and "home" and the like, while my husband's new one has buttons with strange little symbols which all look like little geometric grids, indistinguishable one from the other without a good light and reading glasses. We are going back to pictograms, but they do not have the essential characteristic of being readily distinguishable.
   Intriguingly, as technologies change, the pictograms themselves are becoming increasingly abstracted. The standard graphic symbol for "save", for example, is a picture of a floppy disk, which many younger users of computers may never have even seen. The pictogram of a floppy disk has transformed into an ideogram for saving a file to whatever medium is being used. The garbage can symbol for trash is well recognised, but I always used to panic when using a Macintosh because to eject a removable medium, you had to drag it to the trash. The learning part of my brain recognised this as merely a process, while the intuitive part always panicked that I was trashing the contents of the medium and my files would all disappear. Mind you, with Windows I had a mental problem with clicking the "start" button to turn it off, but they have fixed this now as the button has no misleading captions, just that annoying little quadripartite flag, which is neither informative nor intuitive but merely an arrogant brand recognition symbol. Is this simplifying onscreen communication, or making the language of the process more complex and subtle?
  On other technological gizmos, real live buttons are no longer the simple analogue for binary function that they used to be. Gadgets get smaller, so rather than fill up space with loads of buttons, a few buttons perform different functions when used in different combinations. To remember how to work these permutations and combinations we have to read the manual. Back to ye olde alphabetic writing again, and yet I remember when it was considered that operating manuals, whether for gadgets or computer software, should be quite unnecessary. The more graphic and intuitive it gets, the more we need the words. 
   Old books about writing put these various schemes on a timeline of increasing conceptual complexity; pictograms, ideograms then alphabetic writing. We are actually using a combination of all three today, which some would say is the death of proper writing, but I think may represent a whole new complex of mental decoding of symbolic language.
   So why am I rabbiting on about this stuff right now? Well, just to keep you amused and to deflect attention from the fact that updates to Medieval Writing may be a few weeks off yet, as we are in school holidays down here and that means extensive visits from granddaughters, and besides, I am just in the process of buying a new fishing kayak.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your information!