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Floppy disks live on as metaphors

A look at folders, files, camera clicks and other persistent analogies in technology.

If you ever use Microsoft Word, you know that when you want to save a document, you can click on the little floppy disc icon.

That's weird. When's the last time you used one of those discs? Ten years ago? Twelve?

Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic has been looking into antiquated metaphors we use in modern technologies, and says, "People need these sort of visual cues, these ways of thinking about what the computer is doing, because at its heart, it's just zeros and ones. And there's actually a name for this. It's called, "skeuomorph." It's a way that designers play with nature of human perception, which is that we need to draw on the physical world, usually, in order to understand the digital world."

A skeuomorph is like the click a digital camera makes -- unnecessarily. Or the locking sound on your phone. Madrigal says, "And the same thing even happens with electric cars, right? Because they don't make a lot of noise, and people are worried that, therefore, they're going to hit more people. And so they're trying to put artificial car noises. They're going like VROOOOM! Even though that is no longer necessary, and in fact, when cars first came out, people hated the idea that they were so loud. But now we're used to it and we need those signals."

Or the idea of files and folders on your computer. Google tried to get rid of the metaphor of folders on Gmail but users got upset. They needed folders to connect the tactile with the digital.

Madrigal says the metaphors we use may change in the years to come but the we'll always be dealing with the gap between old and new worlds.

Madrigal: It's going to be interesting. The new metaphors, I feel like, are almost like... you can see them in the actual movements in people's fingers. So you can see little kids go to a book sometimes, and they do that thing where they pinch their fingers outwards.

Moe: Yes.

Madrigal: They start with their fingers pinched in and then they expand out. And what that does on an iPad or an iPhone is it would zoom in. But obviously that's not going to work on a book, so what you're seeing is this bouncing out of the phone. This metaphor for zooming, right?

Moe: Yeah, extending into physical space.

Madrigal: Extending into physical space -- the idea that what a zoom is, is to spread your fingers open like that.

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If you're looking for video games with good guys and bad guys, you have plenty of options. If you like moral ambiguity, our game guy Ben Kuchera of Penny Arcade recommends "Spec Ops."

Ben Kuchera: It actually really explores what happens when soldiers fight kind of away from the chain of command and they have to make their own decisions, and in a lot of cases, those situations are very hard to deal with on a moral level.

Moe: How do you play?

Kuchera: It's a third-person shooter, so you see your character. You're not fighting normal combatants. This is in a lot of cases American soldiers versus American soldiers. There are civilians, the CIA is there. It's a very convoluted story

Moe: Because it's unclear who the good guys are and the bad guys are?

Kuchera: You know, someone once told me that to write a very good villain, you have to create someone who completely thinks they're doing the right thing. And from a certain point of view, everyone you encounter in this game thinks they're doing the right thing from their point of view, and you're given these moments where you have to make decisions about what you should do with very incomplete information, and how you handle these situations and how you handle each fight determines how the game ends. And what you think you're doing is sometimes very different that what you achieve with your actions.

 

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.
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