Leaping Forward With One Foot in the Past

Published: January 17, 2012

Are today’s new technologies and memes really so revolutionary?

When you think of Facebook, the last image that comes to mind is newsprint. When you try to explain Twitter to someone, the feathered quill isn’t the first thing you reference. When you answer an iPhone, you are not at all reminded of picking up the handset of a big rotary phone. Yet these are the icons that are used to represent such cutting-edge platforms and devices. (Facebook’s “news-feed” icon depicts a newspaper, Twitter’s newly redesigned “publish” icon features a feathered quill, and iPhone’s phone app is illustrated with an old-fashioned handset.) The use of this old-fashioned imagery is puzzling. Logic would dictate that the creators of these cutting-edge platforms would try to distance the new from the old, but that’s clearly not the case.

This phenomenon of reaching into the past to describe the future goes beyond the iconography of new media – it’s also part of our lexicon. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, briefly comments on this trend. He says that terms such as “wireless” and “horseless carriage” illustrate how innovations must “pass through a primary phase in which the new effect is secured by the old method amplified or modified by some new feature.” In more modern times, a prime example is the cordless phone, a term that David Foster Wallace pokes fun at in Infinite Jest through a character that invents a gag joke called the “phoneless cord.” The cordless phone, the “newspaper” Facebook feed, the “quill” Twitter button, and the horseless carriage are all instances of this trend. However, neither McLuhan nor Wallace offer explanations as to why this happens.

I think we can learn a lot about the nature of innovation and communication by dissecting these symbols and phrases. Is this imagery that leans on the past to communicate something new just lazy graphic design, or is there something deeper going on here? Why are the most nuanced and advanced media platforms falling victim to iconographic regression?


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In his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins defines a meme as a “unit of cultural transmission.” A meme, like a gene, is inherently a replicating machine. But while genes transmit biological information, memes transmit cultural information (in the form of tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, fashion – anything that propagates by leaping from brain to brain). This conception of memes optimizes the idea of media going “viral” as it spreads through the popular culture. A meme is the idea or symbol that catches on. It represents the human capacity to make a lasting imprint on the world through invention. A successful meme, like a successful gene, is one that is perpetuated.

Dawkins’ conception of memes is fascinating on a purely communicative level, as an explanation of how popular ideas spread. One of the keys to successful transmission, according to Dawkins, is copying fidelity (for, “the more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern after several rounds of copying”). In a digital era where the competition for mind space is fiercer than ever, and the ability to replicate content in identical forms is ubiquitous, Dawkins’ formula for creating successful memes proves truer by the Tweet.

Dawkins also argued that a fundamental notion of evolution is that the new is built upon the old. All our genes are based on what came before them. They are mixed and mutated and changed, but they are fundamentally derivative. When we apply this concept to the idea of memes, we start to get a sense of what it means to innovate.

There are two ways to look at creativity and innovation. One is the method put forth by Terry Gilliam, who says that ideas just appear: “I’d go to bed, and I’d leave my shoes by the bed. And I’d wake up and there’d be these little elves that would come in and put ideas in my shoes, and I’d just use them.”

The other way to look at creativity is to assume that innovation and creativity come from looking at the world and making new connections. According to Steve Jobs:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

Of the two, Jobs’ perspective on creativity is much more aligned with Dawkins’ notion of memes. Creativity is the process of connecting circumstance and experience to spark a new meme that leaps from one brain to another. The key to a meme’s success is its ability to spread – to be communicated.


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With this in mind, our old-fashioned icons make more sense. Facebook, Twitter, and the iPhone are all new memes. These memes represent something different than what came before, and so need to lean on the vocabulary and symbolism of the past in order to communicate their new functions. The historical references make it easier for these memes to leap from one brain to another: Similar to how a virus integrates itself with the existing DNA of a cell, these new memes integrate themselves with the iconography of memes that came before them.

In order to design something new, we need to look to our past so that we can understand where we come from and authentically acknowledge the fundamental traits and behaviours that we want to harness in our “next big thing.” More importantly, though, we mustn’t fall victim to the hype. We must recognize that what appears to be game-changing or revolutionary is anything but. Our memes are built on the past, and on the fundamental characteristics of human psychology. Twitter is not a new human experience – it is just a new tool that allows us to expand on, and continue to do, what we have always done: communicate.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

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