By William Watkin
Take one last look at your smartphone. You probably regard it as the cutting edge of technology, and those cute icons as portals to an infinite array of virtual interactions. What I see is nothing more than a hand-held, electronic cabinet of wonders; an anthropological museum crammed full of exhibits of the lives we once lived. Every icon on my phone is a visual prompt for the functionality of an app, based on the very technology it has eradicated. My email icon is a little envelope. The camera’s an old box kind. The calendar is made to look papery by the corner being folded up. Even Facebook has book in its title.
These icons of a bygone age are called, in techy circles, skeuomorphs, a term inherited from anthropology to describe an object whose design echoes a functionality now lost. In skeuomorphs, a once-essential feature – like the need for an envelope or the sound of a camera shutter – is now merely ornamental. Why do skeuomorphs exist? Why allow the future to be so mired in relics of the past, bogged down by imagistic bloatware? One possible reason is that they are transitional objects for a transitional generation, rudely ushered into a new digital age where phones, cameras, and letters are becoming quaint objects of nostalgia.
It seems obvious that these icons will soon have to be upgraded. My kids have never seen a real camera, or an old-fashioned phone receiver, but one wonders if they will even get to that stage. Just as writing culture is being killed by image culture, so image-prompts will soon be superseded by speech activation and icons themselves will be skeuomorphic. This tablet I hold in my hands is itself on the verge of becoming a functional skeuomorph. A square box that had mass, that you had to touch, called a ‘phone’ – how retro! Soon all of that will be in a pair of glasses you chat with. Eventually it could be in a chip in your brain that you think to.
At the point when the device becomes liberated from hands and enters our brains we will have completed not just a localised technological skeuomorphism but something more fundamental. Our sense of humanism, after all, is intertwined with our relationship to our tools. You may possess a vision of humans descending from trees, walking upright, developing big brains, evolving effective thumbs, learning language and beginning to use, then fashion, tools. If you do, this is a skeuomorph. We were tool-users long before we were Homo sapiens and it was the creation of tools that promoted the evolution of the brain, not the other way around.
The crafting of a complex tool, an axe or phone, requires communication, muscle-isolation, certain kinds of hands and a lot of cooked food to fuel the increased brain functions that all the above demand. It could be that passing on the knowledge of tool-making lead to what we call language, gave us consciousness of time passing, portents of death, even the self-awareness that is the basis of consciousness.
As our ancestors fashioned tools, many of the things we associate with being human developed subsequently because of those tools. We began making tools two million years ago; we became the Homo sapiens we call the first humans maybe 200,000 years ago.
Our idea of being human is something we built from tools somewhere in-between. Humanity itself, it transpires, is a tool-made technology.
I am fondling my keyboard to create these words, something only we humans can do. As I do so the clicking becomes poignant. The keyboard is a skeuomorph after all. The shining screen of my laptop will soon become a skeuomorph. It might as well be knitted from wool or fashioned by hand from pewter. Its days are numbered. And what about my fingers on the keys, my eyes on the screen? They are skeuomorphs as well.
Around 70,000 years ago, according to historian Yuval Noah Harari, Homo sapiens began to spread out across the territories of the world using their tools to eradicate other hominid species and negate the evolutionary processes that gave them those tools. They ceased adapting themselves to their environment and instead adapted the environment to themselves.
Although this took some time to achieve, what this meant in practice was that almost everything about our bodies – including genes and brains, tools we needed to free ourselves from our Darwinian shackles – was obsolete.
Skeuomorph guru Dan O’Hara has pointed out that many elements of the human body are skeuomorphs: the appendix, hair, men’s nipples. Couldn’t we go further? Our physiology and biology were fashioned for a life led on the plains. The genes, hormones, synapses, and emotions that humans are reduced to by modern scientific materialists, all originated in a hunter-gatherer existence that no longer pertains. Even language is effectively an autonomous tool-generating tool that Homo sapiens took possession of and crafted self-consciousness from.
What is the human being itself but a tool-generating tool? Which is just another way of saying the human is a biological computer, a set of genetic algorithms subject to the same feedback loops, redundancies, and self-reproductions as any other cybernetic system.
If this is true, some argue that in a few decades, when the Internet of All-Things will allow machines – more intelligent than we are – to talk to each other without us, then these new cybernetic systems can replace us and we will hit an ontological skeuomorphism.
If this transpires, the functionality we call human will still be needed, but the human being, that lanky, touchy-feely brain-platform, will become ornamental, kept around for nostalgia only. When machines become not only cleverer than us, but autonomous tool-making tools like us, we should be able to finally jettison our biological container. After all, bodies are just a skeuomorphic hangover from that nightmare on the savannah before we could breed cows, get free Wi-Fi, and merge with the machine. If this happens we will encounter what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls the singularity: the non-distinction of human and machine. Although someone should point out to Ray: that already happened two million years ago!
If this all sounds like science fiction, remember our conversation on skeuomorphs. It should have already prepared the ground of your credulity. Remember, we did not make our tools – our tools made us. So we should already accept the non-distinction between the human and the machine. We are not evolved beings; we are beings who evolved an escape plan from nature, meaning everything we used to escape is skeuomorphic.
Sadly, the human being may be as obsolete as envelopes, box cameras, and phone receivers. Our vital functions were reduced to hairstyles, piercings, and lumberjack shirts aeons ago. It’s taken us 700 centuries to twig but human beings are, by definition, organic skeuomorphs. Face it folks, we need a new science of being: an ontology not of essence, but of the ornament.