9.553 techno-skiamorphology

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Sat, 17 Feb 1996 17:30:58 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 553.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
Information at http://www.princeton.edu/~mccarty/humanist/

[1] From: Willard McCarty <mccarty@phoenix.princeton.edu> (45)
Subject: techno-skiamorphology

[The following from a Toronto paper, Science and Technology page. I was
particularly delighted to find this piece, since I have been writing and
thinking about the phenomenon for some time and did not know there was a
word for it. Atkinson's editor pointed out to me that "anachronism"
does not cover the same territory. A letter in today's Globe further
pointed out that Atkinson has it wrong about the return key on the
computer keyboard, since it describes the motion of the cursor on screen.
Nevertheless, we are still haunted by skiamorphs. --WM]

One person's Rolodex is another person's electronic skiamorph

Bill Atkinson

Mind and Matter, The Globe and Mail, D8, Saturday, 10 February
1996. Reproduced by permission of the author & with the knowledge of the

I'VE never met a fact I couldn't use. A datum will lurk in my
cranium until another fact, more recently acquired, ferries it
back to consciousness.

Case in point. Last month I was talking to an editor at The Globe
and Mail when my eye fell on her Rolodex. Two things about this
name-filing device struck me. First, it was no longer based on
file cards but on microchip electronics. Second, the new version
needlessly featured the hand-turned cylinder that characterized
the old form. "You have a skiamorph," I said.

Skiamorph: There's a winning combination for a Scrabble game. I
got the word, and the concept behind it, from a book on materials
science that I long ago mislaid. "Skiamorph" comes from the Greek
for "shadow" (skia) and "form" (morphe). My long-lost book coined
it for the unnecessary holdovers that show up when new
technologies displace existing ones.

The book cited two examples. First: Two thousand years ago, when
the material of choice for Grecian temples shifted from wood to
stone, masons continued to reproduce - in stone -- architectural
details that made sense only in wood-framed structures. Today's
tourist may spot the square heads of what look like wooden pegs
and wedges, protruding from the tops of solid marble columns.

Second: the countless highway bridges with mock guardhouses at
both ends. This stems from the times when streams were territorial
borders, and bridges over them housed soldiers and customs
officials. Sometimes guardhouses on modern viaducts are only
bumps, mere suggestions of structure. At other times, the
architect gives us something out of llth-century Burgundy, down to
the arrow slits and crenelations.

Since rediscovering the skiamorph, I have cast about for other
examples. To deserve its name, a skiamorph must not be an operable
way of doing things. Using a fountain pen instead of more up-to-
date writing tools, for instance, is not a skiamorph. By
definition, the true skiamorph is exuberantly useless.

Take the item that triggered my memory. The cylindrical silhouette
of the original Rolodex was famous: Countless yuppies linked its
knurled knobs with wealth and power. When new technology created
more convenient and capacious systems, Rolodex designers responded
with a skiamorph.

The electronic model they invented still uses a cylinder to scroll
through names. Yet that is not an engineering requirement: it is a
marketing decision. Ergonomically, a rocker switch would be
better, but that As the Romans used to say, Cui bono? Who benefits
from these silly things? I suppose I do. Subconsciously, I
probably respond to both skiamorphs because they pitch to deeply
buried myths of the ace reporter. Tackatackading! Rrrrrrrrrip! Get
me Rewrite, honey!

Skiamorphs are born of human insecurity - a truth that Marketing
remembers even when Engineering is enraged by it. Whenever a new
technology emerges, even when its operation is safe and useful,
its nature and long-term effects remain mysterious to all but a
handful of inventor-acolytes. And since we usually fear the
unknown, the vast majority of users are reassured if the new ways
of doing things share some of the trappings of the old.

Snobbery may also foster skiamorphs after all fashion is full of
them. Long after an initial solution loses its function, it
survives as ornament. The holes on brogue shoes once drained
water. The wings of wing chairs once deflected drafts long
banished from today's firesides and bedrooms. Excellent new
materials such as aluminum, prefinished steel and self-adhesive
vinyl are too self-conscious to appear in their own guise, and
come tarted up with fake wood grain. Shades of the Greeks.

In fact, anything laden with emotion is an excellent medium for
growing skiamorphs. Take housing. In Elizabethan England, the
windows of the rich were labour-intensive and costly to build. To
make them, pieces of handblown glass were painstakingly knit
together with lead strips. These leaded panes, early examples of
conspicuous consumption, became identified with the gentry, and
were thus preserved even when new technology permitted large
pieces of distortion-free window glass to be cast on beds of
mercury. Float glass gave us picture windows, but it could not
speak to people's emotion-laden images of upscale housing. Hence
the skiamorph of modern leaded glass-a web of expanded metal glued
to a seamless pane of float glass.

Or consider the S-shaped Landau mark, visible in chrome on the
roofs of some American autos. A century ago it was a hinge that
let the fabric tops of horse-drawn carriages fold back on
themselves easily. Yesterday's hinge is today's skiamorph, thanks
to the marketing genius of Detroit.

Skiamorphs form a fascinating back door to the history of
technology. Like architecture, they are essays penned in material,
able to edify the humanist as much as the scientist. Spotting
them, especially in their subtler forms, sharpens the eye and
delights the mind. I look forward to readers' further skiamorphic

Bill Atkinson reports on science, technology, and the economic and
social effects of both. He lives in North Vancouver. He can be
reached at bill_atkinson@mindlink.bc.ca