"Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Superman!" Is it a flashlight, is it a map, is it a camera, is it a Dictaphone, is it the mail, is it money, is it a clock...? No, it's my smartphone! There are more conveniences in my pocket than I am usually aware of and make use of. Recently polled students reported that if they had to flee from disaster or seek refuge, the most mentioned take-with item was their smartphone.
What is the impact of this multifunctionality on our culture (seen as our inner and shared algorithms for survival and success in our environment)? While there are many, I would like to focus on one, namely how the language of signs is affected. An excellent article by Sue Walsh, "Digitization and The Loss of Iconography" confirmed my intuitions in this regard when this image caught my eye.
It poses a challenge to interculturalists as well as designers. One might ask if much of our symbolic language is threatened with extinction at the same time that images and video exchange are so strong as to indicate that we are living and working in what has been named "the iconic turn." Instant imagery and movies are minimizing text and shoving it off the page. While writing this last sentence, I realized that "movies" and "page" are metaphors for talking about things that happen on the smartphone screen, just as much as the virtual manila folder on my computer desktop now represents the disappeared real prototypes in my now stored-in-the-garage file cabinet. The symbol comforts my concern about how I can "know where to find my stuff"!
What is the cultural impact of all this on memory, history, and symbolism?
I was lucky enough to have a dad with an interest in photography when I was a child, so I have inherited a goodly handful of infancy shots and a few meters of 8mm film showing me at play in the neighborhood and on grandpa and grandma's farm. Then it all stopped when film became unavailable in WWII. I imagine that today's infant, on the other hand, could spend half or her or his later life reviewing the endless shots and clips taken by parents' smartphones until they became old enough to create their own duckface selfies.
What does the availability of so much iconic data do to language and especially the power of symbols to represent realities? Perhaps it brings some closure on stereotypes, while at the same time it may send us to commenting from our own unconscious interpretations as we reply to Facebook posts. How is it making a greater community culture and how is it hindering it? How does it push power seeking through group symbolism to greater desperation? How much do we need the identity created by symbols that are stable? All of these are urcultural questions–my term for the larger and usually unquestioned socially constructed realities that make up the settings and prompt the decisions of our everyday lives that cross what we normally consider cultural boundaries. I can't help tending to interpret the present in the images and symbols of my past–and now I have lots of past stored up. What would happen if I could reinitialize and repartition my inner hard disk?