The Treachery of Skeuomorphs

Skeuomorph: An object or feature copying the design of a similar artefact in another material.

—Oxford English Dictionary

Skeuomorphs are so common in design that we likely don’t even realise when we’re seeing them. They’re the now non-functional rivets on our jeans, the faux shutter-click on our digital cameras, and, most recently, the spinning spools of tape and the magnetic reader head of Apple’s new Podcasts app. While the reaction to the app has been mixed, with a number of legitimate complaints with regards to the app’s implementation, I think it’s safe to say that overall it’s a thing of beauty, and that with luck the glitches and shortcomings will be worked out in the near future, leaving us with a highly functional and aesthetically beautiful app.

Podcasts App Interface
The interface of Apple’s new Podcasts app.

Much of the beauty of the app stems from the careful attention to detail. The design is based on the Braun TG 60 Tape Recorder, and the designers at Apple have taken great pains to adapt the functionality of the old analogue device to suit the digital app. To this end, Apple has integrated a number of skeuomorphic UI elements, ranging from the button-like controls to the spooling tape (that matches the actual length of the podcast itself) to the magnetic read/write head. Each of these parts appears to function much as it would in the actual physical machine. The tape, for example, bounces gently when the podcasts start or stop playing, and the magnetic head engages and disengages at the press of the play/pause button just the way that it would on the real machine.

There are, of course, moments where this metaphor breaks down. The play/pause button, for example, switches symbols, so the play arrow appears when the podcast is paused, whereas the pause sign appears when the podcast is playing. This would be impossible on the real device, as the buttons are physical, and cannot change their painted-on markings, despite the fact that this is entirely unproblematic for a digital interface. This break from a strict fidelity to the original analogue counterpart is typical of skeuomorphs, where once-functional features increasingly become “merely” aesthetic features with the passage of time. For the most part, no use will question the swapping symbols on the play/pause button, as it is a minor change, and does little to disrupt the way in which the app functions.

Some changes, however, can produce somewhat more startling effects, especially in a user who has a great deal of experience with the original object from which the skeuomorph is borrowed. The play-speed dial, for example (the one with the turtle and hare on it, right under the magnetic play head on the app) appears to be an analogue dial that will accelerate and decelerate the spinning of the tape spools, which in turn changes the speed at which the tape moves past the magnetic head, and, in an analogue unit, would cause the pitch of the audio to decrease or increase as the playing speed decreases or increases, respectively. But this isn’t what happens in the app: the dial, for starters, only offers three positions—slow, normal, and fast—turning it into more of a trinary switch than a true dial. The instead of pitch shifting app uses granular synthesis to time-stretch the podcast. Whereas the analogue device stretches or compresses the waveform (which results in the shifting of pitch we recognise from analogue machines), this app breaks the waveform down into discrete units and then manipulates the rate at which those units are played, resulting in a stuttering quality typical of granular time-stretching.

This is still a minor difference, but it’s one that’s significantly more disruptive than the play/pause button. Whereas the play/pause button breaks with the materiality of the analogue unit, it still functions according to the same basic principles, wherein pressing the play or pause button will cause the audio to to just that. The play-speed dial, however, initiates a very different effect from its analogue counterpart, and despite the fact that we can see the motion of the “tape” slow down as it passes the “magnetic play head,” the resultant changes to the audio are quite different from what the UI elements would suggest. Those of us who grew up with analogue tape decks will find this behaviour quite surprising, even though we will quickly adapt to the digital model.

The hiccups in the Podcasts app’s UI are symptomatic of greater issues (the word “problem” is probably too strong) in digital design in general. In SpecLab, Johanna Drucker writes of ebooks that

There has been too much emphasis on formal replication of layout, graphic, and physical features and too little analysis of how those features affect the book’s function. Rather than thinking about simulating the way a book looks, then, designers might do well to consider extending the ways a book works.

This seems a fair criticism, one that applies to the Podcasts app just as easily as ebooks. Apple, it seems, has paid a lot more attention to the way the app looks than how it actually works (something the Ars Technica review notes). More effort has been put into ensuring visual fidelity of UI elements than questioning the functionality of those same elements. Both the tape reels and the little red progress needle tell us how far we are through the podcast, but only the needle actually allows us to scrub back and forth through the podcast—we cannot change the motion of the reels by touching them. Likewise, both the position of the magnetic head and the play/pause button tell us whether or not the podcast is playing, but only the play/pause button allows us to influence this fact. Both the tape reels and magnetic head are redundant ornamentations, serving aesthetic purposes, but offering no additional utility. Indeed, on a limited screen like that of my iPhone, they actually exclude other potential functions by taking up about a quarter of the screen real estate—a not-insignificant space, while doing little more than replicating existing functions.

Now, these complaints may seem joyless and utilitarian, nothing more than the complaints of an old man who just doesn’t understand kids these days (I’m reminded of David Sedaris’s dad complaining about his son’s appropriation of the fashion of his youth: ‘”It doesn’t make sense,” I remember him saying. “That hat with those pants, worn with the damn platform shoes…” His speech temporarily left him, and he found himself waving his hands, no doubt wishing that they held magic wands. “You’re just… a mess is what you are.”‘). It’s not that, though. I fully appreciate Apple’s exploration of beautiful analogue designs, and I appreciate the skeuomorphs that they’ve integrated into their app. I think that they draw attention to some compelling elements of the analogue device on which the app was based, while at the same time integrating a great deal of functionality that wasn’t present in the original (such as the sleep button, or the +30s and -10s jump buttons). I do wish, however, much as Johanna Drucker does, that they’d considered how the tape player works, and found better ways to take advantage of the skeuomorphs they introduced into their app. Apple is big on heuristics and discoverability, and as such I’m surprised that they skipped over this opportunity to introduce new functionality into the app by piggy-backing it in on their visual metaphors. By no means do I think that they’re committing a crime by failing to do so, but at the end of the day it really feels like a sloppy move by a company known for its polish. Ceci n’est pas une Braun TG 60..

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters

Rise of the Videogame Zinesters is a highly compelling book, one that should be widely read, and will, with luck, spur a number of folks on to become indie game makers. I’ve been thinking long and hard about how I would review the book, but while I was doing that Jenn Frank went and wrote 99% of what I had wanted to say. Anna Anthropy has written a highly compelling provocation to get out there and do something, and done so by writing from a personal place that allows us to see for ourselves the way we can use videogames to express something deeply personal about ourselves. Anthropy’s book leaves no doubt in our minds: videogames are a medium like any other, and can and should be used by independent game creators as an outlet of personal expression, one that has unique properties and can connect with its audience in ways other media can’t.

That said, there was a part of the book that wore at me like a rock in my shoe on an otherwise pleasant and invigorating hike. While Anthropy is highly encouraging of everyone to get out there and start writing videogames, she has choice words for those who do so as a part of a major game development studio, arguing that games written by them lack deep engagement and emotional investment. She asserts this by pointing to BioWare—a developer praised for its storytelling and character design. While arguing that games by and large do not speak to queer audiences, she preemptively counters those who would point to the various same-sex relationship options in BioWare’s games by saying that

[T]he lady-sex in Mass Effect is just one of many branches on a tree of awkward dialogue, offering nothing resembling the actual lust, desire, and flirtation that women feel for each other.

This is, of course, a fair assertion for her to make. Different people will have different responses to art, and some people will respond strongly to the same scene that leaves others completely cold. The dialogue trees introduce a what can feel like a stochastic rhythm that some players will find highly disruptive and immersion-breaking. There are many who will disagree with this assessment, but many others who agree whole-heartedly. But this is an issue of aesthetics, and one that we can’t judge absolutely. Anthropy continues:

But, aesthetic failures aside, the most important distinction here is that these are stories about queer women that are generally written by white, college-educated men. These are not cases of queer women presenting their own experiences.

I find this accusation especially irksome, as it brushes off the work of a number of artists simply by claiming an identity for the writers, and then using that identity to set them aside, removing them from the conversation.

Even more problematic is the simple fact that the identity Anthropy has created here, at least in BioWare’s case, does not match the reality. While I cannot speak to the sexuality of any of the writers, I know for a fact that many of BioWare’s writers defy the label of “white, college-educated men.” The writing team for Mass Effect 3, for example, was composed of 3 women and 6 men, while Dragon Age 2 was 4 women and 2 men. Since Dragon Age 2, the writing team for that series has been upped to 5 women and 2 men. While the team may be overwhelmingly white, it is worth noting that noted black author and activist Minister Faust has written for BioWare. While it is true that all the folks involved are university-educated, it would be disingenuous to claim that they’re “generally white, college-educated men.” To do so is to sweep aside the many, many writers who are not, and would, for games like Dragon Age, actually omit the majority of the writers involved in the game.

This isn’t to suggest that everything’s hunky-dory and that there is no bias towards white, college-educated men in videogames. Instead, I think it’s important to avoid generalising in a way that undermines the work of those who might not be white, might not be college-educated, and who might not be men. Anthropy writes ” I hope that what you take away from this book is that the videogame isn’t the creation of a corporation, but of an author, that this form is important, and that people are using it to do exciting things.” I think this statement, to me, sums up exactly what upsets me about Anthropy’s dismissal of Mass Effect and games like it: it’s important, as Anthropy notes, to remember that videogames are not the creation of corporations, but we should not discount the games that are made by artists, rather than an artist. The people involved in Mass Effect 3 were personally invested in their work, and many of them were very upset at the backlash against the game’s ending. What they felt was a personal accomplishment was received by a number of fans as nothing more than a commodity, and they were upset when they felt that they, as consumers, had received a product that was not tailored to please them. By ignoring the artists behind big titles like the Mass Effect series, we perpetuate that sense that the game is a commercial product, and encourage players to throw a fit when they find that that product challenges them.

Games are made by all sorts of people, from sole authors like Anthropy to small groups like the folks that worked alongside Phil Fish to make Fez, to larger groups like those at BioWare. Some games will be better and some games will be worse. Some games will have heavily invested creators (no matter how many) and others will have creators who phone in a half-baked game with the hopes that it’ll earn them more money than they put in. We should be judging these artists by the work they produce, rather than how they produce it, and we should give collectives the same respect that we give solitary authors. Perhaps I’m too much of an anti-Romantic, but I think there’s something wonderful in a group of people coming together, putting egos aside, and creating something that works together beautifully and that might not have been created had any of the group gone it on their own. To play on EM Forster, I’d say “Only create…” (although truthfully “Only connect…” would be a great motto for game designers). And at the end of the day, I suspect that Anthropy would agree with me. Maybe not completely, but probably at least in principle. And that’s what makes Rise of the Videogame Zinesters such an excellent book: there will be parts you agree with, and there will be parts that you disagree with, but in the end it will make you think, and with luck, it’ll make you create..

Mondegreen 2000

Does anyone out there in the blogosphere know if there’s a term for the computational equivalent of the mondegreen that occurs when a computer misrecognises words during OCR? Surely there must be one..

The evolution of keyboards and programming languages

Lines of BASIC printed out on a typewriter

I was playing around with my Underwood No 5 typewriter a while back, and jokingly typed out a couple of lines in BASIC, which I photographed for my Facebook and Twitter avatars. I thought about typing out some HTML, but then realised that the typewriter lacks the < and > keys, making tags entirely impossible.

It occurred to me that a great number of programming and markup languages make use of the < and > keys, even if my little BASIC program didn’t. As such, it would seem to me that the < and > keys (as well as a few others absent on my Underwood keyboard) must have appeared on the standard computer keyboard fairly early on. As my Underwood was produced in the late-1800s, well before modern computers, it was adapted to entirely different uses than my modern MacBook and PC keyboards. Many users new to the typewriter will be shocked to learn, for example, that most older typewriters entirely lack a 1 key (using instead the lowercase l), but up until the mid-20th century, this was simply the way things were. In fact, a typist from the early-20th-century would be shocked to see a typewriter with a 1 key.

For reference, the keyboard layout to my Underwood is above. As we can see, it is a much leaner keyboard than those we are used to today. Not much had changed a few decades later when my Royal was produced, and barring a few minor changes, the keyboard to it (below) is much the same as the keyboard of my Underwood.

From what I can tell, early programming languages did not require the < and > keys. While I am not too familiar with FORTRAN or assembly, the Wikipedia page for FORTRAN doesn’t seem to have any < or > in the examples of code, and assembly functions in terms of hexadecimal values paired with mnemonics, so programs written in assembler wouldn’t need anything beyond the standard typewriter keyboards.

The very first computer my family had was a Commodore 64, which we got when I was 3. My memory of the keyboard layout being fairly fuzzy, but I remember being surprised when, as a teenager, I dug it out of the basement and discovered that there were only two arrow keys: up/down and left/right. I looked up an image of the C64 keyboard online, and although there were some interesting surprises (the 2 key, for example, is paired with ” and not the @, as is the case with typewriters and modern German keyboards), the C64 does have the < and > keys.

I decided, then, to try and explore some earlier keyboards to see if I could get a better sense of when the < and > keys appeared. This IBM 26 printing punch keyboard from 1946 does not have the < and > keys, but this IBM 129 from 1971 clearly does. I’ll obviously have to do much more research into this to narrow things down a little more, but this is a interesting start.

I’m not entirely certain what I’ll find while researching this, but I am curious as to when the keys appeared, and at what point symbols like < and > were introduced into programming languages. I have a hunch that the adoption of the ASCII in the 1960s standard might have something to do with the appearance of < and > on keyboards, and that they those symbols didn’t appear in programming languages until after they were standard on keyboards, but I am clearly going to have to look much deeper into this before I reach any sort of definite conclusion..

See above, see below

Nathan Altice asked on Twitter why authors say that text will appear “below,” which led to a discussion between Nathan, Paul Benzon, and myself.

After I got home from watching a live satellite screening (the future is amazing!) of the Hot Docs presentation of Indie Game: The Movie (which I highly recommend for all those interested in videogames and the people behind them), I started looking a little more into the data that I’d found. As I suspected, the early blips in the ngram were largely due to errors in metadata, appearing mostly in footnotes added by modern editors in a later edition of the work. That said, some of these blips did contain applicable uses of the phrases in books like The Fredrician Code, published in 1761, where the phrase “see above” appears, referring to clauses of law that appear earlier in the book, much the way we would use the phrase today. That said, these blips are relatively rare, and it’s not until the 1800s that the phrases really start taking off and approaching levels of use that we see today.

I thought that it could be that pre-1800s there were more uses of the Latin equivalents “vide supra” and “vide infra,” but rather curiously the ngram of these phrases wasn’t that far off of the ngram for “see above, see below,” all things considered—they both start right around the 1800s and build from there (although the Latin phrases seem much more erratic in their uses, and fall off in recent decades). I also tried searching for the abbreviations “v.s., v.i.” and “v. s., v. i.,” and got precisely zero results each time (something that I suspect is an error, as I find it hard to believe that the abbreviations were never used in print). Even if I were to find instances of the abbreviations, however, it seems highly unlikely that they would differ too much from the full phrases, as writers would be unlikely to have spent the 1700s using the abbreviation only to switch to the full phrase in the 1800s.

Ultimately, this is just an initial search, and there’s a lot more we could look into, especially if you consider works in other languages, as well as in time periods not covered by Google Books. I would encourage you all to add comments to this post—this seems like the type of question that would benefit from the knowledge of many scholars of diverse interests..


Matt Kirschenbaum recently tweeted this fantastic version of the dance hit “What is Love?” played entirely by floppy disk drives. Enjoy.

And once you’re done with that, I highly recommend checking out this slightly more experimental (although nonetheless listenable) version of Radiohead’s “Big Ideas (don’t get any),” this time played on an assortment of computer hardware.