At a friend's party recently, I was surprised when her digital camera made a satisfying click while taking a picture. Although some digital cameras use a combination of mechanical and digital shutters, they aren't so clunky that they click any more, so what gives? When I tried to explain this weirdness to my friends I got the answer "It's supposed to click - it's a camera."
This is, of course, true. We've grown up in a world where cameras click, and if the click suddenly disappears in a fit of progress, people feel uncomfortable.
Advances in technology are inherently double-edged. People feel excited by the newness of a gadget, but this sensation is often tempered by the not so comfortable realization that something old is being replaced. This is why technology manufacturers often include references to obsolete technology. They want to ease people into the new wave of tech toys.
The e-mail programs we use are littered with signifiers denoting communication of a bygone era. We send e-mail by clicking on the traditional icon of a stamped letter, and we organize our contacts by accessing the Rolodex icon. Seriously, does anybody use a Rolodex any more? When was the last time you used a magnifying glass to "find" something?
The insidious thing is that tech companies often use images of the products they themselves have replaced. Hollywood remakes of classic movies often feature cameos by the stars from the original films. It might be fun to try to spot Richard Roundtree limping alongside Samuel L. Jackson in the new Shaft, but there's also an element of smugness, of inviting viewers to condescend to the washed-up celebrity. It's clear who's in charge now - not Shaft, but Paramount and its vision for the evolution of his image.
Similarly, the only references to classic office equipment today are on our computer screens, under the firm control of Microsoft. The fact that these images do crop up implies that these changes in communication are natural. It's as if the old machines are actually endorsing the new technology, like a has-been celebrity on an infomercial. Witness the manic paper clip tutor in MS Office. He obviously hasn't realized that if you really understand how to use MS Word, you'll never have to use a paper clip again in your life.
The new Blackberry toys have an abundance of archaic images to represent functions. The 7500 has a Swiss Army Knife icon representing the "tool-kit" at your disposal for organizing information (but don't worry - if you mess up you can just chuck your files in the "garbage can"). The alarm clock isn't a cheap Wal-Mart knockoff but a turn-of-the-century analog clock with brass Princess Leah bells on the sides. The phone icon is an old rotary receiver. It's a shame that when we send e-mails we can't put a virtual wax seal over the envelope with our embossed initials.
The next time someone raves on about simulacra or postmodern consumerism, you only need look as far as your cellphone options to see images that are losing their meaning.
But, all things considered, my friend did get some great pictures of her party, and dumping the bad ones was a matter of a simple click.