A couple of years ago, when walking by one of the few remaining phone boxes, I asked my elder son, Oscar, who was six at the time, if he knew what it was. He did not.
“People used them to make phone calls,” I explained. “Before mobile phones, we would call buildings to see if our friends were inside them.” “I knew you were old, Dad,” Oscar replied.
“But not that old.”
Nothing ages you like technology.
There’s a series on YouTube where children are given various items and asked if they know what they are. From GameBoys to film cameras, most kids are stumped. My favourite episode features a Walkman, similar to one I had in the 1980s.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” one boy says, when told it’s for playing music. I recently visited the Science Museum in London. Along one long wall, a series of objects had been carefully arranged in date order. Peering at the older items, it was pretty easy to understand what they were for, even if they were unknown to me. As I walked along the wall towards the present, it became much more difficult to deduce the function from the design, as the objects shrank in size, grew in complexity, and switched from mechanical workings to electronic chips, from analogue to digital. Of course I knew the slab of glass at the end of the exhibition was a new smartphone, but I doubt an alien could figure it out. When the personal computer became mainstream, it came with lots of helpful metaphors to help people understand what things did.
The screen was called a desktop.
When you wanted to delete a file, you dragged it into a waste paper bin. Files were kept in folders. It was both new and comfortingly familiar at the same time. As computers have become ubiquitous, the need for these real world metaphors has receded. In the last major redesign of Apple’s iPhones software, the visual references to real world objects were toned down. We don’t need them anymore. And when our kids’ kids visit the Science Museum in 30 years, they will have absolutely no idea what we did with our time.
By Guy Cookson, Partner at Hotfoot Design