2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

[ print ]

Archaeologist, Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity, University of Vienna; Author, The Artificial Ape
Archaeologist, University of Bradford; Author, The Buried Soul

Skeuomorphism

I am optimistic about skeuomorphism. Odd, perhaps, but true.

In a small wire tidy on my desk I have several corks. But they are not cork. The word cork comes from the Latin for oak, quercus, a sub-species of which has the spongy bark that is so useful for sealing wine in bottles. In the 1980s, demand for high quality cork began to outstrip supply. As low grade cork often taints (or 'corks') wine, substitutes were sought. My corks are synthetic. One is cork-coloured and slightly variegated to make it appear traditional; like real corks in the German Riesling tradition, it is stamped in black with a vine tendril motif. Another is less convincingly mottled, and is mid-yellow in colour with the name of the vintner, Gianni Vescovo, printed in bold black. Both these corks are skeuomorphs—objects that preserve formal vestiges of the constraints of an original no longer strictly necessary in the new material. First generation skeuomorphs are close mimics, even fakes.

Second generation skeuomorphs, like the Vescovo cork, abandon any serious attempt at deception. Its mottling, and the fact that it is still a functional cork, rather than a metal screw-top closure (equally efficient for the modest young wine it briefly protected) is a comforting nod to the history of wine. At the same time it signals a new, more consistent, freedom from contamination. As synthetic corks became more familiar, new and more baroque forms arose. These third generation skeuomorphs are fun: a bright purple cork that stoppered an Australian red suggests a grape colour, while a black cork has a hi-tech look that draws symbolic attention to the new techniques of low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel. This black cork is still mottled, but in an exaggerated and unconvincing manner—a self-conscious and playful back-reference both to real corks and to earlier skeuomorphic examples. One could not conceive of the black cork without a process of skeuomorphic familiarization, through first and second generation examples. Put the black cork next in sequence with a real cork, and the dissonance would be too great.

I see much of the history of technology as an unplanned trajectory in which emergent skeuomorphic qualities often turn out to have been critical. Corks are a relatively trivial example in an extraordinary history of skeuomorphism, impossible to review here, but which encompasses critical turns in material development from prehistoric flint, via the discovery of metals and alloys, to complex compound objects, of which computers are a modern manifestation.

My optimism about skeuomorphs arises, as optimism often does, from former pessimism. I grew up with Alan Turing's unsettling vision of a future machine indistinguishable from a human in its reactions. Ray Kurzweil's provocative prediction of the impending 'singularity'—the point when computer intelligence would start to leave humans gasping in its intellectual wake—added to my fears. I actually began to worry that efforts to enculture my children with Shakespeare and Darwin, and even with spiritual and moral values, might be rendered peremptorily redundant by cold robotic Übermenschen.

I have recently become quite relaxed about all this, but not because I doubt for a moment that computers are rapidly becoming very smart indeed, and will become smarter, in some directions, than we can easily imagine. Computers explicitly reproduce aspects of the human brain. Yet their eventual power will probably not be in simulation or deception. There will never be a perfect Turing machine, except under conditions so artificial and in contexts so circumscribed as to be rather ridiculous. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas, computers will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort. But it will not be mimicry of our brain function that will be important. If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers' currently unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most,  enhancing and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding it.

In like fashion, the synthetic corks have taken the pressure off the oak groves, securing their future and with it those genuine champagne moments. Happy New Year!