October 2015

Volume 30 Number 10

Don't Get Me Started - Anachronisms

By David Platt | October 2015

We geeks pride ourselves on keeping current with advancing technology. We upgrade to the latest phones, download the latest apps, sling the latest slang; with automatic updates to ensure we never fall behind. But if we look at the apps that we’re writing, we’ll see ourselves reaching into the past to communicate with users. We can’t or won’t rid our programs of anachronisms.

An anachronism, according to dictionary.com, is: “… a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned.” The classic example comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” where Cassius says: “The clock has stricken three.” The Romans never developed striking clocks, but I suppose “The sundial says three” wouldn’t have worked, especially in cloudy England.

Anachronisms often take the form of pictures. Windows 10, not a month old as I write these words, uses a picture of a floppy disk on the Save button. When was the last time you even saw an actual floppy disk, never mind used one? (Although … the U.S. Air Force still uses them in their missile silos, see slate.me/1LOAwzR. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about this.) USB sticks blew them out of the water a decade ago, but that’s still the picture we use to convey to our user the idea of saving.

Sometimes anachronisms take the form of outdated phrases. Consider the term “disk drive.” The first word indicates a circular shape, while the second word implies some sort of motion. Neither of these applies to a modern solid-state disk drive, which neither is circular nor moves.

Sounds can be anachronistic, too. Consider the “ka-ching” sound you hear when you enter a check into Quicken. It harks back to an old-fashioned, mechanical cash register, which I haven’t seen in quite some time. I wonder how long before the picture of the check itself becomes an anachronism.

Or consider the modern smartphone camera, which emits the “gshpratz” sound (I love onomatopoeia, don’t you?) of a mechanical shutter every time it snaps a photo. I wonder if that noise irritates any nearby tigers and causes fatelfies, as I wrote last month (see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/mt422590).

The latter sound, by law, can’t be turned off or even changed on most phones sold in Asia today. Its unshakeable purpose is to alert potential targets of voyeuristic photos that someone nearby is snapping them. I wonder if this will lead to a new black market for silent phones. I suspect that the promulgators of this law never considered that a bad guy might stick a piece of duct tape over the phone’s speaker, an excellent example of a hardware solution to a software problem. Remember, friends, when duct tape is outlawed, only outlaws will tape ducts. Red Green (redgreen.com), look out.

At what point does an anachronism lose its original meaning and take its own place in the modern lexicon? Today’s digital natives (Mark Prensky’s coinage, essentially anyone younger than 30) have heard Quicken’s “ka-ching” far more often than from a mechanical cash register. And digital symbionts (my coinage, see msdn.microsoft.com/magazine/mt147245, essentially anyone younger than 5 years old) have never heard a cash register in their lives, nor will they outside of a museum. When does a picture or term or sound lose its skeuomorphism and become just an arbitrary pattern? I guess when enough of the cohort that recognizes the original item dies, or at least leaves the user population.

I wonder which current computing technology will be the next to disappear from our actual world, maintaining a ghostly undead existence as an anachronistic icon. I can imagine Annabelle’s and Lucy’s children pointing at a picture on their toolbar and saying to me, “Cranky old fart Grandpa, what was a ‘printer’?”

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.