In the chapter Simulacra and Simulations of his Selected Writings, Jean Beaudrillard offers an analysis of simulacra — a representational image without an original — which I believe can be applied to icons. In particular, Microsoft Word’s stupid save icon:
As Beaudrillard explains:
These would be the four successive phases of the image:
- It is the reflection of a basic reality.
- It masks and perverts a basic reality.
- It masks the absence of a basic reality.
- It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum.
Using Beaudrillard’s explanation, let’s describe the life cycle of the save icon in MS Word:
- Clicking this icon indicates you are saving your file to a 3.5″ floppy diskette.
- You are saving a file, but you’re more likely saving to an internal hard disk, and not a floppy.
- Floppy disks are supplanted by Zip disks, until removable media’s decline around the end of the century. No one uses floppy disks.
- Files are saved to hard drives, stored in the cloud, or on Dropbox. The only removable media in regular use is the USB stick. The floppy disk icon remains a symbol only of itself.
And this is how Word’s save icon became a simulacra — to represent nothing.