Simulacra explained through MS Word

Blog | Apr. 28, 2016

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:

simulacra of a diskette

As Beaudrillard explains:

These would be the four successive phases of the image:

  1. It is the reflection of a basic reality.
  2. It masks and perverts a basic reality.
  3. It masks the absence of a basic reality.
  4. 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:

  1. Clicking this icon indicates you are saving your file to a 3.5″ floppy diskette.
  2. You are saving a file, but you’re more likely saving to an internal hard disk, and not a floppy.
  3. Floppy disks are supplanted by Zip disks, until removable media’s decline around the end of the century. No one uses floppy disks.
  4. 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.