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Living with Technology / When icons don't help

Published 8:13 pm, Wednesday, March 6, 2013
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Icons are little pictures that usually represent something. Words are icons of a sort. For example, the word "tree" isn't really a tree, but it represents a tree. On your car's fuel gauge now there's typically a picture of a fuel pump like you'd see at a gas station.

Computers use icons all the time. This makes a lot of sense. Not only does it eliminate what would normally be written in different languages, but an icon tends to be smaller than a series of letters.

Over the years, a number of icons have come into being and generally work pretty well once you understand what they are. For example, to print, there's usually a little icon that looks like a box with a piece of paper coming out of it -- a printer. For electricity, there's usually something that looks like a battery and typically something that looks like a plug when the battery is plugged in and charging.

But some icons are now out of date. Here are a few:

On my mobile phone, when I have a voicemail message, the icon is that of a small cassette tape, like one that used to be used on answering machines. Well, my answering machine hasn't used a cassette tape in decades. And I doubt that any school-age children have ever seen a cassette tape.

The icon in most applications to save a file is the image of a 3.5-inch floppy disk. Only people of my age even know what a floppy disk is, much less have seen one. Yet, there it is in the entire Office 2010 suite of products, as well as others.

Even the icon of a telephone is typically the old-style desk phone. I can't say when I've seen one of those in at least five years.

A good friend of mine reminded me over the weekend that on the iPad, the icon for the newsstand is a bookshelf.

If you look around, you'll see other examples of icons that at one time were quite meaningful, but whose relevance has diminished, if not been lost.

I really like the idea of icons. Having traveled in foreign countries where I don't speak the local language, icons have been extremely helpful in allowing me to navigate the country effectively.

Or when I've had to operate a piece of equipment with which I'm not familiar, having icons can greatly increase my ability to use it quickly and effectively -- oftentimes without a manual.

As you look around, keep your eyes open for icons that help you understand the world and for icons that are past their prime.

Note that not all icons are just digital. My 8-year-old son recently saw a typewriter in someone's home. He asked what it was. He had never seen, much less used, a typewriter. For some, the typewriter as an icon is something that will be hard to let go of. Yet there's a new generation that has no idea what one is.

Mark Mathias is a Westport resident and has worked in information technology for more than 30 years. His "Living With Technology" appears every other Wednesday. He can be contacted at livingwithtechnology@mathias.org.