Most people when they say, “I Googled it,” don’t realize that they used a rhetorical device. “Google” is so closely associated with the concept of “searching the Internet” that it simply stands in place of the thing it represents. This association is what rhetoricians call “metonymy.”
Metonymy illustrates how easily our brains associate one thing with another. We constantly connect elements together even though the two things may be quite distinct. Google is not the same as the Internet, but Googling is functionally equivalent to searching it. Metonymy is really a kind of symbolism: One thing representing another.
Symbols work like briefcase handles, and into our briefcases we pack lots of ideas and associations. But instead of unpacking the briefcase every time, we just use the handle—the symbol—to refer to everything in the briefcase. Good corporate branding does the same thing. And every industry has jargon that insiders use in a similar way. Even Internet culture and pop culture have these—memes can work this way. People need a shorthand for their ideas, so they use words and symbols to represent the briefcase.
Think about your Microsoft Word program—all the various buttons. Think of each app on your phone. Think of all the symbols in each one. A part that represents the subroutine that executes every time you click on it. Today, especially with apps and icons, old technologies are often used to represent new technologies. This old-to-new association needs a name, something better than “metonymy” though: I suggest “technostalgia.” Consider how prevalent technostalgia is.
First, take a look at this Twitter button.
It’s a quill. Now, I’ve never used a quill in my life. Quills were still in use during the American Civil War, but were already in decline before that in the 1820s. Nonetheless, I know what that button means: “Compose a new tweet.” However, if you aren’t yet familiar with the symbolism, you can hover over it and the web will tell you as much with a little pop-up. It's like training.
But these symbols are just the beginning. The more I look around, the more technostalgia I see. Another common one is the Call button on most phones. It’s typically an old wired handset, pretty rare anymore.
Today, very few phones look like this handset, but the association is still there. Technostalgia.
Likewise, many phones have lock and unlock features. What’s their symbol?
The examples go on and on. Sheets of paper represent electronic documents, while file folders and cabinets represent a hierarchical system of organization. A floppy disk, one of the most recent inventions, represents the “Save” function of a computer program. Microsoft “Windows” itself is a technostalgic move.
Envelopes represent electronic communication.
Tools and settings are routinely symbolized with hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, or gears.
Garbage cans represent the “Trash” or the “Recycle Bins” of digital documentation.
Internet "radio" and YouTube appear with 50s-style dials and knobs. Alarms are represented by clocks with clock faces complete with the long and short hands. Notetaking apps use images of lined, yellow tear sheets, or spiral bound notebooks.
Musical notes, an innovation in their own time, today represent recorded music more generally. Meanwhile stopwatches are represented by their old-school counterparts from the days of analog track and field.
Today we live in a world of new hieroglyphics. And like the ancients, interpreting these symbols requires knowing a lot of backstory. Imagine looking at your smartphone or Word buttons without any frame of reference. They’re hieroglypics. Our understanding comes from knowing our technological history. But these buttons also tear us away from those technologies. A continuity through discontinuity.
And just like the ancients, we still scroll through our icons, looking for symbols that may offer us clues to the mysteries of the universe.