If you want to see unintentional comedy, an inexhaustible source is people from the past attempting to predict the future. One video that’s stood out to me, however, is called Starfire (Youtube mirror). It was a 1994 video trying to depict the high-tech world of 2004. Sun sponsored it, so of course they were heavily featured as the creators of this future. In it people’s interactions with computers take the form of physical virtual desktops. Videos and such can be swiped in or out of this workspace, newspapers (physical ones!) can be scanned in by pressing them onto the desktop and getting a virtual clipping, and so on. The UX especially had almost nothing to do with how the real 2004 looked.

Computer showing a digital film roll capturing images from a video.
It makes sense in context…kind of.

A ubiquitous concept throughout this future past is the skeuomorphism, which is when an object has decorative features that replace the structural features from the old object. It can be used to evoke familiarity with the old object and make the new one easier to interact with, more relatable, etc. In that sense it can certainly be a positive thing that lets new technologies be accepted.

But what’s a positive in the liminal period of a technology becomes a negative once it becomes commonplace. It is then an unnecessary tether that keeps the new technology from reaching its full potential.

Business meeting with a display in the background showing a virtual torn-out newspaper clipping.
Why are there tear marks without any physical tearing?

An example from UX design. Early graphical user interfaces used a desktop metaphor not too much unlike what Sun was fantasizing of in Starfire. You could have different applications running on your desktop, move them around, etc. But the world has rightfully moved past it. The interface of smartphones resembles little from the pre-PC era. And why should it? It would be pointlessly limiting, and people have adapted.

This is not limited to surface UI elements. Copernicus wrested the universe from its Earth tether, opening up innumerable ways of thinking. Similarly technology can open up new ways of living if allowed to live unshackled from the past. Turn back to smartphones. Regardless of your opinion of their value, they have certainly opened up ways of living far beyond what the phone system, original cell phones themselves, or even the Internet did. To say “it’s a cell phone with some more abilities” is a skeuomorphic thought. It ignores the new dimensions that have been opened up.

And that is why futuristic dreams like Starfire will almost invariably appear comical when the future does arrive. We can’t see the thoughts until we know the enabling technology itself. Mere projections of current technologies into the future will be limited by the dimensions of our current thought. Skeuomorphisms are, at bottom, guardrails that try to preserve past thought in the new present.