Social Vestigial Structures

Why does the “save” icon continue to look like a floppy disk? Why do we offer a handshake to people we meet?

It’s the same reason that virtual “trash” icons look like real-world trash cans, why car turn signals make a clicking sound, or why we use “tin foil” in the kitchen when it’s made out of aluminum.

All of these are examples of Social Vestigial Structures (SVS): remnants of our collective past whose symbolic meaning is retained in the present. These structures appear across all aspects of social life, from language to iconography to design, and many more categories.

In some ways, SVS take on meaning beyond their original intent. The save icon may have meant saving to a hard disk or floppy disk once upon a time, but the disk icon now represents the act of “saving” a file electronically. Handshakes were once used to demonstrate trust with hands and sleeves empty of weapons, and the gesture continues to affirm trust via mutual touch and acknowledgement.

For others, SVS reflect the desirability of familiarity. Few people actually make physical “carbon copies”, but often “cc” people via electronic mail, or “email”. “Roll down the windows” sounds better than “press a button to lower the windows to an acceptable level”. Glass maple syrup bottles at the grocery store have tiny handles they don’t need to provide a visual tie to the large syrup jugs that came before.

SVS is a catch-all name to capture how we cling to the past. It includes skeuomorphs, like chandeliers with electric bulbs in the shape of candlelight, or dead metaphors like “in the limelight”. Some things we take for granted today will almost certainly fade into the realm of Social Vestigial Structures over time (perhaps we will keep steering wheels in full self-driving cars, or holographically project a phantom wristwatch onto our arms). That’s not something to fear, but merely a sign of change, a blending of the past into the present, and a gradual march to the future.

Bonus examples:

  • A “dashboard” was originally used to prevent passengers from getting dirty by horses kicking things up:
  • “Picking up”, “Hanging up” the phone or “dialing” a number (a legacy of corded phones and rotary dials)
  • “Cut” and “paste” commands on digital devices refer to a time when editing was literally done with a sharp pair of scissors and a dab of glue
  • Digital phones make a clicking noise when taking a photo, harkening back to the sound of shutter-flash cameras
  • Square meal: refers to (generally hearty) meals served on square plates on sailing ships

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