Sunday 17 January 2010

Skeuomorphic Journalism

The front-page article of yesterday's Guardian was an eye-witness account of the ruins of Port-au-Prince. The second paragraph went like this:

The first shock was the sight of the [government] building itself. Its domes had caved in, each at its own bizarre angle, lending the palace a dishevelled look. Then the mass of people outside the palace shifted into focus, queuing up in neat lines at the presidential gates.

Now it's possible that the journalist was very, very, very drunk; otherwise I don't see how the crowds can have "shifted into focus". Perhaps he has a serious eye defect, but I'm plumping for the gallon-of-vodka solution.

In the nineteenth century, when photography was still in nappies, exposure times were so long that people who were walking would be blurred. They would have ghosts flowing out behind them. It was this that introduced the idea in paintings and drawings that movement could be indicated by lines flying out behind a moving object. Photography changed our visual ideas and that changed representations in other mediums. The viewer looks at a blurred drawing and thinks "Ah the chap's running. I know that because of the technological failings of photography." Think about it: have you ever actually seen a runner with lines coming out of his back?

There's a technical term for this: it's skeuomorphic. A skueomorph is a technological limitation that is deliberately imitated even when it's no longer necessary. My digital camera has a little loudspeaker that emits a clicking noise when I take a photograph, just like an old mechanical camera.

The Guardian journalist was not, I suspect, actually drunk. The poor chap has just seen so many films that he is no longer capable of describing things as he sees them. He can only describe them as he imagines a camera would show them with all the limitations of focus-depth that you have in films.

I saw the same scene on television and the crowd did shift into focus. But then again I was very, very, very drunk.

Try as he might, he could not escape the terrifying horizontal lines that pursued him

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