The 90s were the good times. It was when the world switched from off-line to on-line, and computers and internet became the an important part of every household. Computer games, applications, graphics, websites; everything took a jump start. The number of websites jumped from 1 in 1990, to about 10 million in 1999. Computer software like Windows and Office also started out and became mainstream during the 90s. The percentage of households with computers in the US almost tripled from 1989 to 1999. Computers may have been invented before, but the real worldwide revolution happened in the 90s. After just a decade, computers and internet became the symbol of contemporary civilization. It could well be said it was “born” in the 1990s.

Its time of growth has left a noticeable mark. We may be living near 2020; computing devices now are nothing like what they were in the 90s. Every device that can be changed by turning digital, have changed and integrated. But some things have survived down to the present. Things that we never use in 2018 are still holding firmly in our software. They exist in the form of icons.

Home Phones

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Rotary dial phones disappeared a long time ago. Even in the 90s it was very rare. People more often used phones with buttons. They had less antique-looking handsets and sometimes LCD screens. Now in 2018, home phones as a whole have become extinct. Who needs home phones, when everyone has a computer that doubles as a phone(and camera, game console, music player, map and wallet)? Inside our smartphones, however, our old rotary-dial phone still lives on. Look at your smartphone’s incoming call screen. A green handset facing upwards indicates accepting or making a call. A red handset facing down is always the decline button.

Floppy Disk

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The 3.5-inch floppy disk, so named because of its floppy magnetic disk, is also a thing of the past. Perhaps, a few old large-scale systems might still use this format, because they are expensive to replace. Elsewhere it is extinct. Not only do modern computers don’t have slots for diskettes, it’s even hard to find a dedicated reader for one. Nowadays, it is more often called the “save icon”, especially by those born after its demise. Indeed, long after extinction, it still remains the dominant save icon. Many up-to-date software like Microsoft Office still use the floppy disk to denote the saving function.

Video Cameras, Films, CRT, and CDs

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Motion picture cameras haven’t disappeared. The cameras with huge rolls of film, however, has been supplanted by digital cinema technology. The 90s was arguably the pinnacle of film-based cinema. From the 90s onwards, the expensive, heavy and degradable motion picture films were quickly replaced by cheap and infinitely reproducible digital media. However, the conventional icons that formed during that time has the same old shape. They often have the two rolls of film on the 90s style camera body. Sometimes symbols of film are still used to indicate video. The bulging screens of old cathode-ray tube television is another favorite. The Youtube icon is a good example. Though relatively less common, CDs are still a popular choice for music icons, even though new computers have nowhere to put in CDs.

Not Yet but Possibly

There are many commonly-used symbols whose origins will become obscure in the coming ages. Envelops are a common symbol for e-mail or sms, but we don’t really use them for everyday purposes. Postage stamps are sometimes used for e-mails, but we rarely get to see a postage stamp. Folders and papers, which mean digital files, are at least gradually falling out of use. Physical calendars and phonebooks, ordinary books and newspaper are not as common as the applications that replaced them. Lightbulbs are dying out too. New LED lights look like old lightbulbs only for legacy support. Even shopping carts are being threatened within foreseeable future. Soon, they will all be gone.

It’s uncertain if they will live much longer than their real-world counterparts. These obsolete symbolisms may one day be replaced by more abstract designs. Established examples include hamburger icons for menus and arrows pointing down into a square for saving. A possibility, still, is that they will remain as they are. In the 22nd century, we may have to look back into history to know how they came to have their meanings, like Chinese characters. Our children might ask us “Why does this mean decline call?”, and parents may have to look up Wikipedia to tell them.

I’m sure about one thing. The one icon that will hold on the longest, both in the real and digital world, is the recycle bin.


Featured Image by Arturo Jacoby / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0