Skeuomorph, or the "click"

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Single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras make a clicking sound when taking a picture. The click results from a mechanical operation: an internal mirror moves aside and the shutter opens, exposing the film to light. Many of today's digital cameras have no shutter and no internal mirror, yet they still simulate the click using a digital audio sample. Why? Research Question: What qualities of the artifact are unnecessary at the material level but are still nevertheless necessary at the semiotic level? Where is the "click"?

Alongside the audio click, there is also a visual click. On digital cameras, the flapping of the shutter that exists in SLR cameras is recreated through an instantaneous black-out of the screen. This is also not necessary on the material level; that is, for the process by which camera captures an image. Even if the shutter sound and visual representation did not exist, the image would be captured. But, indeed, if those skeuomorphs did not exist, would there be a negative effect on the image? In other words, would the photographer have a difficult time “taking a good picture” (as fraught with aesthetic problems as that is). Is there then, not only a semiotic level of the skeuomorph, but something along the lines of a photographic (or artistic) level? In other words, I am suggesting that materially inessential feature of a technology be co-opted into a necessity for artistic and political reasons.

In terms of photography (meaning: the art not necessarily the medium, though this distinction is highly problematic), anyone who handles a SLR camera for the first time knows the difficulty of figuring out the crucial “shutter speed function.” When the novice photographer mistakenly sets the shutter speed for too long, he or she presses the exposure button and then moves the camera, as if the photograph has already been taken, only to hear the delayed “click” of the shutter. And, this mistake is later affirmed when he or she develops the film, the photograph is quite blurry and full of indistinguishable lines. Hence, from the perspective of the art of photography, the “click” is indeed a semiotic skeuomorph that serves an artistic function.

The skeuomorph can also be co-opted by extra-artistic forces, most especially legal ones. Let us continue with the example of the “click” of the shutter sound in digital cameras, especially in camera phones. On the surface, it seems that the shutter sound on the camera phone is a skeuomorph par excellence. However, it seems that in East Asia at least, the purely decorative “click” has been turned into a security measure. As John Mello for the Boston Globe reports, the click becomes a security measure, allowing for people to be made aware of someone taking a photograph of them with their camera (Boston Globe 2004). In Japan and South Korea, the shutter sound was made legally mandatory on all cellular devices with cameras to prevent the potential plethora of “upskirt” images on the Web and also to combat cases of corporate spying through camera phones. Is this still a skeuomorph, when the click is no longer merely decorative?


"CAMERA PHONES A FLASHPOINT OF CONCERN" The Boston Globe, April 11, 2004.