A Predator of Information

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Humanity is the Root of all Skeuomorphs

29 September 2022 4:00 PM (musing | misinformation)

Humanity's inventions are made in the shape of humanity, first mimicking the body, then simplifying its features away. Consider the automobile with its tires, flexible and grippy like the palms of hands and soles of feet, its need for breath, its need to consume carbon-rich foods, and crude conductive cables that control its movements. The oldest automobiles were more like human bodies than cars of today. Instead of the 'unibody' construction favored now, they had steel skeletons with steel skins placed over them, and their wheels had wire spokes in analogy with the wrist bones of their human builders.

The best studied example is the chair. Primitive chairs were modeled after the human form; they have hard skeletons with springs for tendons and muscles, foam and horsehair for flesh, and fabric for the skin. The parts of their construction are named for the body parts of humans: backs, seats, arms, and sometimes legs and feet.

You may say it is an example of humanity's self-absorption that they would think to see 'arms' in some feature that neither moves nor bends nor has hands, but the self-absorption goes further. If we look at the oldest known chairs, we see that they have mobile joints like a human's.

These earliest chairs are divided into two kinds, based on their shape and named for the body shapes of humanity's two ancestor species. Elven chairs are tall, thin, and highly articulated. Their arms can raise up and down or yaw to left and right, and some even have hands at the ends that can hold cups or bottles. The seat can raise or lower by extension or contraction of the spine, and they have hips that can bend to lean back. They even have round, rolling feet like wheels.

Dwarven chairs, like their namesake species, are strong, sturdy, and supportive. They're low to the ground, wide, comfortable, and if you lean on them they don't roll away. They still move: their strong backs lay back or sit up, and their wide, sturdy foot can raise or lower, like a seated human straightening or bending their legs.

Over time, each type of chair shed its vestigial protohumanity in its own way. Dwarven chairs lost their joints, becoming immobile but still fleshed. Then, apparently in parallel, the arms shrank and disappeared while the bones became more exposed. Thus we have both middle-Dwarven chairs fully fleshed but lacking arms and chairs with arms whose arms and legs are exposed wood, with only the back and seat fleshed. Eventually we get late Dwarven chairs without arms and made entirely of bare wood.

Elven chairs lost their flesh and their joints at roughly the same time. An example mid-Elven chair is the 'folding' chair, with a fleshed seat and only one mobile joint, allowing it to stand upright or sit stably[1]. Late Elven chairs are completely immobile. A common species has a frame of bent metal tubing with the only holdover of the ancestral flesh being a back or seat made of a single sheet of polymer.

The most modern chairs have lost their ancestral vestiges to such an extent that we can't tell whether they have Dwarven or Elven ancestry. (While late Elven and Dwarven chairs had no mobile joints, they often had fixed joints, bound with screws or rivets[2].) These most modern chairs are wonders of simplicity, with a piece of plastic serving as a combined skeleton, seat, and back molded in one step with no joints at all. Transitional forms of modern chairs show the appearance of joints or outlines reminiscent of fleshed seats and backs cast into plastic, and while the matter is still under investigation, the appearance of molded features appropriate to both Dwarven and Elven chairs on early modern chairs suggests convergent evolution and hybridization between the two lineages.

[1] It used to be thought that the stool might be a middle-Elven chair with its round padded top and wheels, the idea being that the loss of the arms had progressed to loss of the entire back. However, modern cladistics has shown it to be an early ancestor of the table.

[2] An earlier yet still late genus of Dwarven chair had wood fitted together and fixed with a glue that itself descended from a product made by boiling down the connective tissue of animals. This was literally a liquid sinew to hold joints in place.

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