The Hierarchy of Iconization comment


We cannot be aware of everything at once.


We cannot even see everything that is in front of us at the same time. Just try. The article can wait. The best you can do is flitter back and forth between different areas of interest. But you feel you see - that you are aware of everything at once.

This is because our impressions are compressed into symbolic icons up a hierarchy of experience.

Picture a car in the distance at night. You can only see its headlights, but you know it is a car because you have seen cars at night before, both up close and far away, so you associate the headlights with a car. If you are a car buff you may well be able to tell what kind of a car it is and therefore you see, if you choose, much more in your minds eye than is being projected towards you by the eager light kissing the backs of your eyeballs.

But even though you may be able to rotate a virtual Porsche Boxter in your mind because you know the shape of the car so well, chances are you won't do it all that often. Maybe sometimes when your fantasizing about owning one. Chances are when you see the headlights in the distance you'll cross the road with a simple, "car, far enough away to cross safely" semi-conscious link in your mind as you rush across the road to work in the early winter morning. The car has become iconized, a simple "car" or "Porsche Boxter" in the flow of your thoughts. Not a fully visualized, colorful, revving beast with leather interior and a ferocious engine. No, no dreams of the designers and details of implementations. Just "car".

If the lights turn out to be exactly just what you saw, and not what you felt was there, formed by your earlier experience (if your view wasn't prejudiced basically), then you'd have real reason to be worried, seeing two disembodied lights float towards you!

Similarly, you don't really look at the buildings on the other side of the road and deduce that they are indeed buildings. Office buildings. You probably won't even notice the ornate frames on one of them and the dirty windows on the next. They are just buildings and that will have to suffice.

Unless of course you are strolling with good time and an inclination to look around. In which case you will be approaching the world with different mind set. A different frame of mind. With a rare moment to take the time to try to look at what is actually in front of you. It's not all that easy.

But no matter how hard you try, you cannot keep all of your possible sensory impressions in your consciousness at the same time. The bandwidth of your consciousness is very, very small indeed. Tor Norretranders quotes just 40bits as a reasonable number.

So you pack them into a series of symbolic icons in a hierarchy where every experience with the object, person or concept is somehow related, linked, and forms your perception of it.

It's these little icons we deal with, manipulate and experience.

Without moving or looking around, describe the room around you. See the icons? Maybe a lamp is somewhere. Maybe you remember it to be short and green. Could you draw it even if you were proficient at drawing in general? Think of a friend you saw today. What was he or she wearing? Describe their eyes. What color? What pattern? Icons, I bet you chances are most of your friends occupy very little active visual space in your mind. Sure you can come up with quite a lot of details if given a little time, but mostly, the icon will have to do. The 'Thererse-ness" or "Michael-ness" is enough. All your visual and emotional, factual and otherwise relationship rolled up into that, well, let's go hippy here; the essence (by your account) of that person or thing, or place, or experience. That icon is the essence, not a complete account. But it will have to do; you simply don't have the processing capacity for more sunshine.



This is why some people wear too much make-up, they don't see themselves 'objectively' in the mirror, they see a construct, an architectural blueprint of what they decided before they want, not what they actually get. Scary.



This is fundamentally important in interface design. If we don't understand how maps of the world are generated internally, we cannot hope to build systems which present information and control to users in ways which is natural to us.



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