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Symbols have the power to transcend boundaries, connecting us to ideas, emotions, and entire cultures. Among the most fascinating of these symbols is the sparkle: an emblem of glamor, enchantment, and innovation. Once a whimsical adornment in pop culture, the sparkle has evolved to signify something profound in our digital age: the rise of generative AI.
As we explore the journey of the sparkle from its origins to its current status… is it a beacon of progress, or simply a symbol of illusion?
Watch the video below or read on to see how the sparkle came to be what it is today.
Part 1: The Sparkle – A Brief History
The sparkle first appeared in pop culture in the 1950s, popping up in ads, posters, and television. It represented something new, exciting, and mysterious – the charm of a new product, a visual garnish to Disney’s magic, and altogether, a representation of the way mystical, shiny things are meant to make us feel.
We can see the sparkle continue trending in the decades that followed. It grew more popular in the 1990s, with the influences of Japanese art and media. In the world of anime, manga, and video games, sparkles served as a powerful tool of emphasis.
In video games, they represented healing, experience, and even rarity. Scenes with sparkles just added that extra touch of enchantment to the medium.
Simultaneously, the first batch of emojis were developed by Shigetaka Kurita in the late 1990s.
Fast forward to our current era of social media, and we find ourselves knee-deep in the age of emoji.
Part 2: The Sparkle Meets AI
Over the course of the early 2020s, it has become undeniably apparent that generative AI tools have taken the world by storm, and the sparkle is coming along for the ride. It’s not just a decorative element; it’s a statement.
For example, GPT-3.5 boasts a lightning bolt, while GPT-4 (exclusively available to paying subscribers), features a captivating sparkle. Notion introduced generative AI, accompanied by the same distinctive purple sparkle. Even Spotify AI embraced the trend, adding a touch of sparkle to their shuffle icon. It seems that, with the help of designers and marketers around the world, the sparkle has now solidified its position as the official emblem of generative AI tools.
Yet does the impression the sparkle is meant to give align with what generative AI actually is? The sparkle in these logos and interfaces is meant to denote innovation, enchantment, and ease of use. It signifies a leap in technology, a touch of magic in the mundane, a promise of seamless interaction.
But this imagery can also raise questions and even misconceptions.
While the sparkle conjures images of simplicity and allure, the reality of generative AI is far more complex. It’s not merely a magical solution to all problems. There are ethical considerations, technological barriers, and a vast underlying structure that supports these tools. Is the sparkle, then, a misleading symbol? Or is it just a brilliantly subtle marketing strategy?
The journey of the sparkle doesn’t stop with AI. Its use has spread to other areas, leading us to question – what does it even mean anymore?
The increasing popularity of the sparkle effect in UX/UI has led to a decline in its consistency. Previously, Pokémon used a “star” symbol to represent ultra-rare shiny Pokémon, but now it has been replaced by a cluster of sparkles. It’s puzzling to see this symbol next to a button enticing me to upgrade to an enterprise-level subscription for a CMS. Especially considering it’s in the classic “AI purple” – not even the brand’s signature blue!
On the popular publishing platform Medium, the sparkle represents a premium tier of membership.
Additionally, Google Meet employs the sparkle button to access a menu of visual effects, such as transforming into a cat or conducting your meeting in an underwater oasis.
It’s like everyone wants a little bit of that marketing magic.
Part 3: Underneath the Sparkle – The Realities of AI
There was a time where tech was overwhelmingly “organic” – think early Samsung Galaxy devices, skeuomorphism in iOS, and the gorgeous wallpapers of Windows Vista. It made tech super friendly, humanist, and easy to adopt. Once everybody got on board, things quickly shifted to minimalism. Flat, blank, and overwhelmingly corporate – in their designs and their priorities.
I believe something about pitching AI as this “easy as magic” function is pulling the hood over the eyes of the users.
For one, it isn’t all too artificial or intelligent on its own. Much of AI innovation is powered by underpaid workers in foreign countries.
Beyond that, large language models are being trained by copyrighted works. Be it hundreds of thousands of pirated books, or your employer’s sensitive code, AI developers are taking advantage of every piece of data they can acquire, leading to ethical and notably, legal issues.
So, in other words, it’s not as magical as you might think.
Despite this, the sparkle continues to proliferate from AI tools to the most unconventional domains. This journey of the sparkle—from a whimsical emblem to a marketing tool, and now a ubiquitous sign in AI—reiterates the adaptive nature of symbols.
It’s important to question the implications of such symbolism. It’s easy to see something we believe to be so familiar and not question it. We’ve been taught that sparkles mean magic and whimsy and the like.
Yet when we think about how rapidly we’ve learned about AI, the familiarity vanishes.