Our digital futures and the problem with metaphor

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This post is a response to readings assigned in week 2 of the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC). This week’s readings deal with technological metaphors and the ways in which they restrict our understanding of technology. Here, in my usual rambling way, I attempt to make connections between metaphor, analogy, and internet technology.

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Image Credit: Johan Larsson, flickr

The goal of the first two weeks of EDCMOOC is to think about the effects of technology on digital culture. At first, we debunked myths about technological determinism: the idea that our tools and technologies determine society change and progress. This idea assumes that technological change has a causal effect on society and that the technology comes first, then comes social change.

As I see it, tools help change how we react to our surroundings, but they do not determine progress or social change. Certainly technology serves a purpose in helping spur on change, but these changes are happening before the technology comes around. New technologies help speed up the process, but it’s too simplistic to claim that the technology causes the change.

Basically, progress or change happens as a result of multiple scenarios happening at once: a need for “change” or a feeling of unease, an innovation or iteration on an older idea, and a social movement to piece everything together. Even with new inventions, it takes many failed attempts at the purpose of the technology before groups of people begin to use it in a new, more effective way.

Maybe it’s the metaphor

As I write this and work out what I’m trying to say, I realize that technology develops in part because of changing cultural metaphors. The EDCMOOC reading for Week 2, “Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the internet” brings some insight into this issue. Before I jump into my two examples, I’d like to point out parts of this article that give some guidance and perspective. Author Rebecca Johnston says:

We use these metaphors in a systematic way. When we uncover systematic metaphors, we gain insight into cultural practices and experiences. “Metaphors are thus not only descriptive; they may provide clues to the design intentions of those who use them, and, as such, they many help to shape the cognitive framework within which such actors operate.” [2] Social actors use metaphors for more than description or simple attempts to use imaginative language. Rather members of a community employ metaphors in norming ideas and in making “the imaginary become real or true.”

An example metaphor here: the “desktop” on a computer. By now, this metaphor has lost its original meaning: we use our computer desktops like computers, not physical desktops. Yet at one point, the metaphor provided a framework for a user to understand the new technology. (For more on how metaphor can hinder technology design, check out this intriguing article from last February’s Wired.)

Johnston explored the most common internet metaphors using a representative sample of editorials about the internet. In this sample, she discovered several types of metaphors, but the most common ones dealt with binaries (of course): Internet as positive force or internet as destructive force. Some of the metaphors included the power of nature and its destructive force, and most focused on the internet as destructive force:

Whether by comparison to the raw, destructive power of nature or by comparison to physical attacks, weapons, and villains, these metaphors fit into a larger metaphorical system where the Internet is destruction. Metaphors of the Internet eroding society, of it attacking or assaulting, of it threatening, supplanting, causing anarchy all looked at the Internet as a destructive force.

The “internet as a destructive force” dominates these editorials and frames the internet in a good vs. bad, destructive vs. redemptive binary, which limits the readers response to the technology. It makes it seem as if the internet itself causes the destruction, even though it’s much more complicated than that.

Metaphors can limit our understanding of a technology’s potential, yet they are vital for understanding a particular technology’s use case (as we see with the “desktop” metaphor). Because they ultimately limit a technology use case, it’s important to move beyond them.

If not the metaphor, it’s the analogy

If metaphors limit our discussion of internet technology and digital culture, analogies to previous technological advances tend to miss the point. One of the primary examples of this is assuming that Gutenberg’s printing press and the major shifts that occurred after this technological advance are analogous to internet advances.

Gutenberg applied his goldsmithing skills and adapted a movable type press that could print documents at a faster rate than ever before. Within decades, the printing press took Europe by surprise and allowed for a faster distribution of books and other printed media to reach the masses. Within centuries, the concept of a “book” had changed drastically as a result of this technology.

The internet has allowed a similar disruption to occur, and Gutenberg is referred to in analogous terms. There’s a lot to this analogy: just like the printing press came into being during a time of social upheaval, the internet came into being in the midst of similar social upheavals. The problem with using the Gutenberg printing press as a technology analogous to the internet is that these situations are vastly different. And maybe that’s obvious: clearly circumstances are much different politically, socially, and economically. Plus, the internet has had a profound effect internationally, not just in one region as with the printing press.

More importantly, the internet is so many things. It started out as a network of servers and computers, then it became a distribution system for articles and emails then a system of commerce, then a place for social connection and community — and it’s still much more than this. Although the technologies continue to change, all of these “roles” for the internet rise and fall, sometimes within years, months, or seconds. The technology is in flux so much that there is no historical reference to help us understand this flux.

It’s also too early. By the 19th Century, it was clear that Gutenberg’s press had revolutionized how we acquire knowledge. That was over 300 years after the printing press took hold of Europe. We have no way of knowing what will come next on the internet, and the innovations continue to ebb and flow. In a recent interview, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the internet is still in day one of its development. (“I think it’s day two when the rate of change slows,” he added.) Certainly, we haven’t yet figured out what will settle, and that might be why there are many anxieties about the rate of change.

Where we are now

This riff on how we discuss technology has no tidy or pithy ending to it because I not enough has settled to determine what is valuable in the debate over our digital futures. What is clear, though, is that analogies and metaphors limit our discussions and uses of digital technology. The internet isn’t a war zone, and digital culture isn’t formed in its wake. Nor is it a digitized Gutenberg press. It’s something new, and something that invites play, innovation, iteration, and a new discourse.

Kevin Eagan (@KevEagan) is a freelance editor and writer living in Central Florida. He edits book manuscripts and articles for local and national publications. Critical Margins is his place to share his interests. You can also check out his professional website, KevinThomasEagan.com.