As part of my on-going investigation into the spaces of the digital domain, I today publish a brief critical review essay: ‘Metaphors and things of the Internet’. In the essay, I question a common argument that metaphors tend to hide the material infrastructure of digital technology and the Internet. PDF
Much has been written about the use of metaphors, particularly spatial metaphors, in relation to digital technology and the Internet. Arguments range from their necessity, usefulness and convenience to their limitations, deceptions and dangers. A common argument is that general metaphors like ‘cyberspace’ and the ‘cloud’ as well as specific interface metaphors like ‘windows’ and ‘pages’ are used to obscure the actual physical infrastructure and complex technology involved. This essay will: (a) look at different ways of thinking about the language of metaphors (b) critically review arguments about how metaphors are used to describe the Internet (c) review the physical, geographical, social and political embeddedness of the digital and finally (d) question whether the impact of metaphors is to obfuscate the machinery of the Internet.
From Introduction – what are metaphors?
Is there a difference between literal and metaphorical meaning? Those who criticise the use of metaphors in social science, for example, sometimes make the mistake of trying to draw a clear line between the two:
….unless we identify metaphors we will run the risk of confusing the metaphorical with the literal (Erickson, 2012: 912)
Erickson suggests that it is necessary to distinguish the literal from the metaphorical. He argues, for example, that ‘actor-network’ theorists have forgotten that they are using a metaphor and confuse ‘network’ with the ‘social phenomenon’ or ‘social totality’ they are investigating (913). In this way, the metaphor allows academics to think they are precise when they are vague. Although Erickson reluctantly admits it is hard to escape the use of metaphors, the implication is that they are inadequate or insufficient to grasp the ‘object’ or ‘experiénces’ out there: ‘by seeing the world as being just network, what are you not seeing?’ (918 – my italic).
It may well be the case that a metaphor like ‘network’ has become stale and used too handily without critical reflection, and it is important to analyse what a metaphor highlights, hides, misses or obscures. As Derrida (2001: 17) remarks, ‘metaphor is never innocent’ and may well steer or even ‘fix’ the results of an enquiry or research. But we should also recognise that our relation to the world is never direct but always circumstantial, delayed, partial and indeed metaphorical (Adams, 1991: 155).
Metaphors are not something distinct from some untainted mode of objective, rational or literal meaning. As Davidson (1978: 32) argues, metaphors are not a form of communication ‘alongside’ what might be called ‘ordinary’ communication……
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