metaphors and misconceptions
Thinking about the internet has been bedevilled by a range
of metaphors such as the 'information superhighway', 'digital
divide' and 'broadband gap'. This page considers conceptual
challenges and particular memes.
It covers -
- do we need metaphors for the net?
digital Frontier - creation myths, colonisation
and manifest destiny
Highway or Railway - rules of
the road and nation building from e- to shining e-
Hall, Civic Square or Schoolyard - the digital polis
and its discontents
Library - full of goodies, but someone nuked
the card catalogue and the librarians are on acid
and firehose - universal access to content and services
versus information overload
or river - plagues, paedophiles and pundits seething
neath the white picket fences?
- surfing 5 million rather than 500 channels, but without
Press - 'information liberation' and assumptions
that keyboard = author = value
and theme park - the universal retail experience or
Pages - a million acres of badly categorised bling?
or new planet for terraforming - the worm hole that
lets you boldly go where no cybernaut has gone before
- cyberspace as a digital Venice ... Titian, Monteverdi,
smelly water, dead cats, gawkers, the world in microcosm
collective Id - the net as "a cyber manifestation
of our collective unconsciousness"
clockwork - the net as a model for conceptualisation
of the brain, society and markets
As a starting point for considering metaphors of the internet
we recommend Mark Stefik's Internet Dreams: Archetypes,
Myths & Metaphors (Cambridge: MIT Press 1997),
Philip Agre's perceptive 1998 First Monday article
on The Internet & Public Discourse and papers
in The Intellectual Appropriation of Technology: Discourses
on Modernity, 1900-1939 (Cambridge: MIT Press 1998)
edited by Mikael Hard & Andrew Jamison.
Agre notes that most legal systems have had difficulty
addressing the net because incompatible precedents based
on a multiplicity of existing media (post, telephone,
railroad, power network, newspaper, street corner, etc)
seem to apply. The net
these traditional analogies because it is really a meta-medium:
a set of layered services that make it easy to construct
new media with almost any properties one likes. Despite
this great flexibility, however, the dynamics of technical
standards are emerging as a potentially conservative
accordingly sketches four models: the net as a communications
medium, a computer system, discourse, and a set of standards.
Ruth Palmquist's 1996 paper
The search for an Internet metaphor: a comparison of
literatures, the paper
by Lee Ratzan on Making sense of the Web: a metaphorical
approach, Annette Markham's 2003 paper
Metaphors Reflecting & Shaping the Reality of the
Internet: Tool, Place, Way of Being and a 1998 paper
on Identity, Infrastructure & the Extended Individual
are also of interest in assessing fashions in characterising
Adam King's CSI
paper Mapping the Unmappable: Visual Representations
of the Internet as Social Constructions, Alfred Yen's
'Western Frontier or Feudal Society?: Metaphors and Perceptions
of Cyberspace' in 17 Berkeley Technology Law Journal
(2003) and The World Wide Web & Contemporary Cultural
Theory: Magic, Metaphor, Power (London: Routledge
2000) edited by Andrew Herman & Thomas Swiss offer
intelligent examinations of images, complemented by Borges
2.0: From Text to Virtual Worlds (New York: Lang
2008) by Perla Sassón-Henry.
There is an examination of legal metaphors in The 'Principles
In Context' Approach To Internet Policymaking, a 2000
Columbia Science & Technology Law Review article
by Andrew Shapiro
and the 2002 paper
Gore, Gibson, and Goldsmith: The Evolution of Internet
Metaphors in Law and Commentary by I Glenn Cohen
& Jonathan Blavin.
The 'frontier' metaphor builds on the great theme in US
rhetoric - evident in recurrent characterisation of outer
space (or the oceans) as the next 'new frontier' - and
generally ignores the state's role in building the frontier.
During the 1890s US historian Frederick Jackson Turner
claimed that the western frontier (particularly lots of
free land once the pesky injuns were disposed of) was
the guarantor of democracy. Each migration westward in
search of economic opportunity (or away from constraints)
was an encounter with a new landscape that allowed settlers
to re-create local government and social relationships.
Ideology supposedly had a marginal effect because taming
the land was an eminently practical and innately virtuous
task, divorced from the artificialities of Wall Street
or Bostonian high society.
Frontier rhetoric has been underpinned by a sense of 'manifest
destiny', with the internet equated with the US as the
'city on the hill' - an embodiment and agent of freedom
(values, legislation, technologies, markets) in bringing
prosperity and democracy to South America, Asia and (alas
The flipside of that image is fear of global coca-colonisation
or 'McWorld', with erosion of other cultures and tacit
imposition of a lex americana as the default information
law (free speech, censorship, intellectual property, weaker
privacy) in a borderless
Questions about the 'free' frontier are highlighted in
The Not So Wild Wild West: Property Rights On The
Frontier (Stanford, CA: Stanford Uni Press 2004)
by Terry Anderson & Peter Hill.
The internet as highway or railway has been favoured by
politicians ('Infobahn', 'Information SuperHighway'),
particularly in states such as the US and Canada where
the infrastructure was seen as central to establishment
of a national identity. The information superhighway -
or infobahn - would bring communities together, drive
economic growth, use substantial government funding but
feature much self-regulation.
In 2001, after publication of the Canadian National Broadband
Task Force's The New National Dream: Networking the
Nation for Broadband Access report Industry Minister
Brian Tobin compared a ambitious - and shortlived - commitment
to federally-funded infrastructure with Canada's "original"
national dream to link its coasts by railway in the late
have to wire this country coast to coast to coast, and
give every community an opportunity to participate in
the information economy ... Broadband is the transcontinental
railway of the new millennium. Just like the railroads,
it bridges the geographic distances of the vast country
in which we live to connect Canadians to each other.
In this country, founded on building bands of steel,
surely it's appropriate ... to build broadband as well.
A perspective was provided by Robert Babe's Telecommunications
in Canada: Technology, Industry & Government
(Toronto: Uni of Toronto Press 1990), an incisive analysis
of past rhetoric - with public funding to match - about
communications networks as the basis of national identity.
Skepticism about the 'information highway' meme was reflected
in a 'Top Ten Anagrams' appearing in email and newsgroups
in the late 1990s -
Enormous, hairy pig with fan
9. Hey, ignoramus -- win profit? Ha!
8. Oh-oh, wiring snafu: empty air
7. When forming, utopia's hairy
6. A rough whimper of insanity
5. Oh, wormy infuriating phase
4. Inspire humanity, who go far
3. Waiting for any promise, huh?
2. Hi-ho! Yow! I'm surfing Arpanet!
1. New utopia? Horrifying sham
Arab states avoid the highway metaphor in favour of rhetoric
about making the deserts bloom, although we have not encountered
images of salinification.
Infobahn critics have drawn attention to digital 'road
rage', traffic jams, hijackings and other discontents.
As you travel the highway you'll be entertained - or merely
sedated - by countless billboards and signs that pop into
view and disappear.
Town Hall, agora or
The metaphor of the net as a town hall or civic square
- an agora, among its more precious e-politics advocates
- has had some resonance in the US.
It is one that is attractive for those who have accepted
claims that going online is an opportunity to
back" politics from "the establishment"
subvert "big media" through blogging
or the "usenet community"
"genuine" community in an era where people
are disconnected and where venturing to a physical town
hall might involve getting mugged, encountering a car
bomb or merely getting wet.
wariness about more utopian visions of the net as agora
is appropriate, since in practice the "robust debate"
hailed by some enthusiasts is often a manifestation of
Town squares have been fine fora for burning witches,
for communal riots, for making an illicit assignation
or contracting the plague. One musician of our acquaintance
quips that town squares are where the creator's pocket
gets picked or name gets stolen, with street urchins boasting
of theft while being egged on by tenured marxists.
US pundit Doc Searls claimed
along with the Netizens who built the Net's practical
infrastructure, conceive the Net as a place. You go
on the Net, not through it. You have sites, with addresses
and locations. You go to its public spaces as you would
to a public commons. That commons supports a public
marketplace where everybody is fundamentally a peer
— so anybody can do business, or make culture,
with anybody else. Most notably, anybody can speak freely
with protection by the first amendment (at least in
The internet as a digital library, a notion fostered by
projects to place all of 'the great works' online (eg
Project Gutenberg) and in vogue from the late 80s to mid
The metaphor has been extended by search
specialists who have noted that many libraries are tended
by librarians and feature catalogues that allow systematic
identification of holdings, in contrast to the net which
is like a library where someone has spilled the card catalogue
on the floor.
An associated metaphor has been the internet as information
cornucopia, with universal access to content, goods and
services at little or no cost because the magic of ecommerce
(digitise content, add fibre and stir) renders traditional
pricing meaningless. Pundits such as Brewster Kahle have
boldly pictured plans for digital acess to all creativity
(audio, video, text, images) and a range of services.
That vision has been embraced by Australian and overseas
policymakers who have hailed the net - and more recently,
broadband - as a fix for
any/all problems. For believers in the digital cargo cult
is apparently a sort of magic pudding: reviving rural
areas, rescuing rustbelts (particularly those whose mayors
have read Richard Florida by encouraging grand opera and
latte drinking), reversing offshoring, raising the poor
... but without Norman Lindsay's cute koalas in bowties
The obverse of that image is information overload - epitomised
by the 1990s tagline "drinking from a firehose"
- and other data anxieties such as addiction
and cybersuicide. It
is also apparent in disquiet about digital
divides - infrastructure, physical or cultural attributes
and economic circumstances inhibit access by some people
to the cornucopia.
Sewer or river
The net has also attracted attention as a locus of anxieties
about life, modernity or personal circumstances. It serves
as a replacement for fluoridation, reds under the bed
(or their brothers in the FBI and ASIO),
freemasonry or other bugaboos.
The sewer metaphor encompasses myths about cyberspace
as an unregulated global red
light district, a domain of unprecedented 'stranger
danger' and profound alienation, the home of terrorists
and thieves, a place where no one is whom they seem and
where there are flamewars or 'exposes' by Matt Drudge
rather than civil discourse.
The hydraulic theme is also evident in metaphors of the
net as a stream. Technorati guru David Sifry - who proclaims
that "architecture follows from metaphor" -
thus refers to the web as a "river of human chatter",
constantly joined by other creeks and constantly flowing,
or as a "big-ass threaded conversation".
The net as television is a metaphor prevalent in the same
period, with concern about content (the US V-Chip debate
spilling over as online censorship
proposals; criticism that there are five million rather
than 500 channels and still none worth watching) and images
of viewer passivity. Channel surfing gave us web surfing.
Much of the rhetoric about push technology, with its notion
of channels and subscription to channels, comes explicitly
from tv marketing. Commercial broadcasting has also provided
much of the language, such as 'reach' and 'compelling
The internet as printing press (with every blogger
as a publisher seeking favour in the market of ideas,
unfettered by government restriction) is favoured by neo-jeffersonians,
building on early adoption of email. We've discussed the
paradigm in more detail here.
Mall and Theme
Park and Yellow Pages
The net as mall was an image of particular power in the
mid to late 1990s, with expectations that the web would
become a global marketplace, presumably with Amazon,
and MSN owning the choicest real estate.
extended the image by talking of the web as an Information
Flea Market. There is a price for admission, you are free
to browse, stalls are independently operated and of varying
quality, "and some of the people on the Internet
are like some of the people at a flea market".
After the dotcom boom some participants are sadder and
even a little wiser, characterising the net with vaguer
retail metaphors that embrace funky communitarian thrift
shops, street corner buskers, sterile malls, heavy-handed
but slow-moving cops, traffic jams, pollution and the
occasional kid disappearing from a suburban carpark.
Cynics have characterised the net as a downmarket theme
park, replete with fast food joints, relentless commercialisation,
gonzo costumes, policing by men in black as agents of
faceless capital and the odd child molester in a Mickey
Mouse suit. That image is unsurprising, given characterisation
of the US (or EU) as a theme park. Presumably Australia
is one of the nice garden suburbs.
Early enthusiasts for commercial directories
characterised them as "like the Yellow Pages, but
better" ... and presumably without pesky librarians
wanting orderly resource categorisation and numbering.
The image is a reflection of the 'walled garden' constructed
by AOL and its partners (and by competing ISPs) and by
pre-internet systems such as France's Minitel, with information
being accessed through a hierarchy of categories.
Gateway or new
The net as gateway has been popular among web designers
and educators who characterise the web as providing users
with experiences rather than just content. That image
is also favoured by virtual reality, proponents online
gambling operators and virtual community advocates.
Some geeks, perhaps after overdoing lessons in Klingon,
have characterised the net as a wormhole that allows cybernauts
to 'jump' across time and space to different locations
in cyberspace ... Star Trek without the silly
bouffant haircuts or cereal packet philosophising.
Others emote about the net as a "new planet for terraforming",
presumably one of those planets that is not infested by
nasties from Alien. The terraforming motif -
"the new world we're building around the vast, empty,
ownerless space we call The Net" - smacks for some
of the technological hubris common among undersocialised
male adolescents (the web as The Six Million Dollar
Man?) and devotees of imperialists such as Robert
Geoffrey Nunberg's 1995 comment
is worth quoting at length
we talk about the net we invoke all the stock American
heroes of the wide open spaces. You're a net surfer,
you're a cowboy on the electronic frontier. You're standing
on the bridge of your own private Enterprise
about to boldly go where no one has ever gone before.
Or you're a cyber-Kerouac cruising the information highway
with the top down and the virtual wind in your hair.
The thing of it is that when you get on the net it really
doesn't feel much like any of these. Well, maybe it's
a little like surfing, but not like on the covers of
the Beach Boys albums. It's like the kind of surfing
I do, standing chest deep in the ocean clutching my
boogie board and trying to peer over the waves coming
in until one of them crashes over me, rolls me under
and around, then deposits me on the beach a couple of
dozen yards away spitting out water, with no idea of
where I am or how I got there.
The metaphors for the net are all wrong. There's nothing
less like the ocean, the cosmos, or the highway. There
are no no vistas here, no expanses stretching out endlessly
ahead of you. And there is no frontier, no place to
go out there that someone else hasn't been before. The
net has nothing to do with the wide-open spaces of the
New World, and everything to do with the cramped, crooked
cities of the old.
It's urban, close, interior. Forget about cyberspace;
this is cyberville, cyberstadt, cyber-ciudad. You want
a good metaphor for the internet, go to Venice in February.
You thread your way down foggy streets and over bridges
till you lose all sense of compass direction, and then
all of a sudden you break into some glorious piazza.
The rusty gate on the alley over there might open into
a lush garden, and behind that might be a palazzo with
long enfilades of rooms and galleries, but you can't
see anything from the street. It's a place you get to
know as an accumulation of paths and hidden passages,
the way a woodsman knows the forest. A Venetian friend
told me once that she knows no more pathetic sight than
watching one of her neighbors trying to give some help
to a tourist who holds out a map and asks how to get
to the San Rocco. We Venetians have no idea how to read
a map of our city, she said, all we know is how to get
from A to B without getting our feet wet.
That's perfect for the Internet: the virtual Rialto.
Except that Venice is too permanent -- you come back
after 50 years and everything's right where it was when
you left. Whereas on the internet addresses and connections
the global Id
Australian novelist Peter Goldsworthy commented in 2005
net is less a World Wide Web than a collective id. ...
the net is to some extent a cyber manifestation of our
collective unconsciousness. All our deepest, darkest
and most thrilling secret impulses can be found there,
allowed out on parole in relative safety. Carnival fun,
certainly - maskenfreiheit, the freedom of
movement behind masks. But also the freedom of movement
without masks - and especially without clothes
The net can of course be used (and abused) as a model
for conceptualising organisms, societies and markets.
MIT robotics specialist Rodney Brooks commented in 2007
we look back over recent centuries we will see the brain
described as a hydrodynamic machine, clockwork, and
as a steam engine. When I was a child in the 1950's
I read that the human brain was a telephone switching
network. Later it became a digital computer, and then
a massively parallel digital computer. A few years ago
someone put up their hand after a talk I had given at
the University of Utah and asked a question I had been
waiting for for a couple of years: "Isn't the human
brain just like the world wide web?".
net has thus unsurprisingly featured as a model in works
such as Leslie Pal's 1997 paper
'Virtual Policy Networks: The Internet as a Model of Contemporary
Governance?', Paul Treanor's 'The Internet As Hyper-Liberalism'
in Telepolis (1996), Charles Henderson's 'The
Internet As A Metaphor For God' in 50(1/2) Cross Currents