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section heading icon     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 -

  • introduction - do we need metaphors for the net?
  • a digital Frontier - creation myths, colonisation and manifest destiny
  • Highway or Railway - rules of the road and nation building from e- to shining e-
  • Town Hall, Civic Square or Schoolyard - the digital polis and its discontents
  • universal Library - full of goodies, but someone nuked the card catalogue and the librarians are on acid
  • Cornucopia and firehose - universal access to content and services versus information overload
  • Sewer or river - plagues, paedophiles and pundits seething neath the white picket fences?
  • Television - surfing 5 million rather than 500 channels, but without the V-Chip?
  • Printing Press - 'information liberation' and assumptions that keyboard = author = value
  • Mall and theme park - the universal retail experience or horror show
  • Yellow Pages - a million acres of badly categorised bling?
  • Gateway or new planet for terraforming - the worm hole that lets you boldly go where no cybernaut has gone before
  • Rialto - cyberspace as a digital Venice ... Titian, Monteverdi, smelly water, dead cats, gawkers, the world in microcosm
  • global collective Id - the net as "a cyber manifestation of our collective unconsciousness"
  • celestial clockwork - the net as a model for conceptualisation of the brain, society and markets

subsection heading icon     introduction

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

frustrates 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 force.

Agre 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 the net.

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.

subsection heading icon     a digital frontier

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 ungrateful) Europe.

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 world.

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.

subsection heading icon     Highway or railway

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 1800s.

We 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 -

10. 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

Some 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.

subsection heading icon    
Town Hall, agora or school yard

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

  • "take back" politics from "the establishment" and pollsters
  • triumphantly subvert "big media" through blogging or the "usenet community"
  • build "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.

Some 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 schoolyard bullying.

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 that

Podcasters, 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 U.S.)

subsection heading icon     Library

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 90s.

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.

subsection heading icon     cornucopia

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 and braces.

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.

subsection heading icon     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".

subsection heading icon     Television

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 content'.

subsection heading icon     Printing Press

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.

subsection heading icon     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, eBay, Yahoo! and MSN owning the choicest real estate.

One writer 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.

subsection heading icon     Yellow Pages

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.

subsection heading icon     Gateway or new planet

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 Heinlein.

subsection heading icon     Rialto

Geoffrey Nunberg's 1995 comment is worth quoting at length

when 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 change daily.

subsection heading icon     the global Id

Australian novelist Peter Goldsworthy commented in 2005 that

the 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

subsection heading icon     celestial clockwork

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

If 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?".

The 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 (2000).

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version of January 2008
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