A history of metaphors for the Internet

When I wrote about this web surfing competition, it got me thinking about different metaphors for the internet. Surfing seemed strange, an artifact of a very particular time in the mid-1990s when people used terms like the information superhighway and cyberspace unironically. Where do these metaphors come from and where have they gone? Has anyone persisted and did they get new ones in their place?

The more I read, the more it seemed that these old metaphors hadn’t died out at all, even though their meanings had changed. No one says information superhighway anymore, but whenever someone explains net neutrality, he does it in terms of bus lanes and tolls. Twitter is a town square, a metaphor that was once used for the internet as a whole. These old metaphors have been joined by some new ones: I have a feeling that soon the cloud will seem as dated as cyberspace.

Information is quite formless, so almost everything we do online we do with some sort of metaphor, says Judith Donath, who studies interface design at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Also, because information is formless, the metaphors we use to describe it are especially powerful: they are what gives it shape, telling people how a service should be used. Software metaphors can be both verbal and visual. Donath cites email as a particularly ingrained example. The mail metaphor initially made sense, but it got us stuck in a cumbersome folder system. There’s no reason an email can’t exist in multiple categories, like in some sort of tagging system, other than it would break the metaphor, she says, which is what Google ultimately did with Gmail.

The 1990s saw a boom in radical metaphors for the entire Internet, mostly because it was a time when people who were very excited about the Internet were trying to explain it to people who didn’t understand it at all. That’s when you get your internet highways, infobahns, global villages, and thousand-room caf├ęs. But these metaphors weren’t just clumsy attempts to convey what the internet was implied by each one, they were a vision of what the internet should be.

Take cyberspace, the foundational space metaphor popularized by William Gibson in the 1984’s Neuromancer. Going online didn’t just mean sitting down at a computer and beaming signals across a network; it was entering another dimension, leaving your physical body behind and entering a utopian space of pure information, one that was typically visualized as buildings literally constructed out of neon data. Cyberspace has become the chosen metaphor for the libertarian and countercultural tensions of the early Internet. When the media started to panic the internet, it became a scary place full of cybercriminals engaging in cybersex, but it was still an alternate dimension of total freedom.

These days, cyberspace still has these anarchist associations, but now the term only pops up in conversations about its security. Government officials are pretty much the only people who use it non-ironically. Cyberspace is real, then-President Barack Obama declared in 2009, announcing a new cybersecurity effort. There will be no more dark spaces for dark deeds, Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, said at the 2011 London Conference on Cyberspace.

Compare cyberspace to the other great metaphor of the 1990s: the information superhighway. Al Gore popularized the term as he pushed for the expansion of a nationwide computer network, used primarily for research at the time. The highway was the perfect metaphor: it’s a major state-funded infrastructure project that will facilitate trade, not an anarchic frontier. Like the railway, from which this 1993 article is taken The New York Times compare it to, will conquer and develop the frontier. The metaphor of the Internet as an information superhighway was deliberately chosen to demonstrate the utility and everyday nature of the Internet versus the utopian vision of cyberspace that informed its early development, write professors Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess.

This metaphor also has political implications, as information scientist Peter Lyman points out. If the internet is a highway, that implies the government should regulate what people do on it. The superhighway is also designed to move private property to market, implying that the information superhighway is for moving and selling information, now understood primarily as intellectual property, and not for freely copying and distributing data.

Interestingly, the highway metaphor has also changed. Where cyberspace is used to describe a place that governments need to keep tabs on, the information superhighway is invoked by activists trying to keep it clear. . Since then, fast lanes, slow lanes and tolls have become the default language of the net neutrality debate, at least among those who support it. What began as a metaphor for regulation and markets has become a symbol of freedom.

When I started looking into metaphors, I figured I’d mostly be chronicling old-fashioned terms. I was surprised to find him still alive in the net neutrality debate. I was even more surprised when Donath pointed me to all the other newer metaphors that may not initially seem metaphorical.

Facebook itself is a metaphor, he says. Use the freshman lookbook analogy. Use friendship as a metaphor to describe any connection. It uses a newspaper to describe its event feed, which creates an tacit expectation that, like a newspaper editorial board, it will curate what you see. Twitter, on the other hand, is a global town square where anyone can be heard.

Much of the internet has been branded, Cohen says, what’s interesting now is what different brands end up with metaphors.

The internet is everywhere now, so it’s harder to use all-encompassing metaphors that describe it as a separate space. The division between physical space and the Internet posed by the digital dualism of cyberspace, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it, has always been dubious, but it’s especially difficult to maintain when using Google Maps, Yelp, Uber and other apps to navigate and interact with the world . People stumbling over things while looking at their phones is both a measure of where they are elsewhere and a measure of how present the internet is in the physical world.

But the ethereal and obfuscating metaphors persist. The Atlantics Rebecca Rosent charts the cloud as early network engineers symbolized the unfamiliar networks their systems connected to. Largely thanks to Amazon, which launched its Elastic Compute Cloud service in 2006, the term is now used to describe any remote data storage and computation. The cloud is weightless and intentionally vague: your data is up there somewhere, in a better place, where you can forget about it. It’s in stark contrast to the industrial reality of remote servers, which are gigantic, noisy, and require huge amounts of power.

Big data is often referred to as a torrent, a flood or an ocean, a natural resource that must be exploited. Rowan Wilken, a professor at Swinburne University of Technology, fears the metaphor obscures the fact that this data is often created by users.

Almost everything about the internet will have metaphors to help you figure it out, because otherwise it’s formless, says Cohen. And they will all have political implications.

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