Metaphor Breakdown (#edcmooc)

This is an essay for E-Learning and Digital Cultures (#edcmooc), a mooc offered by It loosely follows an initial essay written by my alter ego. The content seems inappropriate for the photograph blog, so the follow-on is here. The essay bungles together some thoughts evoked by source materials addressing technical determinism and whether digital culture is utopian or dystopian.

In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson dumps Randy Waterhouse, a protocol level Internet technologist, into a cocktail party populated by business professionals and academics. Waterhouse struggles to listen without commenting while non-technical pundits discuss the Information Superhighway. Watching and reading the resources for E-Learning and Digital Cultures felt close to the scene Stephenson created: Intelligent people creating a metaphor representing something outside their knowledge then forming social-economic theories based on the vehicle rather than the tenor.

In fiction and life, metaphor appears to bring the Internet within reach by suggesting boundaries separating the Internet thing from other things. The isolation feels convenient but fails under close examination. By setting imaginary boundaries where none exist, metaphor fails. It becomes useless at best, misguiding at worst. Other popular metaphors for the Internet, like Digital Cultures suffer the same flaw.

The Internet resists the thingness of popular metaphors the way landmass resists the thingness defined by political maps. Maps outline countries with crisp, clear boundaries but the boundaries represent transient, artificial elements not found on the landmass. In a similar way, Internet theories based on metaphors address imagined attributes existing only in metaphor.

Analogies and metaphors used by those who understand to explain to those who do not understand often contribute to understanding. Analogies and metaphors created by those who do not understand because they do not understand often mislead and establish barriers to understanding. Popular metaphors of the Internet, including digtital culture feel like the second case. To provide a snarky analogy, theories addressing the utopian/dystopian paths of digital cultures resemble theories of love-making used by celibate disciples of the notion that sex has no biological or social purpose except breeding. The discussions feel meaningless, slightly entertaining but leading to conclusions unrelated to the topic and forcing people, like Randy Waterhouse, to bite their tongues or face conflicts with the emotionally involved.

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