The Metaphor is the Message

I recently read Thomas Bass’s The Eudaemonic Pie, and I was struck by a particular passage which connects to much of what we’ve read. Early in the book, Bass cites Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote:

“The computer in its modern form was born from the womb of the military. As with so much other modern technology of the same parentage, almost every technological advance in the computer field, including those motivated by the demands of the military, has had its residual payoff–fallout–in the civilian sector. Still, computers were first constructed in order to enable efficient calculations of how most precisely and effectively to drop artillery shells in order to kill people. It is probably a fair guess, although no one could possibly know, that a very considerable fraction of computers devoted to a single purpose today are still those dedicated to cheaper, more nearly certain ways to kill even larger numbers of human beings” (65).

In our readings, this has become a familiar refrain, and it’s something that I see echoed throughout the study of new media. As these scientists build machines, they wrestle with the guilt of the past and the potential misuse of this new technology. With each additional reading, it seems that the extended metaphors and very specific usage plans are a sort of prescription, a way of communicating an ideal use and means of situating technology productively.

Today, those metaphors extend well into the nuance of interface. Kay and Goldberg were hugely interested in the potential of the screen and of a GUI, and we can easily see the impact of that effort. Now, however, much of that focus has shifted. I found it striking that today, shortly after finishing Kay and Goldberg, a blog post titled “The Metaphors Breaking The Future” appeared in my Twitter stream. If you’ve used the latest incarnation of Apple’s operating system, you’ve no doubt seen a host of visual metaphors–many of which do little to advance the technology or rethink interface. Apple’s iCal, for example, uses the metaphor of a desk calendar, which is helpful in reminding us that the iCal is, well, a calendar app. But the metaphor also hinders the technology: By recreating the paper artifact, it forces us to think in terms of a specific chronology (the paper representation of a month). Sure, this metaphor allows for ease-of-use, but across 10, 20, or 30 years, the inertia of metaphor begins to limit us. And, as Jon Gold mentions in his blog post, those metaphors are often extended into other spaces/applications, limiting the ways we can think of and use technology. This is exactly the kind of thing that Nelson seemed to be pushing against.

There’s a great moment in “Personal Dynamic Media” where Kay and Goldberg write that “If the ‘medium is the message’, then the message of low-bandwidth time-sharing is ‘blah’” (394). Could we today argue that the metaphor is the message? And if so, how do we push our technologies past the tenor and vehicle to find a digital space that might accommodate both Nelson’s vision and Kay/Goldberg’s familiar interface?

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