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 like an odd one, an artifact from a very particular time in the mid-1990s when people used terms like “information superhighway” and “cyberspace” unironically. Where did these metaphors come from, and where did they go? Have any persisted, and have new ones taken their place?
The more I read, the more it seemed that these old metaphors hadn’t died out at all, though their meanings had changed. No one says “information superhighway” anymore, but whenever anyone explains net neutrality, they do so in terms of fast lanes and tolls. Twitter is a “town square,” a metaphor that was once used for the internet as a whole. These old metaphors had been joined by a few new ones: I have a feeling that “the cloud” will soon feel as dated as “cyberspace.”
“Information is fairly formless, so almost everything we do online we do with some kind of metaphor,” says Judith Donath, who studies interface design at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Moreover, because information is formless, the metaphors we use to describe it are particularly powerful — they’re what gives it form, telling people how a service ought to be used. Software metaphors can be both verbal and visual. Donath cites email as a particularly entrenched example. The mail metaphor made sense initially but locked us into a cumbersome system of folders. There’s no reason an email couldn’t exist in multiple categories, as in some sort of tagging system, other than that it would “break the metaphor,” she says, which is what Google eventually did with Gmail.
The 1990s saw a boom in sweeping 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 superhighways,” “infobahns,” “global villages,” and “coffee houses with a thousand rooms.” But these metaphors weren’t simply clumsy attempts at communicating what the internet was — implicit in each of them was a vision of what the internet ought to be.
Take “cyberspace,” the founding spatial metaphor popularized by William Gibson in 1984’s Neuromancer. Going online wasn’t just sitting down at your computer and transmitting signals through a network; it was jacking into another dimension, leaving your physical body behind and entering a utopian space of pure information, one that was typically visualized as buildings literally constructed from neon data. Cyberspace became the chosen metaphor of the libertarian and countercultural strains of the early internet. As the media began to drum up internet panic, it became a scary place, full of cybercriminals cybersexing, but it was still an alternate dimension of total freedom.
These days, “cyberspace” still has these anarchic associations, but now the term only comes up in conversations about securing it. Government officials are pretty much the only people using it unironically. “Cyberspace is real,” then-President Barack Obama declared in 2009, announcing a new cybersecurity effort. “There will be no dark spaces for dark acts any more,” said Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, at the 2011 London Conference on Cyberspace.
Compare cyberspace to the other major metaphor of the ’90s: the information superhighway. Al Gore popularized the term as he pushed for the expansion of a national computer network, at the time used mostly for research. The highway was the perfect metaphor: it’s a big state-funded infrastructure project that will facilitate commerce, not an anarchic frontier. Like the railroad, which this 1993 article from The New York Times compares it to, it will conquer and develop the frontier. The “metaphor of the Internet as the information superhighway was chosen deliberately to demonstrate the utility and everyday nature of the Internet over the utopian vision of cyberspace that had informed its early development,” write professors Cornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess.
This metaphor, too, has political implications, as the information scientist Peter Lyman points out. If the internet is a highway, then that implies the government should regulate what people do on it. The highway is also designed for moving private property to market, implying that the information superhighway is for moving and selling information, now understood primarily as intellectual property — not for freely copying and distributing data.
Interestingly, the highway metaphor has also flipped. Where cyberspace is used to describe a place that governments must bring under control, the information highway is invoked by activists trying to keep it free. Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality,” used an extended highway metaphor in 2006 to explain why people should care. 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 started as a metaphor for regulation and markets ended up as a symbol of freedom.
When I started looking into metaphors, I thought I’d mostly be chronicling antiquated terms. I was surprised to find it still alive in the net neutrality debate. I was even more surprised when Donath pointed me toward all the other — newer — metaphors that might not initially seem metaphorical.
Facebook itself is a metaphor, she says. It uses the analogy of the freshman lookbook. It uses friendship as a metaphor to describe any connection. It uses a newspaper to describe its feed of events, which creates a 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.
“So much of the internet has been branded,” says Cohen, “what’s interesting now is what different brands end up with as metaphors.”
The internet is everywhere now, so it’s harder to use totalizing metaphors that describe it as a separate space. The division between physical space and the internet posited by “cyberspace” — digital dualism, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it — was always dubious, but it’s especially hard to maintain when you use Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, and other apps to navigate and interact with the world. People stumbling into things while looking at their phones is both a measure of them being “elsewhere” and a measure of how present the internet is in the physical world.
But ethereal, obfuscating metaphors persist. The Atlantic’s Rebecca Rosen traces “the cloud” back to the way early network engineers symbolized the unknown networks their systems hooked into. 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 computing. 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 sharp contrast to the industrial reality of remote servers, which are gigantic, loud, and require tremendous amounts of energy.
“Big data” is often referred to as a torrent, a flood, or an ocean — a natural resource that must be harnessed. Rowan Wilken, a professor at the Swinburne University of Technology, worries that the metaphor obscures the fact that this data is often created by users.
“Almost anything about the internet is going to have metaphors that help you understand it, because otherwise it’s formless,” Cohen says. “And they’ll all have political implications.”