Short Read: The Misleading Power of Internet Metaphors


Language is powerful, and what we call things matters. This is why during our workshops, we put a list of “coded language” on the walls and ask people to refrain from using these words; it’s one of our core concepts.

And so we were heartened by a recent Scientific American article, “The Misleading Power of Internet Metaphors.” Author Brett Frishmann makes several good points:

The problem with digital-tech metaphors is that what’s left out is usually what’s most important. They obscure more than they reveal and generate power by distorting conversations, expectations and understanding of the relationships between technology and humanity.

Four Examples of Troubling Internet Metaphors

Cloud –– Fricshmann describes how we’ve defaulted to using the term “cloud” in all kinds of situations where we would do better to explain precisely what we mean. “All you need to do is replace ‘cloud’ with ‘on someone else's computer.’… You might care about whether those computers are secure, where they are located (e.g., what countries?), and who else can obtain access to them.”  

Smart –– The buzzword “smart” general refers to using technology to add functionality to an object. But there are wildly varying degrees of smart tech, and also important are “…the type of AI, how it works (or doesn’t), who owns or controls it and many other details that vary tremendously across examples are hidden inside an epistemological black box.” We also think it’s lazy language – as Frischmann says, “Smart seems unabashedly good, certainly better than dumb.” – but much like the word “connected,” we think this is coded language and should be avoided.

Internet of Things –– The internet connects people, thus creating social value–but when we use the phrase “Internet of Things” the question becomes, “Where did the people go? They fade into the background, as passive consumers satiated by the supposedly smart techno-social system and hardly distinguishable from the devices and other programmed and managed artifacts.” This is not a world we want to live in.

Free –– Even when things are “free” in the monetary sense, “keep in mind that there’s always a price… Replace ‘free’ with ‘paid for with data’ and ‘possibly paid for with attention, labor, trust and even your mind.’ Now you can begin to evaluate what’s hidden within the box.” We agree wholeheartedly! As they say in open source software communities, “Is it free as in beer, or free as in kittens"?” We should always ask ourselves how we’re paying for things – with our money, our time, our attention, or years worth of cat food. :)

Next time we use internet metaphors we might want to think about the meanings, and humans, behind the tech. Check out the article in its entirety here – and be sure to check out our coded language as well! Challenging ourselves to create tech without falling back on metaphors is a truly fun challenge that is part of our workshops.

Feature image from Richard Newstead Getty Images.

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Good ReadsKatrina Smith