Friday, February 25, 2005

Internet Metaphors

The New York Times published a small column with some figures on TV watching and internet usage today, titled The Internet: It's the New TV. Frank Field over at Furdlog gets pretty angry over it, and under the title "Warning! Dangerous Metaphor!" he writes:
The media industries keep trying to turn the Internet into TV – this kind of presentation helps to set the frame for the discussion. The content of the article is grist for those who want to turn the Internet into TV; an idea to be fought however it raises its head.
I see his point, though I think the title of the column is especially misleading to its own content, since it more or less just notes that people have changed in their TV hours for internetting. However he clearly touches on something that is all to often overlooked: the way metaphors are used and misused to fit upcoming technologies (e.g. the internet) in old (network) moldels. Here's an excerpt from my (draft) essay on Code & Speech that I will put up at SSRN in some time [references omitted]:
Social relations resulting from these incumbent communicative networks tend to be preserved by the institutions, the nodes of control, which provide them and feed from them. They have an interest to sustain the existing framework, which is often projected on emerging technologies. For example, while the Internet’s architecture undermines the technological and economical justifications of the broadcasting model, it has been interpreted in light of, and fitted into, that structure. Network effects and transition costs from existing to new technologies can create an institutional lock in, which puts the status quo into a perpetual motion. The approach of new technologies may often be coloured by an old perception. Use of certain metaphors and analogies both strengthens and conceals this.

“Metaphor structures conception,” writes Moglen. If the general conception of communication networks is dominated by the broadcaster – consumer metaphor, the premise for regulating the Internet may be the aforementioned asymmetrical concentration of production and distribution. A mind set, which at first sight clashes with the Internet architecture. However, many people’s earliest thoughts on the Internet were formed by a different metaphor, that of the “Information Superhighway”. Injected into the public consciousness over a decade ago it makes certain assumptions about the Internet's nature. Obviously it is a reference to the glorification in American culture of the road as a pathway to personal freedom. That is, the individual transcending the community. It implies movement, the transfer of information from point-to-point. With super speed and no time to stop. This is not the one- way communicative street of the broadcasting model. Here reign the rules of the interactive one-to-one communication of telephony. Or so it may suggest and capture the public imagination.


There are other metaphors, like “Cyberspace as a place”, “the global village”, and even “Code is law”. It is not that these metaphors and analogies have no value, or no basis in reality whatsoever. They can give guidance in the struggle to define the characteristics and legal boundaries of a new technology. But applied on the Internet as a whole they may deny its specific architecture, and diverse possibilities. The Internet should be taken on its own technological merits, and not reduced to some abstraction.


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