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Here/There Be Dragons - Metaphor & Cyberspace

Nicholas Carr quotes from an article by BBC journalist Bill Thompson in Miasma Computing:

The metaphor of "the cloud" is a seductive one, but it's also dangerous. It not only suggests that our new utility-computing system is detached from the physical (and political) realities of our planet, but it also lends to that system an empyrean glow. The metaphor sustains and extends the old idealistic belief in "cyberspace" as a separate, more perfect realm in which the boundaries and constraints of the real world are erased.

Bill Thompson raises a warning flag:

Behind all the rhetoric and promotional guff the "cloud" is no such thing: every piece of data is stored on a physical hard drive or in solid state memory, every instruction is processed by a physical computer and every network interaction connects two locations in the real world ... In the real world national borders, commercial rivalries and political imperatives all come into play, turning the cloud into a miasma as heavy with menace as the fog over the Grimpen Mire that concealed the Hound of the Baskervilles in Arthur Conan Doyle's story.

Now there's a metaphor. I'm guessing, though, that the marketers aren't going to allow "miasma computing" into our vocabulary. It's kind of a downer.

Nicholas goes on to say:

The metaphor of "the cloud" seems to have been derived from those schematic drawings of corporate computing systems that use stylized images of clouds to represent the Internet - that vast, ill-defined digital mass that lies beyond the firewall. Those drawings always reminded me of the ancient maps of the known world, the edges of which were marked with the legend "Beyond Here There Be Dragons."

The dragons are stirring.

These are wise words - I strongly believe the 'virtual' is the 'real', not the 'Other'. In a previous blog incarnation I wrote something I titled Metaphor: Nature in Cyberspace, and thought I'd post it again to see if I broadly agree with what I wrote back in March 2007. And (with some reservations) I think I do. Anyway, here it is:

Regular readers of [KuiperCliff] will know that metaphor is a recurring theme in the way that I view the world, and particularly the online communities that we shape and inhabit. I tend to take a fairly hard-edged cyberpunk position with respect to the potentiality of the web, which ties in with my views of urban futurism and social reformation. I’m also an admirer of Bruce Sterling, and he posted a very interesting link to an item on Windows Vista: dreaming nature in cyberspace.

The crux of the article by Sue Thomas is that Microsoft would have us believe that using Vista is somehow an organic experience, an online immersion grounded in Romantic notions of an idealised English countryside of yesteryear. The reality is that Vista is just an OS, and a particularly inflexible one to boot, where attempts to subvert, extend, or change, the ‘natural order of things’ are penalised, rather than rewarded. Be that as it may, the interesting thing here is the apparent dichotomy of a rural/organic metaphor versus an urban/artifical one.

This dichotomy is false. As Sue Thomas says, the words we use to frame our digital experience are littered with references to the organisms and morphology of the natural world:

Consider the traditional organisation of data into fields, strings, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, islands, and even walled gardens; and then there are the flora - apples, apricots, trees, roots, and branches; and the fauna - spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse.

We draw metaphors from the natural world because we ourselves are products of it, despite our urban heritage. We can identify with the plants and animals because we, at heart, are part of the same ecosystem. The next 50 years is likely to challenge that pre-internet paradigm in ways we cannot yet comprehend. Already, the first internet-native generation is changing the way we view the idea of ‘environment’, and of our interaction with it. Open source software and hardware, Second Life, social networking, semantic tagging: hacking the natural world for beneficial evolution.

Everyone should read Jeff Noon. He is best known for his novel Vurt, wherein the hook of his protagonists’ experiences is entry into another world, a true Gibsonian cyberspace, by means of ‘feathers’ inserted into the mouth. His second novel, Pollen, takes this idea still further, and it is Pollen that runs with the idea of a hybrid environment - natural and virtual - through use of extended metaphors drawn from the world of plants. I have no idea if Noon ever read Deleuze and Guattari, but their post-Jungian theory of rhizomes is directly relevant to Noon’s own vision of an online existence where mutation, selection, aggregation and division are real processes that shape our experience. And, like the natural world, not everything is benign.

It’s not quite the extremist position of Deathworld, but there are things in there that bite, that make you bleed, that you have to kill to survive. It’s also a beautiful, confusing vision, where serpentine tendrils wrap themselves around you, drawing you into claustrophobic thickets of mythic archetype. It is dense and powerful, headily scented, verdant, lush, a jungle. Bruce Sterling likes to use the metaphor of the miasmic swamp to describe the experimental meme-pool in which we are all evolving. Both Noon and Sterling would agree that the metaphor of the natural world is a powerful, seductive one, in which we are all complicit. We want the web to be like those natural powerhouses of invention, the jungle, the primordial marsh.

The language we use to describe the tools of our online environment directly reflect - at the moment, anyway - this deep-seated identification with the natural world. Radically, William Gibson tried to move away from these pre-industrial tropes, but they persist, and are likely to do so for some time yet. It is hard to imagine how else we would describe our new world, except in terms of the old one. Bruce Sterling has spoken often about neologism, and how most new words die on the vine, only to be replaced by something that actually fits, that really works for people, that makes sense.

One thing’s for sure: Vista is not the future, and neither is Microsoft. Nor is the Tyrell Corporation Google. Something else will happen that will totally and irrevocably alter our relationship with nature. When that happens, our language will change again, and it will reflect a new paradigm, where we dwell in unforeseen ways in a digital world of our own making.

Yeah, I know it's a bit fluffy, but there's a point somewhere in there. The solipsism of metaphor? The self-referential nature of neologism? Dystopian vision as nostalgia? All of that and more, I'm sure, and a lot less besides ...

Posted on Sunday, June 1, 2008 at 08:52 by Registered CommenterTim Stevens in | Comments2 Comments | References1 Reference

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    CERN scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. 19 years later, CERN has created its replacement, the Grid, which moves data at speeds about 10,000 times faster than the typical broadband connection. For example, imagine downloading an entire feature film in seconds or playing HALO 3 with, ...

Reader Comments (2)

I don't have much of an opinion as to whether "the cloud" is a good descriptor for web-based computing. I don't think what we name it is nearly as important as that we learn how to use it.

As to a glimpse of the future, take a look at The Grid. I've written about it recently. See the reference above.

Jun 1, 2008 at 18:11 | Unregistered CommenterJeffrey

Hi Jeffrey,

Good to see you over here.

I don't think what we name it is nearly as important as that we learn how to use it.

That is of course true, but it doesn't mean that what we call things doesn't matter. Witness the recent debate in the U.S. over terms such as 'jihad'. In the context we're talking about here, the terminology does matter, and is revealing of where we've come from and where we might be going. What actually happens in the infosphere/cyberspace/the net/the web/The Grid is necessarily (almost) independent of the terms we allot to its parts and processes but the perception of these attributes - and our relationship with them - is worthy of analysis.

Why did Microsoft choose to couch their advertising spiel in terms reminiscent of a pastoral idyll? Why might people be seduced by metaphors drawn from nature? Why have we only got the past to inform our language of the future? The last is obvious, but the answer to the previous two questions probably lies somewhere in the desire in the first instance a) to appear non-threatening, and b) to not be threatened. The use of natural metaphors suggests two (of many) things: firstly, that we perceive ourselves to be part of the information 'ecosystem'; secondly, that we paradoxically also perceive that ecosystem to be something at arms length, like nature, the 'Other' that foolish men might claim to have conquered.

I think this is an important point, as it flags up an inconsistency in our perceptions of who we are in relation to information environments. Increasingly, we can no more choose to opt in and out of cyberspace than we can out of nature, regardless of threat perceptions, trust and security issues, or the whim of a moment. Our terminologies reflect our histories, our cultures and our psychologies, regardless of whether they actually describe what our technology does.

Jun 1, 2008 at 19:10 | Registered CommenterTim Stevens

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