Week 5 English 516 & Week 2 EDC MOOC

I’m going to start with this quote: “As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as the Web, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).”, from Salvation or Destruction: Metaphors of the Internet by Rebecca Johnston.

This passage recalled me to a psychology class (Motivation and Emotion) where the teacher could not emphasize enough the dangers of using machines as metaphors for the human.  Specifically, the professor extolled against the dangers of comparing the human brain to the computer.  She said, and it stuck, “Your brain has more in common with the ocean than it does with any machine.”  I have often thought about that, and what the resulting consequences are for us as individuals, and as a community.

Johnston discusses how she used her interest in the uses and results of internet metaphors to shape her research, specifically outlining how, “[i]n the etic viewpoint, the theory overlays on the object of criticism; whereas, in the emic viewpoint, the object becomes central. With emic criticism, the researcher allows the object to speak, rather than imposing a theory upon it.”  I think she’s hit on a fundamental point, that we have to look at each individual object and its relationship to both other objects and society as a larger entity in order to determine the effect of a metaphor on that object and community.

For a bit of definition: “Structural metaphors refer to commonly used metaphors where one idea is used for another. Orientational metaphors relate to physical action, and we can locate the impetus for these types of metaphors in physical experiences. Other, less visible metaphors occur in this system when we take abstract ideas and thoughts and give them physical form, creating ontological metaphors.”

Looking at the metaphors we use is a really fast and insightful way of determining how we think about something.  In her article, she tells how her research leads her to this metaphor: Internet is physical space.  Not only is it a physical space, it’s a world of buildings and highways, constructed for travel.  The other main and common metaphor is Internet is physical speed.

Some others: Internet is destruction and Internet is salvation.  These are interesting in relation to the theme of dystopia and utopia that we are exploring in the MOOC.  I wonder what cultural factors contribute to the acceptance of these metaphors, and how the relationship between exposure to these dichotomous metaphors shapes overall views of the internet.  This is especially interesting in light of our culture’s deeply embedded metaphors of war.  We view the Internet as a space for attacking people, and putting up a fight (destruction), but also as a space for defense and revolution (salvation).  Depending on which side you are on, these can be one and the same thing.  It is this that leads me full circle to my general feeling towards the internet.  While complicated in many ways, it is ultimately a tool we have devised, and therefore is inert to our machinations (hmmm…here I am using the damn metaphor!) as human agents.  We make of it what we will.

She concludes, “When individuals chose the metaphors they used to describe the Internet, they also selected a filter for viewing the Internet. This result makes it vital for us to reflect on our metaphors and select them with care. In these example editorials, the most–used metaphors surrounded ideas of destruction. If the Internet is destruction metaphor becomes the predominant schema for reflecting on online experiences, how might this impact the future of the Internet? Could this metaphor encourage censorship and oppression online? What other metaphors better convey the future and potential of the Internet?”.  This is an area that fairly begs for research, and these are some of the main issues I see reflected in the discussions surrounding online education.

 

In the interest of making connections, I am seeing one between Johnston’s examination of metaphors as agents of change, and Bleecker’s blogjects (objects that are agents of change?).  I am still a little hazy on what Bleecker means in his article “A Manifesto for Networked Objects — Cohabiting with Pigeons, Arphids and Aibos in the Internet of Things”, but the more I mull it over in my mind, the more I can see (I hope) what he is getting at.  Ultimately, it’s all about awareness, for both the metaphors, and the blogjects.  The biggest contribution blogjects could make (to my mind) is an increased awareness of the world around us and all the things, and non-things that share space (physical or mental) in the physical world and in the Internet.  Taking apart metaphor provides a similar service.  This has always been my vision of what an education is supposed to do for you.  A person should be able to examine a metaphor, or a blogject, or a book, or a website, and see it for what it is: a space-occupying, relationship-having, dependent entity in the world.  Now, the space might be conceptual, and the relationships tenuous, but nonetheless we are connected (quite literally) to the air we breathe that the devices on the pigeons report, and metaphors of war do cause tension in any number of situations.  The big question: can the behavior and actions (using these terms somewhat loosely) of metaphors and blogjects bring about the ultimate result, a change in the reason for and purpose of human agencies?  Can we become both more aware of our place and that of others, and choose to act in a way that benefits all? Do we even want to, or have the metaphors of destruction and the related aura of every-man-for-himself rugged survivalist individualism already done irreparable damage (at least in our society)?

More on all of this later.

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