Why use metaphors to discuss technology?

Think about how you type a paper in Word. What do you do when you want to save your work?

You click this button – right?

The “save” icon provides a visual metaphor – a symbol – for saving information.  (Interestingly, the floppy disk icon is STILL used and seriously out of date.)

When thinking about an abstract term like “technology” it’s easier to break down the different points of view into digestible nuggets of information.

In Made to Stick, the Heath brothers describe six principles of Stickiness – Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories.

Concreteness clarifies an abstract concept to an audience by providing a more tangible idea.  Metaphors provide imagery and a specific and familiar point of reference for audience. Technology is a complex and abstract concept.  In order to communicate the correct ideas to an audience you have to provide a very specific and concrete example.

It’s much easier to understand the various views of technology by using metaphors:

Technology as a Tool 

According to Nardi and O’Day, this metaphor for technology helps with questions around utility, usability, skill and learning.  A tool is something that is controlled by the user (think of hammer).  This metaphor helps designers understand that there will be a user at the end.  How will the product they design be understood by the user?

Technology as a Text

Technology is also a form of communication that requires critical thinking.  A reader may not interpret a novel with the exact meaning that an author intended.  So is true with technology. The designer may create a technology with a specific purpose in mind, that purpose can be implied in the design or provided with instruction, but the user also interprets the meaning and use of a technology.

Technology as a System

This is seemed to me to be the most vague and pessimistic of metaphors.  It implies a certain chaotic nature where efficiency is the ultimate value, and everything – including humans – are caught up in the momentum. Technology as a system asks – who is in controls? Once technology starts can it be stopped? How do we understand it?  Does technology beget problems which beget additional technology?

Technology as an Ecology

The final metaphor is technology as an ecology; a localized network of people, process, values and technologies.  This metaphor implies fluidity that the system metaphor does not; more collaborative and less mechanical.

Of all the metaphors offered in the text, I would ally myself with this description.

While the metaphors of technology to text and tools are accurate, and they almost seem too simple in some ways.  The describe parts of technology, but don’t really encompass technology as a whole.

And technology as a system is too pessimistic and dramatic to me.  While reading that section of the text, I kept thinking of sci-fi action movies like Minority Report and iRobot.  Stories where the evolution of technology and the desire for efficiency leaves humans at the mercy of their environment.

What does everyone else think?  And, how else do we use metaphors to communicate in a work environment or in everyday life?

Works Cited

O’Day, B. A. (1999). Information Ecologies. Cambridge: The MIT Press.




10 thoughts on “Why use metaphors to discuss technology?

  1. You’re exactly right that we use metaphors everyday to better understand various ideas. I feel like metaphors provide a sense of security for complex issues that we know can be daunting (i.e. technology). I’m curious to know which metaphor you think best represents technology?

  2. I never really thought about how often we use metaphors but now that I am thinking of it we use them all the time in everyday life. I feel it’s easier to use a metaphor to explain a complex system than taking the time to fully explain it. Technology is just one complex issue but others could be social structures or economies. Sometimes ideas can be so abstract that metaphors help when wanting a more concrete explanation.

  3. I really like your example of the save option as a way to highlight how metaphors make technology less complex! Since the icon represents the physical action of saving information to a disk it provides users with a clear picture of what its function is even if the disk is the hard drive on you computer. I also have to wonder if these metaphors stand to work in conjunction with the comparison they’re making or against. The ease of saving things to your computer has certainly reduced the amount of things people keep a physical copy of. I curious to know whether you think this could cause issues with certain technology replacing the non technology object they represent? Also, if technology does replace the physical object is that a good thing or a bad thing?

    • Interesting question, Meredith! To take that a step further, the cloud is now replacing hardware as a place to store information. I don’t really think of technology replacing objects as a good vs bad thing, maybe its just part of an evolution. Take textbooks for example. Is the value in the physical object itself – or is the content? If its the content, then why not use technology to translate that content in new ways?

  4. Wow, this definitely helped me get a better understanding of the metaphors. I love the first example you used with the save button, very helpful! I agree with your question, I never thought of how we use these metaphors (or that we even do use metaphors) in our everyday lives. I guess if you think about it, a lot of things we use present an abstract concept in a way that any person can understand. Think about when you purchase something on a credit card- just pressing that green (or whatever color) button to complete the transaction covers up so many different steps that occur, and the average person doesn’t even think about it.

  5. I would like to have more of an ecological outlook toward technology, but I think the systems approach has more power and influence than Nardi & O’Day acknowledge. Of course they want to promote the ecological view. But I see all sorts of ways in which the Big System metaphor dominates technology development, particularly on the web. I’m thinking here of things like Google, Apple iPhone, SOPA.

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