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 (Interestingly, the floppy disk icon is STILL used and seriously out of date.)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?
O’Day, B. A. (1999). Information Ecologies. Cambridge: The MIT Press.