Destructive Metaphors

Here at American Cyborg we explore how humans, animals, and technology intersect with and inform one another. Metaphors are a common site for these sorts of intersections. Our world is increasingly populated by complex systems that are difficult to understand, and so communicated via imagery pulled from the ‘natural’ world. Apps and social-media sites are called ‘walled gardens,’ to describe their controlled, closed nature. Our digital photos, songs, and documents, moving onto remote servers, are said to live ‘in the cloud.’ Metaphors not only lend structure to how people think about digital spaces, but they also bound how people make decisions about their minds and bodies within these spaces. While metaphors can be powerful tools and help build new worlds, they can also place artificial limits on what’s possible, destroying potential futures.

These are our favorite modern metaphors:

  • Online storage as a cloud

  • Social media as a walled garden

  • Internet as a web

  • Browsing as surfing

These are our least-favorite modern metaphors:

  • Website as a printed page

  • Internet as a superhighway

  • Brain as a hard drive

  • Cybersecurity as a war

While researching this topic, we found one particularly interesting example. Psychologists Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University published a study in 2011 that offers a productive metaphor to replace a damaging one — framing crime as a ‘virus’ rather than a ‘beast.’ The full text can be found here; this is the salient quote:

When crime was framed metaphorically as a virus, participants proposed investigating the root causes and treating the problem by enacting social reform to inoculate the community, with emphasis on eradicating poverty and improving education. When crime was framed metaphorically as a beast, participants proposed catching and jailing criminals and enacting harsher enforcement laws. (PLoS One Feb. 2011, p. 2)

Using biological entities to describe problems in human-made systems can shape not only how people perceive the problem, but imagine solutions. Metaphors are powerful tools for world building, helping communicators to solicit participation and collaboration. This power, though, must be wielded carefully, as metaphors can be destructive, often insidiously. American Cyborg continues to explore their use in our complex world.