Out of all of these metaphors, the two most enduring are paper and physical space.
The discussions around data policy still feel like they are framing data as oil - as a vast, passive resource that either needs to be exploited or protected. But this data isn’t dead fish from millions of years ago - it’s the thoughts, emotions and behaviours of over a third of the world’s population, the largest record of human thought and activity ever collected. It’s not oil, it’s history. It’s people. It’s us.
My favorite aspect of websites is their duality: they’re both subject and object at once. In other words, a website creator becomes both author and architect simultaneously. There are endless possibilities as to what a website could be. What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle? Whatever it is, there’s potential for a self-reflexive feedback loop: when you put energy into a website, in turn the website helps form your own identity.
James made a radio programme about “the cloud”:
It’s the central metaphor of the internet - ethereal and benign, a fluffy icon on screens and smartphones, the digital cloud has become so naturalised in our everyday life we look right through it. But clouds can also obscure and conceal – what is it hiding? Author and technologist James Bridle navigates the history and politics of the cloud, explores the power of its metaphor and guides us back down to earth.
A trashcan, a tyepface, and a tactile keyboard. Marcin gets obsessive (as usual).
We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it.
Dave follows on from my post about design systems and automation.
At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.
From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:
The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.
This article by Ian Bogost from a few years back touches on one of the themes in the talk I gave at New Adventures:
“Engineer” conjures the image of the hard-hat-topped designer-builder, carefully crafting tomorrow. But such an aspiration is rarely realized by computing. The respectability of engineering, a feature built over many decades of closely controlled, education- and apprenticeship-oriented certification, becomes reinterpreted as a fast-and-loose commitment to craftwork as business.
Programming lessons from Umberto Eco and Emily Wilson.
Converting the analog into the digital requires discretization, leaving things out. What we filter out—or what we focus on—depends on our biases. How do conventional translators handle issues of bias? What can programmers learn from them?
The ideas and images that come to mind when you think of technology as an instrument are more useful than if you think of it as a tool. Instruments — I’m specifically talking about musical instruments — are a way to create culture.
You approach instruments with a set of expectations and associations that are more humane. It’s built into their very purpose. Instruments are meant to make something for other people, not making things. When you use an instrument, you have an expectation that it is going to take effort to use it well. Using an instrument takes practice. You form a relationship with that object. It becomes part of your identity that you make something with it. You tune it. You understand that there’s no such thing as a “best” guitar in the same way that there’s not necessarily a “best” phone.
Conceding that a typeface is a tool sounds dangerously close to an excuse: toolmakers cannot be held responsible for things made with their tools, or the tasks leading up to those things. They are only responsible for the making of the tool itself. If a person decides to use a hammer to drive home a screw, then so be it. The hammer was only designed for nails. It’s not our fault the typography doesn’t look good. The typeface is just a tool — you’re using it wrong.
This 1993 article by Mark Weiser is relevant to our world today.
Take intelligent agents. The idea, as near as I can tell, is that the ideal computer should be like a human being, only more obedient. Anything so insidiously appealing should immediately give pause. Why should a computer be anything like a human being? Are airplanes like birds, typewriters like pens, alphabets like mouths, cars like horses? Are human interactions so free of trouble, misunderstanding, and ambiguity that they represent a desirable computer interface goal? Further, it takes a lot of time and attention to build and maintain a smoothly running team of people, even a pair of people. A computer I need to talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with (much less be intimate with), is a computer that is too much the center of attention.
Some great ideas here about using metaphors when explaining technical topics.
I really like these four guidelines for good metaphors:
Some of these really tickle my fancy bone.
That’s the icing on the iceberg
You let the horse out of the cart
What planet are you living under?
That opens a whole other kettle of fish
The cat’s out of the barn
Patience comes to those who wait
That’s right up my cup of tea
Oh, what a lovely metaphor! What's your online home?
Adam Greenfield is spot-on here, dismantling Apple's "imitate real world objects" design guideline for iPhone and iPad apps.
A detailed look at the troubled history of George Lakoff, the father of conceptual metaphor.