Cyberspace is a Parallel World
A Metaphor Analysis
Computers have come into existence in the last half century. In that time they have quickly become an important new industry and an everyday tool, affecting the lives of most people. During this time our languages have had to adapt to this new realm of experience. Rather than creating novel new words for every aspect of these discoveries various existing domains have been mapped onto computers and cyberspace. This paper examines some of the metaphors that have evolved as we have incorporated computer technology into our lives. The adaptation of existing language to the cyberspace domain reveals a great deal about the function of computers in our lives and our attitudes towards them. This mapping also reveals how language adapts to new experience.
Discussion of the problem.
The question confronted is the determination of which of our cognitive models have been mapped onto the new domain of computers and cyberspace. This has been tackled by collecting data from computer glossaries and textbooks, application manuals, Internet sites and personal experience. A vast array of common images has been employed to describe the many aspects, properties and functions of computers. Several diverse and even contradictory domains emerged from the data. To overcome this dilemna a supraordinate metaphor, Cyberspace is a Parallel World, has herein been invoked. This mnemonic will be presented first, with the most significant subordinate domains to emerge from the data. Then they will be presented individually.
The supraordinate domain and the major subordinate domains are displayed in Table 1.
The supraordinate domain provides for the inclusion of more precise domains. The most common use of computers is office and business applications, such as word processing and accounting. These earliest popular uses of computers have had the greatest impact on computer metaphors. Some of the most basic computer terms parallel features of the physical office. The following list of sentences demonstrate office terminology as applied to computer parts and features.
Not only is the office domain mapped onto the computer domain (Table 2), but the spatial properties of the office are mapped onto cyberspace. This mapping expresses direction (up, down, forward, back) and imagined motion (drag, drop, running) in Cartesian space and in a variety of ways. Some of the physical space correspondences are illustrated in Table 3.
Many of the metaphors discovered in the search of the computers and cyberspace domain do not conveniently fit into the mappings above. These also influenced the decision to use the supraordinate mapping Cyberspace is a Parallel World. We have already seen that the source cognitive models include land and sea, three dimensional space and human constructed space (the office). The following sentences present metaphors that do not fit neatly into the above categories. They amplify the supraordinate mnemonic and they are very diverse. While several other narrow mappings are possible below, no matter how many subdivisions are found, those mappings, taken in sum, do not indicate a domain narrower than Cyberspace is a Parallel World.
The many metaphors presented in these sentences range from animal to mineral, from animate to inanimate and from atmospheric to subterranean. They include anatomical parts, tools, actions, energy reactions, food, weapons, constructs, an area of terrain, a mental function and biological relationships. A selected variety are mapped in Table 6 below.
Analysis of the Metaphor Mappings.
The earliest uses of computers
influenced the naming of some of the most basic aspects of computers,
as exemplified by desktop, file, folder and clipboard. The non-metaphorical
understanding of the items in the source domain is directly utilized
to communicate the function and use of the target domain items. It is
difficult to imagine a cyberspace language with entirely new and unique
vocabulary, devoid of metaphors. The cognitive advantages of our understandings
of desktops, folders and files would be unavailable, and learning to
use computers would be far more difficult.
There has been a rapid evolution in computing metaphors as cyberspace has grown and changed. The earliest Internet metaphors presented the highway mnemonic. This is a particularly appropriate mapping and there are some very close parallels. The information highway and real highways are often side by side. The transmission lines that convey electronic information are frequently on poles parallel to actual highways. Information travels from point to point, just as do vehicles and people. Both are energy driven. Both are used for commerce. Also, because the earliest Internet was restricted to the United States, the terrestrial metaphor was most suitable then. The physical infrastructure of the Internet seems to have evoked the highway metaphors. After this mapping was in place the Internet changed, becoming a global information system.
The Internet has recently experienced an information explosion. The information aspect of the Internet seems to have evoked the newer and contradictory ocean metaphors. The Internet is now a vast, virtual sea of information with great depth and global breath. With the Internet's graphic environment the cyber tourist navigates a virtual world. The cyber traveler can surf in any direction, unconfined by the narrow corridors of highways. Such a vast sea requires exploration and navigation tools. It is in this information realm that we have piracy, surfing, and hits, while the infrastructure realm has ramps, crashes and detours. The two are not mutually exclusive, they overlap. For example, the non-surfer is sitting on the curb, rather than adrift or beached.
In the mnemonic Cyberspace is a Parallel World
I have listed only a few of many possible sentences. From these few
metaphors other subordinate domains are readily apparent, such as Cyber
Tools are Virtual Tools, as exemplified by the list of draw program
tools; lasso, marque, wand, eraser, hand, mask. The direct parallelism
in this mapping is noteworthy. This and the remarkable wide range of
metaphors also shaped the selection of the supraordinate mnemonic.
Considering the short few decades since the invention of computers, and even shorter span since they have become an everyday tool, the range of metaphors we employ is striking. It points both to the importance of computers and to the fact that almost any aspect of human experience can be useful in adapting our language to one new area of experience and invention. It also illustrates the degree to which our cognitive processes rely on prior experience and language. Metaphor use may well be the greatest tool we have to facilitate understanding computers and cyberspace.
Suggestions for Further Research.
The scope of this paper is very general and only addresses the most important and obvious mnemonics. Many more subordinate mnemonics can be found in the data. These could be further examined and mapped. A comparison of English language and other language metaphors might reveal interesting contrasts and parallels. How do cultures without offices refer to a "desktop"? Do river dwelling people speak in terms of information highways? Are the metaphors of the inventors adopted without question, or adapted to local cultures? This paper only scratches the surface of this new area of language. Many directions for further study are possible. A very interesting one might be the study of the first introduction of computers to other cultures.
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This paper was written for Dr.
Elizabeth A. Brandt's Language and Culture
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