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.

Presentation of the data.

The supraordinate domain and the major subordinate domains are displayed in Table 1.

Table 1. Computers and Cyberspace are a Parallel World
Source Domains
Target Domains
Supraordinate Domains
The entire physical world
Computers and cyberspace
Subordinate Domains
A physical office space An individual computer
The ocean The internet
A highway system The internet
The physical world Computers and applications

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.

Mnemonic: A Personal Computer is an Office.


There is a trick to rebuilding the desktop.
Consider the case of the Macintosh clipboard.
You can paste into or rummage through the Scrapbook.
WindowShade allows you to collapse any open window.
Drop that file folder into the trash.
Have you checked your mailboxes for messages.
That folder is on another drive.
I like to use drag and drop file editing.
Can you bring up that file.
Command "Q" will shut down an application.
Use a mouse click to bring a window forward.
Web pages look best with a background image.
The printer is running in the background.

Mappings and Correspondences.

Table 2. A Computer is an Office
Office (source)
Computer (target)
desktop moniter screen
clipboard electronic clipboard
scrapbook electronic scrapboard
curtains, blinds WindowShade
trash can, recycle bin file deletion command
mail box electronic mail icon or address
folder electronic meta-file

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.

Table 3. Cyberspace is Cartesian Space
Cartesian Space (source)
Cyberspace (target)
drag and drop relocate electronic data
bring up, bring forward display a file on the monitor
shut down turn off
background image design on a desktop
running operating

A more recent development in computer usage has been the linking of computers in networks. The best known of these networks is the Internet. Networking has generated a distinct set of mappings, including contradictory ones. In one scenario the Internet is an ocean (see Table 4). This is contrasted by the Internet as a highway system mapping (see Table 5). These two disparate aspects of the world, the oceanic and the terrestrial, in part compelled the more comprehensive mnemonic Cyberspace is a Parallel World. First I will focus on the Internet mappings. Then I will present the broader Cyberspace is a Parallel World examples.

Internet mnemonics: The Internet is an Ocean / The Internet is a Highway System.


She surfs the web all day.
Websurfers do it on desktops.
The virtual ocean is overflowing with useless cybertrash.
I got over one hundred hits.
Abductive multiloguing will help us both navigate the Net.
Most people use Netscape Navigator.
Internet Explorer is an inferior browser.
Image piracy is a common web practice.
The information highway is the road to the future.
The information superhighway needs public support.
I spent an hour downloading a large site.
Netscape has to many crashes.
Fewer people are just sitting on the curb of the information highway.
We need more fiber-optic roadways.
Old browsers are roadblocks, detouring the surfer from third-generation sites.
Traffic is slowed when everyone logs on in the morning.
A "T" line is the best ramp available.

Mappings and Correspondences.

Table 4. The Internet is an Ocean
Ocean (source)
Internet (target)
to surf, surfer virtual travel, web traveler
ocean vast amount of information
hits, when fishing finding data or sites
navigate act of accessing sites
Navigator, Explorer tools to navigate the Net
piracy stealing intellectual property

Table 5. The Internet is a Highway
Highway (source)
Internet (target)
road, highway, superhighway information conduits
crashes unintentional program stoppage
the curb on the information highway nonparticipant's position
roadblocks impediments to internet usage
detoured directed to an alternate file
traffic amount of internet usage
ramp connection to the internet

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.

Mnemonic: Cyberspace is a Parallel World.


Gophers allows surfers to tunnel through cyberspace, digging for online gems.
The initial sender started the thread, not the flames that triggered the virus attack.
A home page bookmark is a great shortcut, not unlike an apple menu item or the launcher.
He added Finger, Fetch, Windows, Toolbox, Sunset, PaintBrush and a disinfectant.
Inspector can resize thumbnails, but it cannot cut, copy, paste or clear them.
Mirroring electronic books reduces traffic and eats memory.
My network neighborhood consists of three servers, a bus and a protocol gateway.
Good draw programs offers lasso, marque, wand, eraser, hand, mask and eyedropper.
Thanks to bugs, I keep freezing, bombing and booting; freezing, bombing and booting.
How many daughter boards can a mother board have, and how do they do it without a dad?
Our Intranet backbone needs an overhaul before a big freeze halts traffic.
Do you allow cookies or only handshakes?

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.

Table 6. Cyberspace is a Parallel World
The World (source)
Cyberspace (target)
gophers tunnel and dig programs search for information
virus disruptive program
backbone an electronic conduit
mirroring creating identical information sets
neighborhood a group of interconnected computers
handshake affirmation of computer contact

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.
The use of Cartesian space to describe the activities on the computer desktop illustrates an aspect of cognition. We first learned to perceive two dimensional art, photography and television imagery as three dimensional space, so it is not surprising that we map three dimensions onto a monitor screen. In cyberspace this cognitive function has been extended to the image manipulation capability of computers, as evidenced by bring forward and move back.

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.
The frequent use of the term "virtual" in relation to cyberspace exemplifies the degree to which cyberspace is a parallel world. Virtual is defined as `being such practically or in effect, though not in actual fact.' Cyberspace metaphors certainly are virtual cognitive images.


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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©1999 by James Q. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
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This paper was written for Dr. Elizabeth A. Brandt's Language and Culture
class (ASB 481) at Arizona State University.

More Linguistics Papers: The Rattlesnakes of Arizona is an ethnographic interview project. "I’m Not a Crook."  The Public Face and Private Political Reality of Richard M. Nixon is a discourse and conversation analysis of some Nixon tapes, featuring some of my favorite crimes by our past president.