These days, few people use these terms in a non-ironic way. Yet their legacy lives on.
It’s not surprising people use metaphors to talk about computing or the internet. Heaven help us, some of the ideas are hard to understand. Yes, I’m looking at you Bitcoin and blockchain.
Metaphors are useful when they aid understanding. Try explaining bandwidth to the average lay-person and you’ll soon find yourself talking about pipes. And the Dark Web neatly sums up a big, complex idea in just seven economic characters.
Some internet or computing metaphors don’t make sense. And a few are as baffling as the concepts they attempt to describe. At times, they make understanding harder, not easier.
You can blame science fiction writer William Gibson for a lot of this. In the 1980s, Gibson wrote Neuromancer. The book is largely forgotten outside of geek circles, but not the language he used. Gibson came up with the term cyberspace.
We’ve been stuck with it ever since.
Gibson described cyberspace as a “consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators... A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”
That’s not what most people think of today when they hear the term. Well, not all of us.
His version sounds more like eating the wrong kind of mushrooms than an evening of Netflix and chilling out, or doing the online banking.
Gibson can take the blame for the idea that computers, computing and the internet are a place. It wasn’t always so. Before Gibson it was common to talk about electronic brains.
In the early days of information technology, users looked at computers and saw their own reflection. Or at least a version of themselves. These versions weren’t all good. Hence all the angst about robots and artificial intelligence taking over the world. This is one reason why the prefix cyber- often carries negative, threatening implications.
Today, these places are everywhere on the internet. You sometimes hear Facebook, Twitter and other social media services being called meeting rooms or the town square. At least one social media service has even pitched itself as a global village. And it’s probably not escaped your attention that the popular social media service names Facebook and Twitter are themselves metaphors that don’t really describe what they are.
As metaphors go, cloud is one of the most misleading. The idea it conjures up is of your data floating blissfully in a kind of cyber-heaven. In reality, your data is imprisoned in a giant, over-heated, noisy, energy-hungry data centre somewhere on the other side of the world. The closest thing to an electronic vision of hell.
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