how to explain technology through metaphors

Disclaimer: what follows is my own definition for ‘metaphors’, ‘analogies’ and ‘similies’, as I use them in my day-to-day life to explain such things as distributed computing, the Web, computation platforms, software and code development. I’m sure I have mangled the actual literary definitions of these terms and I can only apologise to my High School English Teacher D. Sanko, despite her lovely pop quizes)

It was Paul Walk (a mentor of mine) who pointed out the importance of metaphor in computing. The importance of having ways of talking about how siginficant computing is in our lives, how much it effects us (especially emotionally) day-to-day. I couldn’t agree with Paul more, and indeed this idea has haunted me for a good number of years now, and reminded me daily the importance of ascribing everything we do in computing to metaphors, analogies and similes.

The reason I think metaphor is so important (and please forgive me Paul if I am paraphrasing you[1]), is because of the lack of physical spaces for computing. For example, in architecture you can take an idea from a blueprint to being an actual phsycial skyscraper, humans look at the skyscraper, walk through it and marvel at the amount of thinking and ingenuity that has had to go into it. I would argue that distributted Web systems are even more complex than buildings (and often will “hold” a lot more people[2]) and yet no one can stand at the foot of the “facebook skyscraper system” and be amazed at its grandure (people who have visited NYC ground zero before and after will know what I mean by how powerful these physical things are to our psyche). Therefore, the only thing we really have to impress upon people to understand what we are doing by trying to innovate systems (especially those in power who can enable us to take the next great step in distrubtted computing[3]) is metaphor. Of course there are many ways of ascribing a computation idea to another idea. In this post, I’ll review how I use a couple of different types of metaphors in my day to day life.

Using the ‘simile’ in ad hoc day-to-day situations:

The most commonly used metaphor for me is the ‘simile’, using ‘like’ or ‘as’, e.g. this system is like the plumbing in your house it carries the ‘water’ (aka information) from the central server and delivers it to you through an ‘interface’, aka a faucet and sink. The simile is a very useful tool for day to day conversation when trying to explain a computing problem to someone who doesn’t know about computing. For example, the other day I was trying to explain why identifiers are important on the Web to a librarian. First off, not any simile will do, you must know what the person’s interest are. The person I was talking to was a librarian so I started to explain that an HTTP link is like an ISBN. In this way the librarian I was talking to felt an expertise in this area and was therefore willing to come along on the metaphorical journey with me about the subtle difference of HTTP identifiers (NB coincidentallly I think I took this metaphor a bit far as I was trying to explain HTTP error codes by suggesting that when an ISBN barcode is scanned then certain pre-agreed commands could come back that all librarians could agree upon… not all simile work out). Point being, that the simile was a much better way of having the coversation instead of going through the error codes one by one to explain. Though similes often fails as it is intended to be a quick ad hoc relation that you are creating based on whom is in the conversation. The more powerful ways of building up metaphorical skycrapers for network computing is through an established metaphor.

By established metaphor I mean the ‘metaphors that a group of people agree upon and regularly use’. Metaphors like the one I used in the first paragraph such as comparing the Web infrastructure to that of the Water/Sewage and/or Electricity/Utilities infrastructure. These metaphors if used by enough people start to become physical objects (in the mind’s eye) themselves. I would like to propose that these metaphors are the ‘castles in the sky’ that we collectively create so that we can convince the ‘powers that be’ to build the foundations so we can realise these ‘castle in the cloud’ dreams. To try and mint my own communal metaphor, I would suggest that ‘the collective communal metaphor’, is itself the ‘blueprints’ by which we can convince the world that we need to build a new ‘skyscraper’. Facebook, as much as I despise it used a never ending series of matephors in its rise, wall, poke, friend, <– none of these metaphors were literal, no one wrote on your wall, you can’t poke people and not that many people are actually your friends. These are all well crafted metaphors, and we need more of them if we are going to break free of the walled gardens we have been living in (

There is one other type of metaphor that I would like to point out as an incredibly useful tool: what I would label as ‘the extended metaphor’: which usually comes in the form of a book (though longer posts like ‘in the begging was the command line’ is one of my favorite extended metaphors to date). The ‘extended metaphor’ is usually about giving us a new vision of the future, such that we have never seen before. Reading extended metaphors cause brain cells to pop and for your perspective to change – I actually believe these metaphors actually re-route the synpase pathways in your brain – this i why they are usually books as they must take you down a path that you did not know existed in the pathways of your mind. Another mentor of mine (and now one of my bosses) Andrew Treloar is excellent at identifying books that are extended metaphors of the way we can think about computing so I’m hoping this post will gode him out into the open about some of his favorite extended metaphors, aka books.

[1]= I’m partially goding Paul into some more wisdom via his own blog on what he thinking is on the topic these days.
[2]= This also happens to be one of the reasons that I think Facebook is overvalued at its current value…
[3]= sadly I think the metaphor of fear is grabbing governments and companies more than the metaphors of inspiration and hope, hence the never-ending stream of bills and patents that continue to try and slow down what we can do on the Web #sopa #….


~ by dfflanders on February 19, 2012.

3 Responses to “how to explain technology through metaphors”

  1. […] My job at ANDS (Senior Business Analyst) includes three significant remits: 1.) overseeing the management of projects and their deliverables, 2.) analysing the products that come out of projects and making those available for other institutions to reuse, and 3.) encouragement of an independent developer community. I also advise on technical aspects given my developer background, though I pride myself in translating the technical into human terms. […]

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  3. […] 3 how to explain technology through metaphors February 2012 […]

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