How can our ‘Net skills and knowledge be enhanced by a conceptual understanding of the Internet?The internet consists of a physical infrastructure: there are various servers, clients (such as desktop computers or mobile devices), and connections (such as cables or wireless connections). There is also the logical construction of the internet: how the various protocols interact, how traffic is routed efficiently, and how various nodes on the network are accessed. Knowing this does not, however, help us to understand or use the internet in its sociological sense – how people actually use it, and how that use affects people. This is like the difference between knowing how a car works in an engineering sense, and the uses of cars. An intimate knowledge of the internal combustion engine will not help one to understand the way cars have influenced town planning, injury rates, or more indefinable aspects (freedom, sex, power, for example) which are the metaphors so beloved of advertising agencies. Equally, metaphors and the conceptual understanding they provide (when used judiciously) can help us to better understand the internet.
While studying NET11 I have used various tools such as ping and traceroute which provide technical information about the functioning of the internet, but they do not necessarily help to understand the internet, or any problems that may occur (for example, the inability to ping the WebCT site).
Metaphors provide various conceptual frameworks for such an understanding, and I intend to look at a number of these in relation to the internet to show how they can enhance our knowledge of this new technology. Metaphors can do this by relating the new to the already known, and thus providing conceptual frameworks in which to make sense of the web, how it is being used and how it might be used.
Lee Ratzan surveyed 350 users in 2000 and found
“Novices tended to use finite, tangible, delimited, closed, delineated metaphors while Experts tended to use more metaphysical, intangible, open metaphors. This may indicate the lack of comfort level of the Novice to conceptualize something amorphously vast and the significant ability of Experts to do so.”(Ratzan, 2000)
Metaphors provide a place to start from to comprehend the new (often in terms of the old – the “horseless carriage” for example) but these metaphors change as the object to understand becomes better known. David Thorburn (1998) points out the limitations of metaphors, arguing that they can just as easily constrain our understanding as free it, but also remarks how metaphors, particularly those applied to a new technology, provide a continuity of understanding. He points out how “virtual” communities are created paradoxically by isolating ourselves and interacting only with our computers. He may be showing a metaphorical limitation here, since the computer is the medium to extend community: the communing is with other people at other computers, not with the computer itself. Metaphors, as pointed out in the Concepts document (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 15) help us to understand this new technology, as well as the paradox of the WWW (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 28).
The first metaphor that came to the public’s attention, and which became so beloved of journalists and commentators that it is now a cliché, is the “information superhighway” (though it would be more correct to refer to it as a “data superhighway” since it was designed to link and transfer discrete data packets – bits – and it is up to the user to determine how and where to find the relevant data that forms information). For example, during this module I was required to locate a specific piece of information on the Curtin FTP server which became a “hunt and peck” exercise until the correct file was located. I was also required to locate a specific ICQ user but apparently found the wrong one initially (and was not aware of this until others pointed out the problem on the discussion board).
Tim Rohrer (1997) discusses the difference between the “information superhighway” (specifically “cyberspace”) in contrast to what he terms “cyberfuture”. The first is spatial and relates to the transfer of data (or goods, as Rohrer terms it), whereas the second is a temporal metaphor where the destination is not a place, but the future. In other words, Rohrer is asking us to recognise the changing nature of the internet, and how it can also change, specifically, social policy.
Another common metaphor for the internet is that of a global library. As Ratzan (2000) has reported, this is incomplete or inaccurate, with users describing the internet as a “dysfunctional library” or a “library with its lights turned off”. Again, while the metaphor helps us to understand the internet, it is limited. There is a vast amount of information available (and misinformation) but it is not ordered by any overarching system. Understanding this limitation of the internet leads one to realise the importance of search engines, as well as the importance of choosing the right search engine, and being able to use that search engine appropriately. Prof. Pavol Návrat (2006, p. 5) has proposed an interesting “beehive metaphor” for web searches. Bees are social insects that need to find food sources, initially randomly, and then by communicating to the other bees where the (best) food sources are. These food sources are liable to change as they are exhausted or as others appear. In the same way, web searches can be a random process (most often performed by automated web crawlers) seeking relevant information (the “food”) and communicating that to internet users, as well as constantly updating that data as sources change, move or disappear. The internet is not a virtual library but a collection of random “food sources” (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 32)!
The search exercises during this module demonstrate problems with locating information on the internet. It is easy to search, it is much harder to search effectively. The exercises required an understanding of various methods to improve that effectiveness: Boolean logic, metasearches, appropriate keywords or phrases, and (not least important) being able to assess the validity of documents when found. As pointed out in the Concepts document, the internet requires not technical or communicative expertise, but both together (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 3) and an understanding of the way data and metadata function together (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 11).
Christopher D. Sessums (2007) addresses the metaphor of the internet as a brain, a neural network where only 10% of its power is used, and finds this metaphor somewhat wanting (not least that it starts with a disproven premise regarding our brains) and falls back on the library metaphor where the user pursues an individualistic path to finding information.
The internet can also be seen as an “information ecology” (something partially alluded to in the beehive metaphor above) as described by Felix Stalder (1997) and Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day (1999) where various features and uses of the internet are similar to populations in an ecosystem. Some populations are stable, some achieve success, some fail, and this is not always predictable, though each interacts with at least some other population (and, indeed, the “environment” itself). Such a metaphor provides a logical home (in the precise sense of the word) for memes (Dawkins, 1989) as transmitters of cultural information, some of which proliferate (as well as change) while others may stagnate or disappear, acting in a similar fashion to genes in evolutionary theory.
An example of this was the comparison of email, mailing lists and bulletin boards in NET11: all serve a similar function, often overlapping, but each occupies a specific ecological niche on the internet (a niche that, to a certain extent, then merges into other ecosystems: IRC, instant messaging, VOIP and so on). How the audience wants to use that information determines their methods of accessing it (Internet Communications Concepts Document, concept 2).
Of course, all metaphors are limited by the fact that they are not the thing described, and one must be careful how they are applied. An information ecology, for example, would need to accept (at least initially and at certain key points) the doctrine of Intelligent Design (Isaak, 2004), since part of the development of the internet has been carefully mapped and designed (Internet History, 1992). Dr Chris Halaska (2001) also has a number of criticisms of this metaphor (including the lack of technological and political assessment), but it does, nonetheless, provide at least one powerful way of considering the sometimes unexpected ways the internet is put to use, and how it changes across space and time.
Understanding the internet can be like the old tale of the blind men and the elephant (Saxe, n.d.): examining one part of it (telnet, social networking, ecommerce, for example) can lead to a good understanding of that part, but it does not reveal the whole elephant. Metaphors provide a conceptual basis to approach the interrelationships between these parts, to gain an overview of how they fit together (and sometimes, such as in the conflict between the users of P2P file sharing and legal authorities (Rasch, 2003), how they conflict with each other).
Metaphors have their limitations. They are a representation of the thing, and not the thing itself. They can however, provide insight into new technology, and prepare us for how that technology can change (indeed, prepare us for change itself, since the actual changes are often unexpected).
Alan Kay famously remarked “the best way to predict the future is to invent it” (Kay, 1989) and he further expounds on change:
“Some years ago, Marvin Minsky said, “You don’t understand something until you understand it more than one way.” I think that what we’re going to have to learn is the notion that we have to have multiple points of view.” (Kay, 1989)
A conceptual understanding of the internet allows these multiple viewpoints so that we understand the internet not just as a machine, but as a social construct that can alter time and space. It allows us to view the complex ways the internet is developing and provide the framework for assessing and interpreting those developments, and to be the creators of that change rather than the followers.
Dawkins, Richard (1989) Memes, the New Replicators. Retrieved January 31, 2008 from http://www.rubinghscience.org/memetics/dawkinsmemes.html
Halaska, Chris (2001) Journal of Political Ecology: Case Studies in History and Society. Retrieved February 5, 2008 from http://jpe.library.arizona.edu/volume_8/Halaska301.html
Internet Communications Concepts Document (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2007 from http://webct.curtin.edu.au/SCRIPT/305033_b/scripts/student/button_bar/305033_b/concepts.html?STATIC+1590035363
Internet History. (1992) Retrieved 2 Dec 2007 from http://www.computerhistory.org/internet_history/
Isaak, Mark (2004) CI009: Intelligent Design Theory on Evolution. Retrieved February 12, 2008 from http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CI/CI009.html
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Rasch, Mark (2003) “Copying is Theft …”. Retrieved January 17, 2008 from http://www.securityfocus.com/columnists/175
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