Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 2, Number 1/ January 1, 1995/ Page 13

Of Ivory Towers and Infobahns

by Kevin Hunt and Mick Doherty
Special Issue Co-Editors


One of our hopes for the coming year is that overused cliches like "information superhighway" and "infobahn" will just go away. If only it were that easy! We predict that in the coming year these metaphors used to describe virtual space and CMC will continue to be beaten like a dead horse; therefore, it's important that we carefully reconsider these metaphors. Or is it? Recently, we found ourselves trading letters and ideas-- electronically and otherwise--debating the point.


As I sit and stare at the screen of my partially-paid-for PowerPC, I'm struck, really, by how much the idea of metaphor has completely overwhelmed--and perhaps enabled--the very concept of CMC. Last year at a conference in Nashville, Bill Hart-Davidson, who has an article in this issue of CMC Magazine, really helped me understand that what put the "power" in PowerPC was the desktop metaphor; I mean, before '84 when Apple put out the Mac, there was a real cognitive leap to be made from writing in ink to writing on screen, and no viable vehicle to get us there.

Ah, vehicle. Let's see what I remember from my undergrad degree in Lit; a metaphor has two parts...the tenor and the vehicle. In the metaphor "Academia is an ivory tower," the tenor (or maybe that should be spelled "tenure?") is "academia" and the vehicle is "ivory tower."

I know you've spent a lot of time considering the structure of metaphors in use to describe the Internet; I have two questions, then. First, as we pull our, uh, vehicles onto the infobahn, why does it really matter what we call this virtual space? Which begs the second question--will the metaphor, whatever it is, that we eventually choose really have as great an effect as Apple's desktop vision?

Regards-- MD


You're assuming that I have a vehicle to pull out onto the infobahn and that the infobahn aptly describes the way I move about in virtual space. Both of these, of course, are safe assumptions, since I'm a white male academic type at a technological university in the United States (where we love our autos and the call of the open road). I know, for instance, that just as I can pull my Plymouth onto the New York Thruway to visit my colleague in New Jersey, I can also log onto the Internet to meet my schoolteacher friend in rural Montana. The metaphor makes sense to me because of my previous experiences.

But what if the metaphorical construction of virtual space doesn't correspond with my experience? For instance, when traveling in India a few years ago, I was blown away by the sort of highway travel that I experienced there. While traveling by bus on the highway from Dehra Dun to New Delhi, I quickly noticed that buses, trucks, bicycles, and all sorts of other vehicles were barrelling down a narrow piece of pavement in both directions. When the bus I was on wanted to pass another, or if a truck approached from the other direction, the driver would honk the horn like hell until, miraculously to me, a path cleared for the bus to pass.

While this driving technique--the constant blasting of horns--was obnoxious and terrifying to me, it was acceptable and standard behavior in that country, or at least on that expanse of highway. In fact, most trucks had signs--decoratively painted on the tailgates--stating, "Horn Please," which I took to mean something like, "Honk with impunity to let me know you're behind me."

Now what sort of experience do drivers from India bring with them when faced with merging onto the information superhighway? Do they quite innocently flame --the virtual equivalent to horn honking--other cyber-travelers to make their presence on the Net known? Do they value the speed and efficiency that the "super" in "superhighway" conjures up for you and me? And what about those from cultures that have efficient train systems? Or those from places having no highways at all? What are their notions of what driving on the infobahn is or should be?

I hope this answers your first question--Why does it matter what we call virtual space? It matters because metaphors control how we conceptualize cyberspace. They control and hide; they legitimate certain cultural experiences while excluding others. As for your second question--will the metaphors we choose really have a great effect?--yes, definitely. I say this because, as several in the fields of psychology, sociology, and linguistics have pointed out, metaphors have a tendency to become naturalized: eventually they are taken literally. At that point they exclude all other constructions. For example, if we eventually transform the information superhighway into a literal description, if we naturalize it as the way we use the Internet, then we eliminate all of those who don't have the access or the skills to drive on it. We silence the culturally rich wailings of those trucks with the decorative signs that say, "Horn Please."

Regards-- KH


Of course you're right; eventually metaphors are taken so literally that they are no longer considered metaphors. You say they become naturalized; perhaps I'm nitpicking within the realm of my current McLuhan kick when I would argue that, in fact, they are "interiorized," and become a lens through which we see. But I digress.

What strikes me as almost silly regarding the argument about metaphors for cyberspace is that "cyberspace" itself is, at best, a metaphor! Remember Gibson's quick-and-dirty definition of cyberspace in Neuromancer? "A consensual hallucination." In most important ways, isn't that equally a definition of "metaphor?" So it seems to me that when we start quibbling about what to call virtual space in order to allow the greatest possible number of people to cognitively access the concept, we are creating--what should we call them?--meta-metaphors.

I don't begrudge the creators of terms like "cybergarden" and "infobahn" their neologistic epiphanies; but I think you make the case better than I ever could when you point out that we can never hope to create a metaphor which is equally accessible (perhaps "interiorizeable") across cultures. So we seem to be stuck in a morass of mini-meta-metaphors sprouting all over the Net, each trying to describe some small part. That's fine. Yet, the debate about an overarching metaphor--it is at least hinted at in nearly every single one of the other articles in this issue of CMC Magazine--continues.

I fear an ivory tower effect. Not that these issues should be confined to the hallowed halls of academia; certainly not. All I do mean is this: the metaphor I used as an example to begin this correspondence ("Academia is an ivory tower") has been interiorized by our society. It's a negative stereotype, to be sure, and Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, perhaps contrary to the author's intentions, only engenders the negativity. And now, ALL of academia is subsumed inside that metaphor. That includes Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Notre Dame; Lourdes Community College in Toledo, Ohio, and Miami-Dade; I daresay it even includes Virtual On-line University and Diversity University, such as they currently are.

So, to use your own terminology, the ivory tower metaphor controls and hides; IMHO, it controls nearly absolutely the public perception of academia, all the while hiding the diversity of institutions and individuals that cannot possibly be defined by one over-arching metaphor.

Maybe we're agreeing...but I'm not quite sure yet. It's obviously not so simple as "metaphors good!" or "metaphors bad!"--but I'm stuck on the point. We're throttling forward into "how should we name this tool?" when nobody has really bothered to answer "why should we?"

Gotta go. I hear someone honking.

Cheers-- MD


I think we're close to agreeing. We both recognize the dangers inherent in the ways metaphors can control and hide. For example, you spoke of the negativity of the ivory tower metaphor. I don't like the idea that some people would lock us in an ivory tower and subject us to the abuse that such imprisonment brings (though, admittedly, we are deserving of some). And we both agree that we can't come up with an overarching metaphor that is useful across all the various cultures and communities that would--at least someday, we hope-- have access to cyberspace. So where does that leave us? Well, all we can do is continue to throttle forward, continue to propose new names to counter the hegemonic force of "information superhighway" and "infobahn" and yes, "electronic frontier."

I'm glad we're throttling forward, wondering about how we should make sense of virtual space, contemplating what sorts of metaphors we should use to construct them. In this contemplation, I think we are considering your question--why should we be concerned about naming cyberspace? The way I see it, to name a space is to stake out territory, to claim ownership over it. We've seen examples of this over and over in U.S. History. One of the ways the West was Won was by renaming--using, in many cases, the surnames of white European males--the territories held sacred by Native Americans.

Since I assume we subscribe to the democratic ideal of an information space that is open and accessible to all, then we realize the imperative of constantly questioning both who's doing the naming and what sorts of names they're using. This concern, this constant questioning, is what keeps the metaphors from being interiorized or naturalized. It keeps the map from becoming the territory.

I say we should throttle forward, keep naming, keep questioning. In this way we draw a multitude of maps. And multiple maps give us multiple ways of driving. If the Internet is a superhighway and a country road and a cow path, then we have the freedom to drive like hell or stop, park, and smell the roses.

Regards-- KH


Speaking of roses...let's not forget what Billy Bard wrote lo those many years ago: one by any other name would smell as sweet! While it's as true today that the naming of a rose won't change its scent, I suppose your argument would be that the naming of the tool--the infobahn, the cybergarden, the superhighway--does indeed change the way we use it. Perhaps I agree.

But I'm drawn to tell a story I heard from my distant cousin Patrick back on the old sod of Eire. It seems that a few hundred years back when the Brits invaded the Emerald Isle (the first time), the native Gaels would play a name-oriented trick on their unwelcome visitors.

For instance, when the invaders asked my ancestors what the island they lived on was named, the natives replied "We call this place Inch." So, Patrick lives today on a place called "Inch Island." The catch, of course, is that "Inch" is Gaelic for "Island"--and all over Ireland even today there are placenames that translate, "Road road" and "Hill hill." It was a small revenge, but it was sweet nonetheless.

Naming, you say, can be a way of drawing maps and questioning. True. But naming, clearly, can also be a weapon--your analogy of the old American West discomfits me. Must we "win" cyberspace in a fit of (inter)nationalistic hubris?

I realize you aren't saying that we should; but naming-as-claiming reminds me a little too much of what my American ancestors did to the Natives, and the meta-metaphoric naming of a place, virtual or otherwise, reminds me similarly of how my Gaelic ancestors responded to their own invaders.

I'm afraid of the lines I see being drawn, and they don't feel metaphorical.

Virtually-- MD


Naming is a weapon and the lines are being drawn...I should have known we'd pull out the battle metaphors in the end. Must we do battle, must we stake our claims and conquer our own virtual territories, as you ask? Well, as I have been suggesting throughout our discussion, metaphors are clever and powerful things--remember the "power" in your PowerPC? And they're subtle and subversive; they're weapons, perhaps, in a covert war.

If words are weapons and argument is battle, then I like to think we're sparring over an issue that matters. The fact that so many people are battling--debating the metaphors in use--and that you see the lines being drawn, I believe, answers your original question, which underlies our whole discussion: Does it really matter what we call this virtual space? Yes. It's something worth fighting for.

But I myself shy away from this idea of waging war with words. Words are destructive, yes, but they're also generative. As such, I suggest that the way we undermine the encroaching infobahn or the superhighway is to continue to build--to pile metaphor upon metaphor--not to conquer or to stake claims, but to construct new spaces.

Perhaps this pile of metaphors does suggest the viability of an all-inclusive meta-metaphor. What I'm suggesting is a cyber-palimpsest--layers of metaphors, hyperstacks of maps, a collage of information--that cyber-travelers spread across their computer desktop and pore over before choosing to chart their way.

Happy Holidays-- KH


Mick Doherty is a graduate fellow in Rhetoric and Composition at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY and Managing Editor of CMC Magazine. His full name is Michael Edward Doherty, Jr. "Mick" is just a metaphor.

Kevin Hunt, an Assistant Editor of CMC Magazine, is a doctoral student studying Communication and Rhetoric at Rensselaer. He's struggling to find a healthy balance between the physical and the virtual.

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Hunt and Mick Doherty. All Rights Reserved.

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