Friday, July 08, 2005

Metaphor Shear

I was reminded today of a term I read about several years ago in the excellent essay "In the Beginning was the Command Line" by science fiction author Neal Stephenson. In it, he talks a lot about the layers of metaphors that make working with a computer what it is today. Without metaphors, you are stuck looking at a bunch of 1's and 0's (side note: every expensive piece of software you own -- Oracle, Application Servers, etc. -- are just 1's and 0''s the order they're in that's important). Anyone who has seen one of the original Osborne computers knows just how scintillating starting at blinking lights representing 1's and 0's is. The problems come in when the metaphors suddenly turn into vapor. I'll let the other Neal take it from here:

Anyone who uses a word processor for very long inevitably has the experience of putting hours of work into a long document and then losing it because the computer crashes or the power goes out. Until the moment that it disappears from the screen, the document seems every bit as solid and real as if it had been typed out in ink on paper. But in the next moment, without warning, it is completely and irretrievably gone, as if it had never existed. The user is left with a feeling of disorientation (to say nothing of annoyance) stemming from a kind of metaphor shear--you realize that you've been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus.

The whole essay is a great read, with lots of insights into fundamental ideas about operating systems (if you think this metaphor is good, wait until you read his description of Windows vs. Mac OS vs. Linux as car dealerships). I think about metaphor shear anytime I'm forced down to the guts of computers or operating systems.


Joshua Graham said...

Even the binary digits are a metaphor. They represent an electromagentic state of "on" or "off" (or "positive" and "negative"), ultimately to the presence or absence of enough electrons at a particular place in a piece of material (usually based on silicon).

Even then, "electrons" are a metaphor of their own, with all physics and mathematics only providing a (reasonably sound) model of the actuality of the universe.

So, don't blame Bill Gates when the crappy software crashes - blame the scientists (or philosophers) who abstracted Nature (or God) into a metaphor.

Neal Ford said...

Yep, pretty much everything boils down to a metaphor. I think this is partially just human nature -- we are metaphor machines, which is why it is such a useful device such diverse areas literature, science, and software.