Metaphor and Computers

Brenda Laurel’s “Six Elements” hearkens to Aristotle’s Poetics as its touchstone. This is nothing particularly new. Aristotle is a cultural monolith, and academics refer to his work ad nauseum and, it seems, ad infinitum. For Laurel, the use of Aristotle makes her work accessible.

But her particular use of Aristotle does more than to provide an access point. Poetics becomes a metaphor for how to view human-computer interactions. The monitor is the stage for human thought, where computations written by humans happen. The human is a character in the production insofar as his/her inputs are characters. The inputs, then, work out a dramatic performance according to the script.

This is all metaphor, of course. And the computer world is riddled with them–desktops, folders, and files are all parts of the office culture of the personal computer. More widespread, though, was the idea that the computer works like a brain.

Metaphors shift, though. Our computer desktops rely on us searching, reflecting the loosely organized spaces where we work. Now, the brain often works like a computer, a clear reversal of an earlier comparison. How long, then, until we act out the scripts written by the computers?

But just as a metaphor.

About j.d.grunert

Historian, Science and Technology Studier, Librarian, Academish
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3 Responses to Metaphor and Computers

  1. Richard Hirsh says:

    Metaphors are powerful tools for understanding lots of things, as you note. In the last few hundred years, people have used technologies that have gained significance in everyday life to serve as metaphors for understanding how humans operate.

    For a while, the clock became a metaphor for the mechanical nature of humans. Later, the steam engine worked better as a metaphor to understand human mechanics but also because engines (after the Bolton and Watt engine of 1775) included a form of self-regulation and automation that seemed apt for describing the self-regulatory functions of bodily systems. More recently, of course, people have used the computer to help describe the functioning of the brain.

    But I’m a bit reluctant to think that, just because we use technologies as metaphors to describe how our bodies work, we will make the transition to letting these technologies dictate (or suggest) our actions. I like to think that even our computer-like brains have some elements that computers can’t duplicate, thus enabling us to remain more critical than unalterable computer code.

    So, while your comments about computer metaphor and human action may have been suggestive and provocative (which they obviously are), I want to believe that people will realize that metaphor is not the same as equivalence. Because of that difference, we can act on scripts that originate in places besides computers.

    • jgrun1 says:

      However, we can still act in a way that’s just “doing what the computer told me to do.” Computers don’t have to become the authority, but they can become more powerful as suggesters, because the computer knows all, it is unbiased. I’m not suggesting that human agency will disappear, but the metaphors will shift (and maybe already have shifted) to something that puts the computer as director and writer for the stage.

  2. A. Nelson says:

    I think Jon is onto something here, especially if we think about human-computer interaction (as opposed to considering “the computer” as a distinct unit / technology of its own. One of the things I like about Brenda Laurel’s selection is the possibilities it opens up for thinking about agency and interaction (between agents) that move past the human-tool / human-technology binary.

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