#EDCMOOC: utopias & dystopias – looking to the future (part 3)

In 2009, Rebecca Johnston wrote a paper called ‘Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the internet’ whilst working towards her PhD. I was surprised to see a relatively old paper on the resource list for the second week of E-learning and Digital Cultures, but actually found it interesting reading. Johnston analysed a sample of editorials from 2008 in the USA, to identify categories of metaphors used for the internet, concluding that there were four main categories: physical space, physical time, salvation and destruction. The latter two clearly link to the course as parallels of the utopian and dystopian accounts of technology and digital culture that we’ve been looking at.

Salvation and destruction

All the examples of metaphors of the internet as salvation (including handling information or transforming business) and as destruction (eroding revenue, supplanting mainstream media, internet anarchy) are commonplace and it’s easy to think of many more. But I wonder if this is a bit simplistic – which perhaps Johnston nods to when she references the metaphors comparing the internet to water: both life-giving and destructive. I understand the point that metaphors shape how we understand and then respond to or interact with something, but I think so many of these phrases and metaphors are ingrained to the point of not really carrying those strong connotations anymore.

One thing I do find interesting in looking at this article alongside the videos I’ve been watching for the course is the significance of dialogue – or the lack of – in the films. In the first week’s films, all but one were silent. Those three were fairly distinctly dystopian in their presentation of technology and society. Inbox was silent in that there was no spoken dialogue, but there was a written dialogue between the two characters, and this film was also the one which presented the most ambivalent account of our relationship with technology. This could be coincidence, but looking at the films from the second week there does seem to be a pattern. The two adverts are silent and towards the utopian end of the scale; the three short films include dialogue and present a more complicated view of future technology and society.

So there’s a correlation between the introduction of language and more complex, less utopian accounts. I’m wondering if the introduction of language necessarily muddies the waters and makes any simplistic description problematic – whether that’s via a visual medium such as a film or via written accounts like those Johnston looks at. She does acknowledge that destruction and salvation metaphors combine to produce an overall cultural system that expresses mixed feelings about the future impact of the internet, but I’m not even sure that many of the metaphors can be simply categorised into ‘salvation’ or ‘destruction’ in the first place.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

The cycle which Johnston describes whereby metaphors can become self-fulfilling prophecies is an interesting one. We evoke a metaphor in order to explain something new, unfamiliar or unknown. That metaphor brings with it ‘entailments’, almost cultural baggage, which shape our understanding of the unfamiliar thing being explained. That understanding obviously shapes our actions and interaction with the new thing, which in turn reinforces the notion that the metaphor has explained the thing or experience. So metaphors bring with them the risk of limiting the potential of the new by anchoring it in the old.

The example that came to mind as I read this was that of virtual classrooms. In seeking to describe the new opportunity offered by the internet to bring learners synchronously together online, we reached for the universally understood concept of the classroom. Unfortunately, the entailments of this metaphor include the chalk-and-talk approach and poorly-designed PowerPoint slides (for example). So those ingrained connotations, perhaps subconsciously, influence the way in which we began using the technology. We simply moved very average (or perhaps even poor) classroom sessions and structures online, rather than embracing the range of features and opportunities afforded by this new internet-enabled technology.

Of course, things have moved on and hopefully there are fewer and fewer virtual classroom sessions run this way, but it’s interesting to consider whether, had the technology been called something else and described via a different metaphor, our use and experience of virtual classrooms would look very different today.

Skeuomorphism: visual metaphor

Although it’s not mentioned at all in Johnston’s article, I kept thinking about skeuomorphism and its relation to this discussion. Of course, that’ll be because I just read a couple of posts about it recently (it wasn’t a word I knew at all 18 months ago!). But I think it is relevant. If you don’t know what skeuomorphism is, read this article from Scientific American, which explains the concept. Then read this post from Bianca Woods about some of the problems with it.

As Bianca says, ‘skeuomorphism works when it’s being used to acquaint people to something new by using the look and feel of something they already know’ – it’s a visual metaphor. In some cases, it’s predominantly for explanatory purposes (unless cameras themselves become extinct and forgotten, the camera icon is always going to be the best way to represent the camera feature on a smartphone). In other cases, designers are drawing more on the emotional pull of the old or familiar (such as the page turning effect on digital books). But the other side of skeuomorphism is that sometimes it damages the experience it seeks to enhance. It prioritises form over function, it references overly out-dated things, or it compromises basic good design principles.

In the same way that metaphors for the internet might prevent its being used to its full potential by anchoring it in the past, the physical and the familiar, so does skeuomorphism risk holding back brilliant digital design by harking back too often, too strongly or too unthinkingly to the physical world. This is something we in online learning need to be very aware of – skeuomorphism has been very popular in e-learning design but we need to making more thoughtful, conscious decisions about when it works and when it doesn’t.

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