I teach Interface Design and Digital Cultures at a design school. Its a great job. The only thing that poisons my professional life are the numerous analogies I read every day in articles on new media and computer related topics.
The most popular analogy contemporary authors use to explain the computer’s development and its role in our life is to cars. In this blog, the car and other metaphors and comparisons will be collected. The examples will be in Russian, English and German, annotated and commented on in English.
I would be happy to receive your feedback and examples as well. Please send in quotes from online or offline texts, old or new, not necessarily automobile related. Analogies to nature, film history, Darwinism and economic theory are appreciated. And please write to if you come across an interesting article, book, or text on digital culture
What’s wrong with car metaphors and analogies in general?
Many of them are evil by themselves. When you do not have weighty arguments, when you are are not able to explain or grasp something, you can use an analogy.
To compare computers with cars, in particular, is wrong because it’s a huge simplification, the role of of computers in society and individual life is more complex than the role of cars.
The notion that today everybody has a computer and a car and “once, cars were new as well” is not enough to put an equal sign in between two phenomena.
One of Marshal McLuhan’s most famous quotes is:
When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future…
– (The Medium is the Massage)
This insight from the late 1960s becomes more annoying each day. Maybe it would help to regard it as a neutrally observed fact instead of an instruction on how to deal with new situations.
Also, computers are not so new anymore. Most misunderstandings and clumsy metaphors about computers do not appear because the computer is an unknown thing, but because a lot of knowledge about it is not present and metaphors have become the main mode of interaction with a computer.
In 2004, in her introduction to the 2nd edition of “The Second Self”, Sherry Turkle made a wise remark about the popular cars/computers parallels:
It takes as a given that people once knew how their cars, televisions, or telephones worked and don’t know this any more, but that in the case of mechanical technology, such losses are acceptable. It insists however, that ignorance about the fundamentals of computation comes at too high a price.
Olia Lialina, 2007
This blog has a partner Idioms
I’d like to thank James Allan for explaining to me true meaning of some English words