Is Fractal a Good Metaphor for Google Glass?

Tianyi Cheng


A fractal is a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns (Gouyet, 1996). The concept of fractal includes the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself (Mandelbrot, 1983). In Manovich’s The language of New Media, he points out that just as a fractal has the same structure on different scales, a new media object has the same modular structure throughout (Manovich, 2001).


However, is fractal a necessary metaphor? Can we just replace it with the simpler concept—layers? Because different layers don’t need to share self-similar patterns and can have parallel relations. Although Manovich provides us with some examples, none of them is detailed enough to show the fractal pattern on different scales of one object. If there exists fractal structure, what is the pattern that different scales share? I think Google Glass can be a dynamic case to deblackbox.

I assume Manovich’s use of fractal is accurate. The concept of fractal also contain two basic principles of technology: combination and recursiveness that Arthur brings up in his The Nature of Technology(Arthur, 2009). He also mentioned that a technology and its assembles should all supply a functionality and are executable (Arthur, 2009). In the General Definition of Information (GDI), information is also treated as reified entities and something that can be manipulated (Floridi, 2010). If we treat all elements of Google Glass as stuff constituting information, GUI can apply the primary framework to deblackbox.


According to GDI, information is made of well-formed data that is meaningful. Or information is equal to data or symbols plus the syntax, and should comply the semantics of chosen system (Floridi, 2010). I think another advantage of GDI is that it doesn’t strip information and symbols from its material carrier. In a general term, the following definition of symbol is proposed: A symbol is an energy evoking, and directing, agent (Campbell, 2002). In this term, Google Glass can be analyzed as symbols that are composited by syntax at different levels. Symbols on different levels are packaged as objects and manipulated by new syntax. Elements are assembled into larger-scale objects but they continue to maintain their separate identity (Manovich, 2001).Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 3.30.09 AM

“The Stack” shows different layers between users and the physical materials of network. The interface simulates the way human view the world. However, when the layers go deeper, things are presented in a way that more distant from natural language.

When applying the model of “stack” to analyze Google Glass. I met some problems. I feel the “stacks” seem not reflect the fractal structure. They are all layers that look relatively independent. And this mode separates the hardware and software. Also, I am confused about the position of “network”. If the network means the connection system made of many different computers, it should exist at all the levels of hardware, OS and applications, not only at the bottom of material level. But I think this conflict can be solved if we rebuild the “stack” into a fractal mode. By applying new level of syntax, we can see how actors on different scales create the network. I try further merging the “stack” into the fractal structure. Hardware should also be de-blackboxed and correspond the functions that are shown through software. Applications can obviously be viewed as objects, and can be treated as symbols. I am not sure about the OS, it might can be either treated as objects or syntax (as a programing language) depend on the definition. I feel interface is more than a metaphor rather than objects or syntax. It reflects an interactive relationship between two objects.

The technology is not something largely self-sufficient and fixed structure, but subject to occasional innovations. So the next question is, how the fractal pattern inside Google Glass grows? How do cultural and social concepts are built into the syntax to manipulate symbols on different levels to create Google Glass? Conversely, how does its function and the conventions of HCI transcode our concepts? I will further consider these questions in my final project, borrowing more concepts from this semester, such as remediation, hypermedia, Actor-Network Theory, augmented reality, affordance, etc.

Works Cited

Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. MIT press.

Gouyet, J (1996). Physics and fractal structures. Paris/New York: Masson Springer.

Mandelbrot, B.B. (1983). The fractal geometry of nature. Macmillan. Retrieved 1 February 2012.

Campbell, J.(2002). Flight of the Wild Gander:- The Symbol without Meaning. California: New World Library. p. 143.

Womack, M. (2005) Symbols and Meaning: A Concise Introduction. California: AltaMira Press.

Arthur, W. B. (2009). The nature of technology: What it is and how it evolves. Simon and Schuster.

Floridi, L.(2010) Information: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.



Manovich, L. (2001). The language of new media. MIT press

This book provides me with the main topic for the final project. In this book, Manovich talks about five principles of new media, and introduces a metaphor, fractal, to describe the principle of modularity. He also emphasizes the importance of software studies rather than media studies. The former is a method to study new media while considering its material base and combining knowledge of computer. My final project will approach Google Glass from this perspective.

Floridi, L.(2010) Information: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

This book provides basic concepts in information theory, such as the elements of information, the flow of information. I will use some of these concepts as base in my final project. In this book, Information is talked from several different perspectives, including mathematics and science. It also discusses the philosophy of information and information ethics, by considering the broader social background. I think those discussion can offer me a good starting point to consider Human Computer Interaction.

Harnad, S. (1990). The symbol grounding problem. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 42(1), 335-346.

This is a profound article, which talked about important social and cognitive problem of symbol grounding. I will not dig too deep toward the question related to epistemology. But this article provides me a framework of symbol systems.

White, R., & Downs, T. (2007). How computers work. Que Corp.

It is a definitive guide to the basic knowledge of computer science. It introduces almost every last component of hardware found inside PCs, from transistors to processor. It also has in-depth explanations about home networking, the Internet, PC security, how networks of mobile device operate, etc. Equipped with this knowledge, I gained a clearer approach to deblackbox the Google Glass.

Other Sources

Kindberg, T., Barton, J., Morgan, J., Becker, G., Caswell, D., Debaty, P., … & Spasojevic, M. (2002). People, places, things: Web presence for the real world. Mobile Networks and Applications, 7(5), 365-376.

Zook, M. (2009). How does software make space? Exploring some geographical dimensions of pervasive computing and software studies.

Starner, T., Mann, S., Rhodes, B., Levine, J., Healey, J., Kirsch, D., … & Pentland, A. (1997). Augmented reality through wearable computing. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 6(4), 386-398.

Google Glass. (2014, April 22). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 09:46, April 22, 2014, from