The Importance of Metaphors

Having taken CCTP-711: Semiotics and Cognitive Technology last year, many of the concepts and theories we read for this week were somewhat familiar to me. Thinkers like C.S. Peirce, Claude Shannon, and Warren Weaver have given us a useful foundation to understand information and its transmission in this age of digital media and knowledge. At first, I wondered how these concerns were relevant to this course, but as was said in the Professor Irvine reading, “In the context of electronics for telecommunications and computing, we can describe the question of “information” as a design problem.”

Information design, to me, is how we try and take these decontextualized bits and bytes of digital transmission, and turn them into a message than can be meaningfully absorbed by the intended recipient. But in order to do so, we must first have an understanding of communication theory. What is a message? Where does information reside? How do we communicate with each other? It seems to me that the dominant metaphor being used in both electronic and non-electronic conceptualizations of communication and information transmission is that of the packet or container being filled with content and then transported to the recipient via a conduit of some sort. This is chief metaphor employed when we learn about TCP/IP.

A “digital highway”

But just as with every metaphor, using this conceptual model comes with some limiting consequences. Meaning doesn’t actually reside inside a container that can be transported from one location/mind to another. It is a collectively derived process, more akin to the Cloud, from which we all maintain and pull from. Meaning making relies on centuries of cultural symbol building. You don’t send language or meaning from your mind to another in the unilateral manner assumed by the content-container-transport metaphor, it’s a much more communal and socially constructed process engaged in by not just the immediate actors, but the entirely of the society and culture they live in. The network, with all its various nodes and interconnectivity, is a much better metaphor than the transportation highway that we so often use. Understanding this truth is instrumental in becoming a good practitioner of information design.

Linear point-to-point metaphor for communication.

The cloud. Perhaps a better metaphor.

References

  1. Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information
  2. Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  3. Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.