Metaphors and technological change: A double-edged sword

Are these the same device?

Are these the same device?

A smartwatch is not a watch, no more than a smartphone is a phone. Both are sophisticated computerized networking and sensing devices that we carry either in our pocket or on our wrist. When we talk about these devices we metaphorically relate them to familiar devices to create a sense of continuity when we are faced with what are really radical new technologies. And, we carry the metaphors even further. They’re not only used to provide a way to talk about something new, they also influence the way that these new technologies are designed and marketed. Together, the metaphors and imagery derived from them help to ease the potential shock of significant and dramatic technological changes. Sooner or later, however, change catches up with us and we no longer need our metaphorical crutches (see what I did there?) to relate. That’s when things start to get really interesting. At that point we can start asking the really tricky questions, like what does a smartphone become when it’s no longer a phone?

In this article I want to talk about two things. The first is how we use metaphors to gradually ease into new meaningful contexts that might otherwise be uncomfortably disruptive. The second is how we can start to create new futures by looking beyond current metaphors. Both are important parts of how we deal with technological and social change and demonstrate how we can deliberately use metaphors to expand our temporal horizons to plan for unseen futures.

What’s in a name?

There is an old adage that is commonly associated with R. W. Emerson:

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

The meaning is most often taken to be that if you perfect a common device, people will seek you out to get their hands on it. The most important element here is that it is a “common” device, i.e. the device is familiar to us, easily recognizable and performs a task that we consider to be important. Say that I’ve invented a whizzywig that promises to do everything that a mousetrap will do, only better. Are people going to pave a highway to my house to get at it? Probably not. They’re more likely to scratch their heads and ask, “Uh… What’s a whizzy-whatever?” At that point it doesn’t matter that it is a better mousetrap unless people recognize it as a mousetrap. Had I called my invention a mousetrap-omatic rather than a whizzywig things might have been different. The point is this: You may build a device that is better than any other at catching mice, but if you call it anything other than a mousetrap, will anyone realize what you’ve done?

To put this into a more familiar context: Imagine that Steve Jobs had gotten on a stage in 2007 and said, “Oh, one more little thing… I give you: the NETworked COmputerized SENsing DEvice or NETCOSENDER! We believe that it’s going to change the world.” I don’t think he would have made much of a splash with a pitch like that. What he actually did proved far more effective. He showed us a new phone, called the iPhone, that did a lot of interesting things other than what we would have expected of a phone at the time. In that context in which the iPhone was introduced a phone was a necessity and those other features were pretty neat add-ons. But, the iPhone, along with all the smartphones that have followed, has never really been a phone, except in a metaphorical sense. It has always been a networked computerized sensing device that can make phone calls, too. Likewise for the smartwatch – the “watch” is only a metaphor that signifies to us that it is an accessory that’s worn on a strap on the wrist. Sure, it tells time, but if that’s all you use it for then you don’t have much use for a smartwatch.

Metaphors are bridges across contexts

Using metaphors to refer to novel technologies accomplishes several things:

  • Metaphors make novel devices seem familiar to us, creating a sense of continuity. When we buy a smartwatch, we’re not necessarily adopting a radical new technology. “I always wear a watch and my old one broke.” is a perfectly good excuse to buy a smartwatch.
  • Metaphors give us a way to talk about things that we have little, or no, experience with. Describing the marvels of our new NETCOSENDER to friends is a lot harder than telling them about our phone that does a bunch of other cool things.
  • Metaphors make rapid change seem manageable. Transitioning from a mobile phone to a smartphone lets us feel like we’ve simply upgraded our technology when in reality we’ve dramatically changed our technological environment. We essentially buy ourselves time to ease into the change.
  • Metaphors aid design processes. The question of what a NETCOSENDER should look like is less straightforward than that of what a new phone should look like. The metaphor extends historical precedents into the future.

At some point the metaphor ceases to serve its initial purpose of helping us to relate to changes in our environment. The metaphor may even become a hindrance that obstructs forward movement. We might, for example, argue that that’s what brought about the Blackberry’s fall from grace, at least in part. The makers of the once hugely popular communication device have clung to the physical keyboard long after it is no longer necessary and for many users more of a nuisance than benefit. Sure, there are consumers that still like to have a physical keyboard, but perhaps they’re not the most forward-looking group that a high-tech company might better cater to.

The metaphor is a tricky tool. You have to “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” It’s a fine line and crossing it too late or too soon can make or break technologies in times of rapid change. Metaphors are like bridges. They’re useful tools for crossing difficult expanses. But, when people have found other routes, they become burdensome nuisances that are difficult to maintain.

Moving beyond metaphors

Where things really get interesting is when metaphors are retired. When links to past paradigms no longer serve their purpose, a technology is free to take on a form and function that is uniquely its own. The development of musical synthesizers provides an interesting example for exploring how metaphors affect our understanding of technology.

In the early days of the development of musical synthesizers, i.e. electronic sound generators to be used for creating music, the field in the US was dominated by two powerhouses of innovation. The first was Robert Moog who developed the well-known Moog synthesizer. The second was Don Buchla, developer of the lesser known Buchla synthesizer. Both were very passionate about providing musicians with ways to incorporate new sounds into their music. However, the two had very different ideas about how to do this. Keep in mind that when the two started their developments synthesizers were not widely considered viable musical instruments. At best they were useful for creating sound effects for movies, TV and radio. Many musicians considered them mere toys.

Moog saw musical synthesizers as a way for musicians to work with different types of sounds than those afforded by traditional musical instruments. He was all about the sound. To make the musical synthesizer more accessible to musicians, he created a familiar input device for interacting with the synthesizer: a keyboard that looked and functioned the same way as an organ or piano keyboard. Now, there is no reason that an input device for a synthesizer need be a keyboard of this type. In fact, anything that can be used to generate a signal that can be passed along to the synthesizer’s sound generator can be used for this purpose. However, by using a familiar keyboard, Moog could cater to accomplished musicians and minimize any potential learning curve. If you knew how to play organ or piano, you could play a synthesizer. It was a brilliant move. So successful was it that the musical synthesizer quickly became accepted as a “keyboard” instrument, and still is today. Yet, the “keyboard” is a metaphor because the music synthesizer is not essentially a “keyboard” instrument. If a musician wants to control a synthesizer with a magic wand, or whatever, that can be easily accomplished. The “keyboard” metaphor helped to situate the musical synthesizer in an existing context, making it more accessible and acceptable than it might otherwise have been.


The incredibly talented Rachel Flowers plays Keith Emerson’s Moog synthesizer. Keith Emerson was an early adopter of the Moog synthesizer and influenced many keyboardists to do the same. We primarily see Rachel playing the synthesizer’s keyboard here. The synthesizer itself can be seen to Rachel’s left.

For Buchla, the musical synthesizer was, and is, a radical new way to produce and perform music. He wanted to emphasize this and encourage musicians to explore new musical forms and new ways of making music. Buchla has tended to use unconventional names for, and approaches to, technologies relating to sound synthesis to encourage new ways of thinking. For example, rather than catering to the familiar metaphors that Moog did, Buchla created input devices that allowed musicians to not only play distinct notes, but also to manipulate the sounds in various ways, some of which look nothing like any traditional musical instrument. Consequently, although both the Buchla and Moog synthesizers were capable of producing and manipulating a wide range of electronic sounds, playing them was, and is, nothing alike.


Alessandro Cortini plays the Buchla Music Easel, a playfully designed, compact synthesizer that uses a unique interface to allow musicians to produce complex aural soundscapes.

Musical synthesizers make for a great example of how metaphors shape and direct our thinking about new technologies. In this case, we can say that the “keyboard” metaphor won and helped to make the musical synthesizer into a viable musical instrument. But, the metaphor imposes certain limitations on what we consider to be possible with musical synthesizers. As I mentioned, the keyboard made synthesizers more accessible to certain musicians. However, it is less accessible to, for example, a guitarist (although, there are various ways to control synthesizers by guitar but these have not become as widespread as the keyboard). Also, Moog’s catering to certain established musicians has shaped the way musical synthesizers are used. Compare, for example, Wendy Carlos’ Well Tempered Synthesizer (originally released under her birthname, Walter Carlos), which had a significant influence on musicians’ attitudes toward synthesizers. It is a collection of familiar classical works performed on a Moog synthesizer and is very traditional as such. In contrast, Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples on the Moon, performed entirely on an early Buchla synthesizer, is far more experimental, evidence that Buchla’s eschewing of familiar metaphors encourages more novel approaches.


Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples on the Moon, composed and performed in 1967 on a Buchla synthesizer is an early example of experimental synthesizer-based music.

Creating futures with metaphors

Since metaphors play a critical role in shaping and defining our technological landscape, they can provide interesting ways to think about the future. In particular, we can entertain questions about what happens when the metaphor has run its course. When a smartphone is no longer a phone, what will it become? If what we currently think of as a smartphone no longer needs to conform to our ideals of what a phone is, we are freed from a number of constraints:

  • The device doesn’t need to accommodate a keypad, neither physical nor on-screen.
  • The device doesn’t need to accommodate being held up to one’s ear.
  • There may even be little reason for us to have to hold the device in our hand at all if we have some other means of interacting with the device and receiving feedback from it.
  • And I’m sure there are many more…

Freed from constraints that are primarily related to the requirement that a smartphone function as a phone, the device can become any number of things. When we start thinking along these lines, we are venturing into the future. Questions pop up:

  • What can a smartphone that is not a phone become?
  • What do we want it to become?
  • How do we describe it such that it frames the sense of reality that we want to convey?

When we are dealing with technologies that we haven’t yet experienced, the only way we can respond to questions like these is by metaphor. So, even though we may have discarded the currently reigning metaphors, we are by no means rid of them. New metaphors emerge as our relationship with technology changes.

We can either wait for someone to come up with the new metaphors that will define our future (and it’s safe to assume that the Apples & IBMs of the world are currently thinking about this) or we can tackle the task head-on ourselves. This is essentially what we call futuring, i.e. actively constructing new possible futures. Futuring is a largely metaphorical activity in which we use metaphors as conceptual playgrounds to experiment with, and try on, new ideas, so to speak. We can for example ask ourselves, what might our non-phone smartphone become?

Perhaps the smartphone will become an adjunct that works alongside us to organize our lives and carry out mundane tasks? Or a maybe it’ll be a router (as in a network router) that keeps us connected? Or a jumper (as in a jumper cable or a wearable item) that hooks us up to what we need when we need it?

Each of these metaphors suggest very different types of relationships with what is essentially the same technology. An adjunct suggests that the hardware involved has become somewhat invisible to us; our attention is directed toward the software-based AI. A router suggests that the device is primarily a connector to a networked system where information, services and software are accessed. A jumper is rather vague in that it might refer to a connection or a hardware format (wearable), but it also provides an action; “I’m going to jump into Google and get some answers.”, “Let me jump over to Jane and see what she says about this.”, “I’m going to jump into World of Warcraft for a while.”, etc. We like action-oriented metaphors for technologies, like when we “google” stuff or “skype with” someone. They integrate well with our cultures.

Metaphoring the future

As we look toward the future, we are free to tie what metaphors we want to technologies that we might envision. However, we have to be aware that the metaphors that we choose can be double-edged swords. Depending on how the metaphor is taken, it can both extend our perception of technology beyond the obvious, but it can also limit perceived properties. It is up to us to think about what it is that we want from technology and choose the appropriate metaphors to create the contexts and meanings that will help us achieve whatever goals we may envision.

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