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Cloud? Mall? Why internet metaphors matter in net neutrality debate

Whether it's a highway, a net, a wave, a cloud, a library, a shopping mall, a walled garden, or a village square, the metaphors we use to think about what the internet is have a way of conditioning what we think it ought to be, and vice versa.

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Sammi LeMaster, (l.), and Katherine Fuchs, (r.), carry the top of an alarm clock display that reads 'Net Neutrality' down 12th Street SW to their truck after a protest at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in Washington, Dec. 14, 2017, where the FCC was scheduled to meet and vote on net neutrality.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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Accompanying nearly every debate over internet policy is a host of conflicting metaphors over what the internet actually is.

“It’s not a big truck,” Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska famously remarked during a 2006 Senate debate over net neutrality; rather, he explained, not entirely implausibly, “it’s a series of tubes.” 

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More than 11 years later, during a November 2017 House antitrust hearing on the same topic, Rep. Darrell Issa (R) of California compared the internet to a Safeway supermarket that leases its end-cap displays to soda companies, and to a magazine that charges advertisers more money for the back cover. Meanwhile, proponents of net neutrality warn of “throttling,” “fast lanes,” and a literal threat to freedom of expression.

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As the debate intensifies over whether the companies that built and own the tubes should be required to treat everything that flows through them equally, so too will the figures of speech, tropes, analogies, and framing devices used to describe what American internet pioneer Bruce Schneier calls, “the most complex machine man has ever built.” 

“There’s no way to reduce any important concept like the internet to one single metaphor,” says Mark Johnson, a philosopher at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore. “And they don’t always fit nicely together, which just mirrors the complexity of the human conceptual system.”

Beginning in 1979, Professor Johnson, working with University of California, Berkeley, linguist George Lakoff, helped transform how cognitive science, linguistics, and many other disciplines think about metaphors. Drawing primarily on linguistic evidence, in their influential 1980 work, “Metaphors We Live By,” Lakoff and Johnson argued that, far from being merely figures of speech, metaphors are fundamental modes of thought that structure how we experience the world, think about it, and act within it.

“Thirty-some years ago, people didn’t take metaphors seriously. It was kind of a marginal notion,” says Johnson. “And what’s happened is a radical shift in which we’ve come to see that metaphor is a fundamental process of human cognition, and it isn’t really optional when it comes to our abstract concepts.”

Annette Markham, a professor of information studies at Aarhus University in Denmark, says she has relied on Professor Lakoff’s and Johnson’s theories to analyze how people talk about the internet. In the debate over net neutrality leading up to the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 decision to require it, she observed a distinction in how those on each side of the debate frame their arguments.

Those who opposed net neutrality rules – a group that includes Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and other companies that bring the internet to people’s homes, offices, and mobile devices – “focused almost solely, especially in 2015, on the physical infrastructures that powered the internet,” she says. In this framework, says Professor Markham, “the internet isn’t the place where society exists. It’s a set of pipes that have to be maintained and owned and controlled by someone.”

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By contrast, for net neutrality’s proponents – this includes Silicon Valley giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Netflix, as well as big majorities of Democratic and Republican voters – “the internet is a ubiquitous part of society that we’ve come to depend on in the same way that we depend on streets and sidewalks and water running from the tap,” says Markham. “The broad capacities of the internet remain a very central focus of this group.”

'Sharing' vs. 'the information superhighway'

One of the earliest metaphors used to describe the internet, long before it had actually been invented, was the library. Writing in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic, the American engineer Vannevar Bush asked readers to consider a desk-sized device, which he named the “memex,” that could store, retrieve, and display microfilms of millions of books and other records. Each page would have codes linking it with related pages, creating a “mesh of associative trails.” Engineers inspired by Bush went on to create hypertext, one of the basic features of the World Wide Web.

But, as the internet evolved, viewing it as simply a collection of linked texts proved too limiting. “I’d say that we view the internet more as a utility, that it’s a resource that nowadays really everyone needs to do basic things,” says Alan Inouye, the director of public policy for the American Library Association, which has been a major supporter of net neutrality.

Beginning in the 1990s, as the internet began to make its way into the households of wealthy and middle-class families, the reigning metaphor shifted from that of an information resource to a kind of space. Users would “surf” through “cyberspace” from one “site” to another along an “information superhighway.”

“These very spatial metaphors encouraged us to think about the internet as a physical place that we go to,” says Jessa Lingel, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “We sort of leave our bodies behind, and then you can become something much more abstract and less embodied online.” 

That framework began to shift again, says Professor Lingel, in part because of a deliberate rebranding of the internet after the dot-com crash of 2001. “Then you get Web 2.0, and that is when you start to start to see this participatory culture, remix culture, mashups, and the idea that everyone is going to be putting content together themselves.”

The metaphors kept shifting with the rise of social media platforms like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. Now, instead of posting new renderings of creative content, people began “sharing” information about themselves, such as their demographic data, their consumption habits, and their likes and dislikes of nearly everything.

“ ‘Sharing’ has become the norm of the internet, because that is how companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google monetize their activity and make profit,” says Lingel.

“An ‘information superhighway’ is a regulated system,” says Markham.  ”With ‘sharing,’ there’s no regulatory presence. It’s just a choice, very individually oriented. And there’s a free will built into that kind of metaphor.”

Today, attitudes are shifting again. Many Americans are now rattled by the full implications of a system that collects and monetizes information taken from its users, and the European Union has announced its intentions to come down hard on companies that fail to protect the personal data of people within its borders. 

But even as people continue to express anxiety about the internet, society still allows it to suffuse more and more aspects of daily life, even going as far as to carry it around with us in our pockets.

“Over the last 20 years,” says Markham, “we have completely stepped into the frame.” 

“Because of mobility,” says Dr. Inouye, “the internet is really more like air.”