Douglas Kellner: Metaphors of Cyberspace


I saw an interesting lecture at McGill this evening given by Douglas Kellner, the George F. Kellner Philosophy of Education Chair at UCLA. His presentation was on the metaphors we use to talk about computing and the Internet. Kellner is an well published academic who has tried to bridge the gap between Cultural Studies and Political Economy, advocating for a Political Economy that incorporates a critical Cultural Studies approach and challenging his peers to involve themselves in putting theory into practice, or praxis. Kellner has become known for his activism and he described how his own call to action after witnessing George Bush “steal” the 2000 American election. This event prompted Kellner to write a trilogy of books that examine Media Spectacle: Grand Theft 2000, From 9/11 to Terror War and Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy.

This evening, however, Kellner spent little time talking about politics and focused on how we talk about computing and the Internet. He opened by illustrating that throughout history, those writing about the introduction of new communication technologies – be it film, radio, or television – end up having one of two responses: Technophilia celebrates new technologies for the way they democratize access and open up new opportunities for business interests and cultural production. This is typical of writers such as Nicholas Negroponte, Bill Gates, and Henry Jenkins, who look to new technologies as the keys to our future prosperity. Writers characterized by a technophobic response to new technologies are concerned with issues of surveillance, hegemony and alienation through technology, and Kellner cited Jean Beaudrillard as a prime example. Kellner advocated incorporating aspects of both of these responses into a critical approach. Such an approach would incorporate a critical examination of the way power operates through technologies and critical reconstructive praxis that looks to find ways new technologies can be used to further democracy and social justice. Such a dialectical approach is informed by scholarship from both the technophobia and technophilia camps.

Tonight, Kellner’s focus was on the metaphors used to discuss computing and the Internet. He traced the development of metaphors from the 1980s and how they were primarily shaped by four cultural forces:

  1. The Military
  2. Business Interests (IBM, Apple, Microsoft, etc.)
  3. University “Technoculture”
  4. Hacker Subculture

In particular, Kellner discussed the anthropomorphic nature of the metaphors we use. The term computer was originally used to refer to a person who computed using counting machines. Ever since the advent of the personal computer, metaphors that have been used to talk about computers have reflected real materiality to describe often abstract ways of interacting with information. We have “windows” as our “interface” and we “point and click” using a “mouse.” We organize the things in our “notebook” on its “desktop” or keep our documents in “files.” Our computers get sick from “bugs” and “viruses” and more and more websites like myspace and yahoo are offering users the ability to customize their “homepage.” Many of these metaphors cause for reflection on the ways computers act as extensions of the human mind and act as an externalization of the self. This is a very “McLuhan-esqe” way of thinking, but expands the way we can see computers as “agents” to whom we can “delegate tasks.” Kellner also discussed the way metaphors were used to naturalize technology by collapsing the distinctions between nature (a la Blackberry and Apple) and how metaphors of communication on the Internet rely on metaphors of transportation (information superhighway, routing, surfing, etc) that illustrate the collapse of time/space distinctions on the Internet.

While his presentation was interesting and provided the audience with a good history of the metaphors in common usage, it provided little critical analysis of the metaphors themselves – a analysis that Kellner himself advocated for at the opening of his presentation. While he briefly discussed the historical roots of his many examples, he provided little explanation as to the potential effect that using these particular metaphors could have and who’s interests are being served by using such metaphors. Such an analysis seems crucial to a critical approach.

Granted, it seemed as though this was pet project for Kellner, a collection of his reflections on the language of computing as informed by reading Wired Magazine. Kellner’s academic contributions to date have been lofty, so I had high expectations for the presentation. While he may not of provided a through critical analysis of the the metaphors being used, his presentation was useful in raising the issue and calling the audience to “mind our metaphors.”

Darrin Barney, Departmental Chair of Communication Studies at McGill University, asked the question, is merely deconstructing these metaphors enough? It’s my thought that many people now are being raised on these metaphors and grow up naturally accepting them as normal parts of life. Deconstructing these metaphors may provide insight, but will do little to affect the way people interact with computers. A feminist critique of the mouse seems of little use and wont change the way people use a mouse. Rather, I believe that it is important to examine metaphors that are being used in moments of transition, while they are still contested and vying for permanence. Critically examining these metaphors and the interests they serve can allow academics a point of entry to affect the course of society’s integration of technology.

For example: Online Video.  What are the consequences of calling video distributed online, “online television” or “video podcasting?”  The former reflects the transition from the preceding medium and perhaps its preeminence (ie, online is a different, lower quality version of television) and the latter implies the use of Apple’s iPod, supporting the branding efforts of a corporate powerhouse and perhaps limiting our potential conceptions of online video’s use.  I don’t offer this as a complete analysis.  Rather, it is an example of a still uncontested name for a technology in transition.  In light of Kelner’s presentation, this, to me, seems like an important discussion for academics to have and one where our insight could perhaps even take effect.


One Response to “Douglas Kellner: Metaphors of Cyberspace”

  1. 1 Marjorie Kellner Lawrence

    Are you the son of Clarence Kellner–C A Kellner? I’m a cousin of his.

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