Information Metaphors

The ways we deal with information since the advent of the web are new. Although people have dealt with information in the past — through spoken language, print media, in the environment, etc. — the web changed how we produce and use information. We don’t yet have precise language to describe the effects of this change upon us as individuals and societies.

Language reveals how we think about things. Given the newness of the experience, I’m curious about the metaphors we use to talk about how we use of information online. I’ve noticed three come up often:

  • information as resource,
  • information as sustenance, and
  • information as an environment.

Let’s look at them in more detail.

Information as Resource

Under this metaphor, we see information as something to be bought, sold, mined, traded, shared, etc. We can own information, gain access to it, stream it. We must protect our information lest it fall into the wrong hands.

Examples:

“A new commodity spawns a lucrative, fast-growing industry, prompting antitrust regulators to step in to restrain those who control its flow. A century ago, the resource in question was oil. Now similar concerns are being raised by the giants that deal in data, the oil of the digital era.” — The Economist

“Think twice about sharing your social security number with anyone, unless it’s your bank, a credit bureau, a company that wants to do a background check on you or some other entity that has to report to the IRS. If someone gets their hands on it and has information such your birth date and address they can steal your identity and take out credit cards and pile up other debt in your name.” — Christina DesMarais, TIME

Information as Sustenance

This metaphor posits that information is like food and drink; it changes us as we consume it. Information enters you and transforms you. You are what you eat; you are what you read online. As with food, you have the ability to say “no” to information, to change your consumption patterns. You could go on an “information diet” if you wished.

Examples:

“We monitor what we eat and drink, optimizing our diet for health and performance, not just enjoyment–and yet we can be heedless about what we read, watch, and listen to. Our information diet is often the result of accident or happenstance rather than thoughtful planning. Even when we do choose deliberately, the intent behind much of our media consumption is simply to soothe or distract ourselves, not to nourish or enrich. It’s like having french fries for every meal.” — Ed Batista

“We define digital nutrition as two distinct but complementary behaviors. The first is the healthful consumption of digital assets, or any positive, purposeful content designed to alleviate emotional distress or maximize human potential, health, and happiness. The second behavior is smarter decision-making, aided by greater transparency around the composition and behavioral consequences of specific types of digital content.” —
Michael Phillips Moskowitz

Information as Environment

Another metaphor is that of information as something you inhabit; an environment. Under this metaphor, information defines the boundaries of spaces where we interact. We’ve been using this type of language from very early in the online revolution; we’ve been talking of “chat rooms” and “home pages” for a long time.

Examples:

“When all discussion takes place under the eye of software, in a for-profit medium working to shape the participants’ behavior, it may not be possible to create the consensus and shared sense of reality that is a prerequisite for self-government. If that is true, then the move away from ambient privacy will be an irreversible change, because it will remove our ability to function as a democracy.” — Maciej Cegłowski

“Dark forests like newsletters and podcasts are growing areas of activity. As are other dark forests, like Slack channels, private Instagrams, invite-only message boards, text groups, Snapchat, WeChat, and on and on. This is where Facebook is pivoting with Groups (and trying to redefine what the word ‘privacy’ means in the process).

These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments. The cultures of those spaces have more in common with the physical world than the internet.” — Yancey Strickler

While all three metaphors are valid, you won’t be surprised to learn I favor the “environment” metaphor — as evidenced by the title of my book.

The “resource” metaphor brings with it the language of ownership and trade. The “sustenance” metaphor reduces our agency to which types of information we choose to let in. (After all, most of us don’t produce our own food.) While both are valid, they miss an important angle: the fact that our interactions with each other and our social institutions are increasingly mediated through information. The language of inhabitation nudges us to consider the pervasive influence of information on our actions and empowers us to reconfigure our information structures to affect outcomes. It gives us agency with regards to information while acknowledging the degree to which it influences our decisions.

Have you found other information metaphors? Please let me know.