How Conceptual Metaphors are Stunting Web Innovation


In his classic study of media theory, Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

Consider these terms: page, scroll, file, folder, trash can, bookmark, inbox, email, desktop, library, archive and index. They are all part of the document metaphor, a superset of the “desktop” metaphor. Some elements, such as scroll, desktop and library pre-date the printing press, but all are based on some sort of “marks on paper-like material” reference.

It is important to understand that the document metaphor is more than a UI metaphor. It is in fact a fundamental way of understanding one domain in terms of another. For better or worse, we continue to understand the web in relation to how we understand documents. Unlike figurative metaphors, such as “he was a lion in battle,” which are simple rhetorical statements, conceptual metaphors (a notion introduced in the classic “Metaphors We Live By ” by Lakoff and Johnson) like document-ness are pre-linguistic, and quietly ubiquitous. They infiltrate how we think about things on a much more basic level.

Did it ever occur to you that the phrase “the stock market is up” is actually a particular spatial metaphor for what is really just a number? As a result, we think of the stock market as a geography, which has non-trivial ramifications for how we make decisions about it.

This is often a good thing — conceptual metaphors can be helpful. In dealing with novel phenomena, we often have no choice but to understand the new in terms of the old, the complex in terms of the primal, the abstract in terms of the tangible (companies often pitch themselves according to this logic, i.e. “we’re like FriendFeed for dating”). Accordingly we often conceive of new features, new business lines, and new market opportunities in the same way.
 
Continue reading (highly recommended @ http://mashable.com/2010/01/13/conceptual-metaphors/

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