The Net as Universal Metaphor

on March 12, 2001

Every era has its defining metaphors — phrases, images, or concepts that begin as references to something limited and well-defined, but that steadily expand and take on broader meaning until they come to express a culture’s entire view of its nature, its values, and its ultimate purposes.

Some of these metaphors start as the names of particular social institutions but gradually come to be perceived as the essence of society itself. For example, the Roman Empire began as a mere improvisation to cope with the failings of the Roman Republic — but over the course of several centuries, it was transformed into an ideal image of stability and accomplishment so powerful that the idea of the Empire survived the fall of Rome itself and haunts us even to this day.

In a very real sense, for example, the Cold War was a result of the United States and Russia both laying claim to being the ultimate heir of Rome. On the negative side of the same archetype, both countries have been accused at times of being evil empires. Once established, universal metaphors retain their power for a long, long while.

Similarly, “the Church” for medieval Europeans or “democracy” for mid-twentieth century Americans were not merely one institution among many. They were the context within which all of society existed and which provided the values by which all of society was to be judged.

Others universal metaphors begin as religious, philosophical, or scientific concepts, like “salvation,” “progress,” and “evolution,” but the process of expansion is the same. Such concepts become, in effect, the alpha and omega of their cultures — simultaneously the source from which everything is derived and the end towards which everything tends.

For example, you might have asked a nineteenth century Englishman, “What produced the society to which you belong?” and been told, “Progress.” “What is the pre-eminent characteristic of your society today?” “Progress.” “What is the ultimate goal towards which your society aspires?” “Progress.”

Clearly, such metaphors do not operate in the realm of everyday cause and effect. They are metaphysical in nature, and their ultimate reference points lie outside of history. We might even describe them as being of the Dreamtime.

At the present moment, it appears that “the Net” is becoming just such a universal metaphor. On a practical level, all of human society is being drawn into the Net, until eventually every person and every technological device on Earth (or even throughout the Solar System) may be a part of it. On an intellectual level, the holistic and collaborative nature of online interaction is giving birth to a new image of society, one that is increasingly being used as a counterweight to the atomistic and competitive institutions that dominated the late twentieth century.

I expect that within ten or fifteen years (since things move much faster now than they did in Roman times), the universalization of the metaphor will be complete, and at that point “the Net” will be widely regarded as coterminous with both human life and human culture.

The scientific world will have also been redefined in cyberspace-like terms. Already, it is being suggested in string theory that the physical universe is a kind of virtual reality, a hologramatic projection from a simpler level of being. Biological nature is similarly being reconceived as a projection of the genome. The human brain is more and more often described as a hologram as well.

I have very mixed feelings about all this. Brand-new universal metaphors are exciting and energizing. They make it possible to overthrow old ideas and entrenched elites and to introduce sweeping changes. No doubt we’re going to have a lot of fun with “the Net.”

But universal metaphors, by their very universality, also have a totalitarian aspect. Once they take control of society, they tend to get arrogant and start throwing their weight around. As the first universal metaphor to gain global acceptance, “the Net” will have an unusual amount of weight to throw around. I don’t feel altogether good about that.

Although we can’t prevent “the Net” from eventually changing from a locus of creativity into a locus of power, there are certain things we can do to prepare for it.

To use a very different metaphor, if you are building a palace that you suspect your heirs will convert into a fortress and then into a prison, you have both the ability and the obligation to include surreptitious ways out: mysterious portals, hidden passages, cryptic maps, and flashing messages that say, “Diaspar was not always thus.”

Those of us who are creating the metaphor of “the Net” cannot stop it — and everything it may come to stand for — from growing old and arrogant. That is the fate of all universal metaphors. But right now, while the metaphor is still fluid, we can make sure it is equipped with a multitude of built-in reality-gaps: quirks, paradoxes, secret jokes, and things that point beyond themselves to something larger.

Perhaps, as well as being the first global metaphor, “the Net” could also be the first metaphor consciously designed to self-deconstruct as soon as it grows intolerable.

That’s where I see my job as lying.


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks

Read the Next Entry: The Horizons of Prehistory

2 Responses to “The Net as Universal Metaphor”

  1. Kit Peters says:

    Ten years later, do you still think the Net is on course to become “coterminous with human life and human culture”? There are certainly efforts (at least in the US) to connect the Internet to everyone, but I’m not sure it’s become an institution like the medieval Church.

  2. Cory Panshin says:

    Kit –

    I don’t see the Net as becoming institutionalized like the medieval Church — but it’s definitely becoming universalized, defined as an essential part of what it meant to be a member of the human community.

    As just one example, a year ago the BBC reported that almost 80% of respondents in a recent survey agreed either strongly or somewhat when asked, “Should the internet be a fundamental right.” The writer added, “The survey also revealed that the internet is rapidly becoming a vital part of many people’s lives in a diverse range of nations. In Japan, Mexico and Russia around three-quarters of respondents said they could not cope without it.”

    The BBC article also discusses the human rights implications of “three-strike” laws, which would ban people from the Net for repeated copyright violations. And Wikipedia raises the same question in an article which notes that the United Nations has already discussed the question of defining Net access as a universal human right.

    As another example, the news of the death of Osama bin Laden raced around the world by Twitter and had people out celebrating in the streets well before the formal announcement. This was after the event itself had been unknowingly live-tweeted by a Pakistani IT professional — which in the minds of many people provided a much stronger assurance that it had really happened than if we just had to take the government’s word for it.

    It was announced at the beginning of this year that there are now over 2 billion internet users, compared to 250 million ten years ago, and over 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions. So in physical terms, we have a few more years to go before full universality, but in psychological terms I’d say we’re already there.

Leave a Reply