Metaphors In Mind: The Framing Challenge of Immateriality

by scholastress

To envision cyberspace requires a break with the current world of two-dimensional data.”

– Paul Lewis, “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In.”[1]

And the use of metaphor itself takes us into the realm of the virtual.

Anne Friedberg,  The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft (2006)[2]

            Metaphors are proxies, aliases. As a rhetorical trope, metaphor relies on the substitution of one thing for another, a transfer of properties from the plane of the literal to the plane of the figurative. Metaphors themselves are virtual; they reside in the immateriality of language, yet they refer to the material world. At least, this was the case until the particularly plastic logic of virtual reality began to confuse these registers, mediating a medium of the immaterial. As an examination of business journalism of VR in the 1990s suggests, much of the efforts that went into articulating this new medium took place on the level of metaphors. These early voices are found grappling with a recurrent and immeasurable question: how to frame the experience of a space inside, rather than outside of the architectural screen and its material borders?

In his 1990 New York Times article “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In,” Paul Lewis was quick to note that much of the excitement and difficulty that characterized the promotion VR took place on the level of metaphor.[3] Faced with the prospect of working and commercializing a virtual space with an endless visual morphology, the architectural boundaries of a workspace was continually negotiated and defined in the minds of VR entrepreneurs. For Texas Instruments’ developer Steve Pruitt, the office was an important frame of mind to be maintained so as to make VR a viable corporate environment. While his interlocutor suggests the exotic vistas of Yosemite as a possible space in which to work and (presumably) play, Pruitt is keen to frame the experience of the telecommuting executive in a more mundane situ- strolling through a virtual office, moving down a virtual hallway and pausing to read a virtual noticeboard. The imagined work in VR is purposely constrained to a limited imaginary space. ”Because the concept of a physical office is so familiar to corporations, and because the concept of virtual workplaces is so different, the office metaphor is important,” he notes.[4]

While providers of work environments sought to defend the discursive space of the office against the possibly alienating or distracting plasticity of VR, others were contemplating the potential of opening up and redefining the metaphors that framed the representation of quantitative data. Faced with a new order of magnitude of information to analyze, capital traders suggested that there was an acute need to find new ways of visualizing data beyond the old conventions of charts and graphs. A new virtual strategy, it was theorized, might give an analyst an edge in the overwhelming data flow of international commerce.[5] Re-framing this virtuality, however, called for a mental plasticity that proved challenging to the metaphor-creators of VR and information graphics. “The most difficult part of all this is not technological,” claimed Aiden McManus, an information strategist for American Express. ”The hardware is available, the software is available, but the metaphor isn’t.”[6]

This crisis of guiding frames was intensely felt in VR, but by no means specific to it. Indeed, the turn of the century might be characterized by a general befuddlement at the immaterial excess of commerce and information networks that were only nominally represented by their physical architecture.[7] As Lewis notes, “in many ways, the foundations of cyberspace are already in place. In a modern bank or brokerage house, for example, the physical shell of the building is often a relatively insignificant feature; the more important structure is the electronic computer network that processes, stores and transfers electronic representations of money along a global network.” The erosion of value and primacy assigned to physical objects thus suggests a fragility to the metaphors meant to house the discursive architectures of this new order of frameless data.

Just as Alberti’s window metaphor performs a coy slippage between instructional device and philosophical paradigm, the metaphors that colonize the expanse of VR carry their own weight and induce their own effects.[8] Now, more than ever, it is important to examine rhetoric of metaphor, be it hidden, reinscribed, or newly borne.  Metaphors construct our cultural realities, and are an essential component to how media technologies might achieve something of their liberatory promise.  New metaphors, carefully weighed, are required to make new media new, and yet, their construction proves as illusory as the technical means to achieve VR’s promised ground of virtual freedom.

[1]Paul Lewis, “The Executive Computer; Put on Your Data Glove and Goggles and Step Right In,” New York Times, May 20, 1990, accessed 29 March 2013.

[2]Anne Friedberg,  The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, (Cambridge and London: MIT Press, 2009), 12.

[3]Lewis, “The Executive Computer.”




[7]For more on the chaotic outfall of this immaterial turn, see Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Creation of the World, or Globalization, trans François Raffoul and David Pettigrew (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007).

[8]For more on the metaphoric legacy of Alberti’s window, see Friedberg, The Virtual Window.