Architectural metaphors

Architectural metaphors make new technology intelligible to people familiar with an old technology. This computer works like a filing cabinet. This place on the internet is a page. It has two benefits that also have corresponding challenges.

First, it creates a springboard from which people can understand more challenging information about a new technology. This becomes a problem when the metaphors encoded in our tools become unfamiliar and hinder understanding rather than help it. There’s latency in our metaphors.

Second, it creates helpful constraints for designers of these systems. By making them work somewhat like an existing technology, metaphors often bring concreteness and consistency to amorphous digital experiences. This becomes a problem when it limits what our technology can achieve. Ted Nelson argues that we still have not realized the possibilities of hypertext, decades after he first proposed it, partly because we have been too constrained by the page metaphor.

Q: Follow up on that Ted Nelson paper. I think it’s “The Unfinished Revolution and Xanadu.”