As If

Essay by William Mitchell, published in "Interfacing Realities," 1997.

As If

Interfacing Realities

Take an Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to the steamy, smelly port of Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila. From there, pick up Polynesian Airlines for the hop to Upolu. You can stay at Aggie Gray's Hotel in Apia. Flag down the Lotofaga bus and ride it to Vailima in the breezy hills above the town. Here you will find the home that Robert Louis Stevenson began building for himself in 1890. He planted gardens and fruit trees, imported furniture from Scotland, and constructed a European-style fireplace to remind himself of an earlier home. And here in the Pacific paradise that he had dreamed about, he died in 1894.

Continue on, across the Mulivai Stream, to the mosquito-infested peak of Mount Vaea. There, at Stevenson's grave, read the famous words:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
It's as if Vailima had been the castle of some Scottish laird surrounded by chieftains, as if the dead poet had been a weary hunter, as if his life had been one long voyage to this spot ...


Now, let's try that again. Fire up Netscape Navigator, and click on Net Search. Select AltaVista and type in "Robert Louis Stevenson." You will get a list of Stevenson sites. One click leads you to the Home Page of the Government of Western Samoa, with a picture of the red-roofed, wide-verandahed house at Vailima. Another takes you to "A Complete Collection of Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson" - maintained by some university, somewhere. Scan down the list of titles, click on Requiem, and up comes the text:

This be the verse you grave for me ...
Once, home was where your bones were. Now it's where your bits are.

It's just a metaphor, of course - one that the author of Treasure Island would surely have appreciated. It's crushingly obvious that we don't actually travel through cyberspace (William Gibson to the contrary) but the opening screen of my copy of Netscape presents a very Stevensonesque ship's wheel and starry sky. Of course we don't move our bodies around, but we cheerfully use language that suggests we do. We don't build homes in virtual Vailimas, but we construct out home pages, collect there the texts and photographs that are important to us, and use them to present electronic facades to the world.
In a crowded, mobile, electronically linked world of commodified artifacts and places, fewer and fewer of us have the chance to do it with stones and timbers in unique, isolated, beautiful places, as Stevenson did. But there is lots of electronic real estate to populate with home pages, and we can craft these personalized corners of cyberspace with our own hands, so they have appeared in their hundreds of thousands (maybe millions by now) - the latest form of folk art. They answer to the ancient human needs to make some piece of turf one's own, and to represent oneself to others.

You don't necessarily have to do it yourself, however; if you are famous, someone else may construct an "unofficial" home page for you - an electronic shrine that celebrates your existence and presents some constructed vision of you. It becomes your house in cyberspace, complete with images an relics, just as a shrine or temple is a house for the gods. This is the frequent fate of supermodels, rock stars, movie actors, sports heroes, and A-list authors - even Robert Louis Stevenson. You can go on an AltaVista pilgrimage by typing in the name of your object of devotion, then clicking from site to site - much as more traditional pilgrims make their way to Santiago de Compostela.

As I was writing this, I went on a couple of cyber-pilgrimages myself, just to catch up on some of the latest construction work. Cindy Crawford; lot's there - mostly shrines lovingly constructed by college kids. Howard Stern; plenty there too - some people really do need to get a life. Battle Angel; amazing! Hugh Grant; a Kissing Booth, and lots more - some of it pretty scurrilous. Madonna; an AltaVista avalanche - but some terminological confusion. Virgin Mary; a great collection of Apparition Sites. I surfed into one at Bayside, Queens, New York, and found "Virgin Mary Says: Comet to hit planet Earth! Stock Market to crash! Children's plague is coming! Click here for date of coming chastisement! Please consider our Internet fund raiser!"

Somewhat taken aback, I sought solace at Santiago de Compostela; the virtual version of this ancient pilgrimage point played Jingle Bells for me, offered English and Spanish versions of itself, displayed a map of the world, and proffered the invitation: "Please click on the continent you are coming from. You will then get a list of people who are interested in coming to Santiago. These people are willing for you to contact them in order to exchange experiences or even to group with you so that you can do the trip together." Sure enough, there are long lists, with email addresses.
Then Kermit the Frog; his "96 Presidential Campaign Headquarters, and a Worship Page that turns out to be located in the Hollywood section of GeoCities. This is a site offering "free homesteads" in one of "twenty-nine themed communities" - Athens, Bourbon Street, Broadway, Cape Canaveral, Capitol Hill, College Park, Colosseum, Enchanted Forest, Heartland ... I checked out The Tropics, but didn't find Vailima.

Enough! I clicked on the "Home" button, and found myself back at my very own little Home on the CyberRange:

Home is the surfer, home from the sea ...

It's just a metaphor, of course.


Metaphors make the unfamiliar seem familiar. They allow us to apply our knowledge and experience to new situations that would otherwise baffle us. In new territory - like cyberspace - we would simply be lost without them. S11

In the early days of computer networking, for example, there were acronyms instead of metaphors; you could FTP a file from a remote location, or you could TELNET to a remote machine. This was mysterious. Unless you knew a good deal about computers, operating systems, and networks, it was hard to figure out what this was all about or what you had to do. But there was also electronic mail.

"Electronic mail" is one of those compound constructions that the English language uses to assimilate the new to the known - like "horseless carriage" for what we now know as the automobile, or "wireless telegraph" for radio. The terminology made the new technological capability seem instantly comprehensible. You addressed and sent messages. Messages that were addressed to you showed up in your "mailbox."

Stevenson would have loved it, no doubt. He was a great letter writer, and he sent off his novels in installments for serialization in magazines. He chose Samoa over other, prettier islands because it was visited by ships on the Sydney to San Francisco run, and therefore had regular, reliable mail service. Today, he'd probably look for an ISDN line and a good Internet service provider, and send his texts electronically - as I shall shortly send this one.

When point-and-click graphic interfaces came along, the electronic "mail" metaphor was elaborated in visual form. On the system that I am using right now, for instance, the messages are represented by icons shaped as tiny envelopes. When they arrive, the envelopes appear closed, but they open when you click on them to read the messages. Then you can drop them in file folders, or in the trashcan to dispose of them.

But by this point, the initially helpful metaphor has gone too far, and it is beginning to mislead. Z18 A standard electronic mail message is, in fact, much more like a postcard that is sent without an envelope. On the way from its origin to its destination, it is likely to pass through and be stored on many intermediate computers where it can potentially be read by people with access to those machines - as postal workers can read a postcard. Furthermore, the legal protections that apply to private letters generally don't extend to electronic mail. In other words, the envelope metaphor suggests far more privacy and security than actually exists. How could we fix this? An interface designer might respond simply by creating a more appropriate icon - perhaps a postcard instead of an envelope. But an innovative software designer might take a deeper view, rethink the fundamental idea of electronic mail, and produce a system that actually supplied the implied levels of privacy and security - that had more of the desirable properties of the paper-mail system.


Here we arrive at the crux of the matter. For me, it isn't terribly interesting to employ metaphors simply as packaging - as ways of presenting established computational constructs and capabilities in "friendly," marketable terms. It's important to get the packaging right, of course - to make it intuitive, and to avoid being misleading - but that's a secondary task. The more fundamental issue is how metaphors may suggest new software inventions - the very idea of electronic mail, for example, or of the spreadsheet, the World Wide Web, software agents, electronic cash, virtual places, or digital pets. The interesting metaphors are the ones that lead inventors into productive new territory. Metaphors are as important to system designers as they were to Tusitala spinning his tales of magic and adventure; at rock bottom, computer systems are just bits zipping around in circuits, but we always treat them as if they were something else. Software constructs endless interpretations, piling metaphor upon metaphor to do so. It's metaphors all the way down.

This game can go on for ever. The layers of software-encoded metaphor create a dizzy inverted pyramid that is ultimately grounded on bits and circuits - one that continually, sometimes unpredictably shifts in character as its construction evolves. These piled-up metaphors aren't just ways of understanding the digital electronic world. Their inscriptions are the very stuff from which it is made.

We make our software, then our software makes us. It's as if life imitated art.

© 1997 William Mitchell / V2_

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