Why Do We Use Spatial Metaphors to Talk about the Web?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question lately. I even wrote an essay awhile back for The New Inquiry. But, honestly, none of the answers I come up seem complete. I’m posting this as a means of seeking help developing an explanation and to see if anyone knows of people who are taking on this question.

I think question is important because it relates to our “digital dualist” tendency to view the Web as separate from “real life.”

So far, I see three, potentially compatible, explanations:

1. Capitalism’s infinite need for expansion. Couching digital information in a language of space and territory, makes it easily integrated into the existing systems of property ownership and commodification. Digital information is equated to something we already know how to buy and sell: land. It provides a new target for imperialistic ambitions.

2. Simplification, comprehensibility, and individualism. Our current moment in history is defined by the overwhelming need to define oneself as a unique individual and thus free from social or other constraints that would undermine claims of distinctiveness. Nathan Jurgenson recently labeled this “The Urban Outfitters Contradiction: be unique just like everybody else!”’ In such a world, we tend to over-simplify the environment around us in order to exaggerate our own claims agency. Spatial metaphors make the Web seem like something we can (and are even destined to) master. The World Wide Web became the new Wild Wild West—the new home for rugged individualism (in the form of hackers and cyberpunks) and a new site of manifest destiny. This is reflected in early cyber-Utopian rhetoric which was all about self-empowerment.

3. Vestigial ideologies. The collective imagination was decades ahead of the empirical reality of the Web. The vocabulary we use—“cyberspace,” “virtual reality,” and “hackers” who get “sucked-in” to the computer—originated in our fantasies of what the Web might one day look like rather than as analytical terms oriented toward actually describing the world we live in. Increasingly, that reality diverges from the fantasies and ideologies that spawned this vocabulary, and we have been slow to adapt and evolve.

Thoughts?

Reach me with a comment here or @pjrey on Twitter.

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