Notes on Metaphor and the Figures of/on the Internet

For this blog post, I introduce a couple of key concepts (remediation, “user,” and metaphor) to start gesturing towards the actually complex role that metaphors play in the digital realm and in constructing our understanding of how digital and internet technologies actually work. This blog post was inspired by a lecture I gave to my students regarding the complexity of metaphor, and its capacity to hide as much as it reveals. A lot of what follows is contained or currently being reworked to fit into my dissertation (so please cite me if applicable!).

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin define “remediation” as a double logic of “immediacy” and “hypermediacy”: “Our culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation: ideally, it wants to erase its media in the very act of multiplying them.” The authors argue immediacy is co-constitutive with hypermediacy, the latter referring to the experience of media which foreground their form as mediating entities. Immediacy refers to the experience of a medium effacing itself as mediating frame: “immediacy dictates that the medium itself should disappear and leave us in the presence of the thing represented” (Bolter and Grusin, 6) The simulated presence of an object immediately is a representation: not the material presence of the object, but an (im)material presence of a thing representing a referent. A drawing by hand of a leaf is not a leaf, but a representation of a leaf with a presence that evokes the absence of a “real” leaf, perhaps further associating with a specific leaf drawn, and with leaves as a concept, alternately or simultaneously. A drawing of a leaf may be hypermediate where its inscription (drawn-ness) is emphasized (or not, for instance, through a gestalt image, where the absent lines would be emphasized by other, present markings); it may also be immediate, if its representation is illustrated with details in a photorealistic style, for instance. A photograph of a leaf, again, is not the leaf but its remediation, or re-representation, through a separate media, one that literally writes with light; even its pronunciation would be a sonic re-representation, of which intonations and emphasis stretch its syllables to produce iterative meanings, neither old (originary) or new (corrupted), but an indiscernible entanglement of the two. The “contradictory imperatives” for this double logic of remediation did not begin with the introduction of new media, and concerns more than the the digital: 

Digital  visual  media  can  best  be  understood  through  the ways  in which they honor, rival, and revise linear-perspective painting, photography, film, television, and print. No medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer the challenges of  new  media (15).

Similarly, the word “leaf” is a graphical representation; in “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense” (1873), Friedrich Nietzsche argues that “we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities” and that concepts, or repeated and sedimented metaphors, arise “from the equation of unequal things” (5). He describes how the concept of a leaf cannot possibly contain all possible iterations of leaves; a concept is thus formed “by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects.” A word, in Nietzsche’s estimation, must be specific enough to designate an actuality or entity, but vague enough that it can be recycled to designate something similar but not identical. The incommensurability of referents is obscured by notions like the denotation of a word, which arbitrarily hierarchizes definitions of words into primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on. Indeed, these definitional categories imply some kind of “original model” — some primordial form, for instance, of the leaf from which all other leaves are “woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted,” yet only by “incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model.” To encounter a “real” leaf immediately is to also be informed, of uneven degrees, by the hypermediate representations of leaves within language, culture, and history that the perceiver has encountered — such that aesthetic perception of the real leaf is not “purely” immediate, but instead filtered through the cognition required to understand that what one supposedly is perceiving is a leaf in its presence (6).

One of the main things I wanted to explore in this blog post is specifically how metaphors “mean” in multiple directions, or that metaphors do not always have one specific meaning. Put another way, they are not identities, or identical (“x=x”). Identicality would mean the term’s definition is sufficient for explaining it (defined as itself, through tautological reasoning). However, we make recourse to metaphors specifically because terms are not always enough to communicate intended meaning without associating them to other concepts (and, as we’ve discussed in class, identity itself is much trickier than we might think at first glance). Metaphors are expressed through the verb “to be” — through variations of “is” — to associate syntactically two different, non-identical terms (“x” and “y”).

Think of this example: “He is a lion.” When you see this metaphor, the reading that occurs involves taking what you know about “him” and what you know about “lions” and attempting to find, based on the context provided in the sentence, what about him is a lion. Is it that he is brave? He is loyal? He is ferocious, unforgiving, patriarchal? Which lion does this metaphor refer to? Not all lions are the same, but the metaphor functions to condense all of that difference into “lion” which carries now many more meanings than itself could contain. Let’s also think about representation. Metaphors “represent” a thing by associating it with a different thing. Whether a word spoken or written, a photograph or image, or drawing, or sculpture, the simulated presence of an object immediately is a representation: not *the* material presence of the object, but an immaterial presence of a thing now representing a referent. Metaphors are figurative devices; they are creative representations. The word “leaf” is itself a graphical representation where letters are placed in a certain order to communicate, or refer to, a referent. Again, Nietzsche argues that “we possess nothing but metaphors for things — metaphors which correspond in no way to to the original entities.” 

Neither is “reality” as we understand it independent of how we talk about it and try to make sense of it through language. To encounter a “real” leaf immediately is also to be informed, of uneven degree, by the representations of leaves within language, culture, and history — such that even experiencing a real life is mediated by all the metaphors and concepts the viewer of the leaf knows about the leaf, making “immediate perception” of a thing impossible. 

Said another way, people oftentimes hear about something or see something through representation, or metaphor, first, and then again, in reality. It’s an ambivalent process — a bit of a “chicken and egg, which came first” situation. Does our experience of the thing in reality inform our concepts, or do those concepts impact our experience of the real thing? I would argue it’s both! So, if as Nietzsche says, metaphors must oscillate between specificity and vagueness, and if it is true that concepts are themselves — uneven, heterogenous, ambivalent — both metaphors and realities, then we can begin to understand how metaphors “mean” in many directions, sometimes in directions that are further from actual reality and based entirely in metaphor and how language has conditioned us to view a particular concept, term, etc.

How might we rethink, for instance, the metaphor of the “internet user,” for instance, in the midst of Nietzsche’s complications? A user, or end-user, is “simply any computer user.” To define the user requires defining the machine. Though its etymological origins are unclear and circumspect, some users suggest it was early computer “user groups” who popularized the term. These user groups were composed of customers who had purchased and were using equipment from producers such as International Business Machines (IBM) or the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In a question about the unclear origins of the term “computer user” on this Stack Exchange post*, one responder says: 

User simply coins what is it about, the generic usage of something – differentiating it from any other role. And let’s be honest, a computer is such a generic device, that it’s [sic] use can be manyfold – from typist to gamer and accountant to engineer. So any more specific name would miss out other practices . . . So tell me how a manual for a memory board should address its user? There is no way they know what the board will be used for . . . User is simply a colloquial term unspecific enough to cover everyone in front of a device made for anything.

Here we have an admission that user is broad enough to mean many things, yet specific enough to somehow indicate the encounter between human and machine. Conceptualization of the term user, as the response above suggests, has happened “insofar as [a word] simultaneously has to fit countless more or less similar cases — which means, purely and simply, cases which are never equal and thus altogether unequal.”[4]

A lot of technology (e.g. algorithms, cloud-based data storage centers, fiber optic cables, pixels, binary code, glitches, malware, Oracle Turing Machines, etc.) seems magical. In many ways, it absolutely is in the sense that users and engineers at times may not know how certain technology works or how certain outputs were reached from certain inputs (i.e. “black-box” technology); but also in the sense that it is made to seem magical, and find that magic through figurative devices. Obscured in technical jargon, on the end of a stick, over a perilous gulf of legalese a la terms and conditions to accept, accept, accept. That is to say, metaphors are frequently used to explain how things online work. Nietzsche writes that we “obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual.”[5]

The question of metaphor and the internet has been already explicitly explored. Let us explore again, to look to the material consequences of seemingly abstract and immaterial metaphors. Jim Thatcher, David O’Sullivan, and Dillon Mahmoudi argue that “the quantification and surveillance of the lifeworld, of lived experience, as a natural, desired outcome of modern life” has a “teleological nature.” This telos (i.e. a transcendental, fated purpose; an ultimate end) is exemplified in “the common metaphor of big data — and the ‘digital’ in general — as new frontiers to be explored, expanded, and conquered.”[6] Essentially, the way we talk about “big data” imagines it to be in “its most lurid and utopic forms … the ‘next frontier for innovation, competition, and productivity.’” These metaphors figure big data as a colonialist enterprise, and as an exploitable natural resource akin to indigenous land, and so, the authors argue, we ought to frame our discussions about data through the new metaphor of “data colonialism.” The aforementioned frontier metaphor used to describe the Internet — and its associated notions of democracy and freedom — imply that the absence of access to the internet frontier is associated with non-freedom. Indeed, this frontier metaphor resuscitates the West/East binary in comparative depictions of the West’s alleged internet freedoms against China’s alleged regulations — and, further, obscure the ways in which the West’s Internet is heavily regulated and influenced by market forces, is not accessible by everyone in the West whether due to a lack of digital literacy, technology, bandwidth, or simply time, and is not a place of decentralized freedoms which are evoked by these frontier metaphors. 

Indeed, the ubiquity of anti-China narratives circulate across and through Western digital media channels, Western-based corporate news editorials, white papers from think-tanks, and user-generated digital travel guides. For a brief glimpse at some examples, see: Wikipedia entries for “Internet censorship in China” and “Internet in China”; Politico’s “China tightens political control of internet giants”; The Guardian’s “The great firewall of China: Xi Jinping’s internet shutdown”; the Los Angeles Times’s “The Chinese and non-Chinese internet are two worlds”; Freedom House’s white paper on “profoundly oppressive” Internet conditions in China; and, this guide to surfing the net while traveling in China. In these itinerant narratives, China’s internet censorship alone is figured as authoritarian. China’s regulations is read and written as a limit which is politically and strategically taken to mean or imply non-freedoms. Arguing against the Orient as “essentially an idea, or a creation with no corresponding reality,” Edward Said discusses Orientalism as a set of material investments in ideas of “the Orient,” and a series of discourses, figures, and narratives which do not necessarily (accurately) represent the “real” but shape it nonetheless:

. . . as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West. The two geographical entities thus support and to an extent reflect each other . . . Orientalism, therefore, is not an airy European fantasy about the Orient but a created body of theory and practice in which, for many generations, there has been a considerable material investment (Said, 5).

This complicated imbrication of “obviously” neutral metaphors have been purposively rendered ahistorical and their associations with colonialism and the tropes of Orientalism are obscured — in a way that conversely attempts to explain or represent reality. The point is that how we talk about the Internet matters, as these internet metaphors do not completely or totally represent material realities — and cannot, as I will argue in this chapter. These metaphors carry acrossmeanings as unevenly distributed repositories of truths and falsities irrevocably intertwined, and yet disambiguous reading practices demand singular meaning from interpretation, or the “real” or “pure” meaning, whether associated with its originary or most used iterations. In a critique of Thatcher et al, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias argue that the unprecedented scale of “data colonialism” only makes sense if intentionally framed “from the Global South.”[1] They argue most analyses focus on how information technologies and social relations-based mechanisms enable appropriation, exploitation, and surveillance — processes conceptualized as “data relations,” or the process through which the “capture and processing of social data unfolds” and ensures the “‘natural’ conversion of daily life into a data stream” (336). Curiously, Couldry and Mejias emphasize the new-ness of data colonialism as an unprecedented project. They argue these data relations result in a “new social order” defined by “new opportunities for social discrimination and behavioral influence.” They also call this ordering a “new form of data colonialism,” arguing “it paves the way for a new stage of capitalism.” The implicit Marxist insistence on the inevitability of a new kind of capitalism — of historical revolution — is seemingly at odds with their insistence that this is precisely not what they are doing: “Our use of Marx here is not unorthodox Marxism” (342). They further expand the scale and impact of data colonialism as implicating everyone: 

Understanding Big Data from the Global South means understanding capitalism’s current dependence on this new type of appropriation that works at every point in space where people or things are attached to today’s infrastructures of connection . . . Just as historical colonialism over the long-run provided the essential preconditions for the emergence of industrial capitalism, so over time, we can expect that data colonialism will provide the preconditions for a new stage of capitalism that as yet we can barely imagine, but for which the appropriation of human life through data will be central. Right now, the priority is not to speculate about that eventual stage
of capitalism, but to resist the data colonialism that is under way. This is how we understand Big Data from the South (337).

Couldry and Mejias attempt to distinguish their vision of data colonialism from “historical colonialism” by simply defining the latter as “the decimation of millions of native lives and the depletion of vast amounts of natural resources, all for the enrichment of a few,” happening from the “sixteenth to the twentieth century” (339). Colonialism, arguably, has always involved elements of surveillance and the monitoring, accounting, assessment, and tracking of data, about people made commodities, but the authors make no further distinctions between kinds of historical colonialism — nor do they account for how:

Assigning numerical or financial value to Black life, transforming experience into information or data, is nothing new. Rather, it is caught up with the history of enslavement and the racist regimes that sought to justify its barbarities. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries more than twelve and a half million Africans were transported to the New World. Two million, and likely many more, died during the Middle Passage alone. A typical slave ship could carry more than 300 slaves, arranged like sardines, and the sick and the dead would be thrown overboard, their loss claimed for insurance money (McGlotten).

With no local particularities or examples of successful interruptions, readers are left unclear on how to “resist the data colonialism that is under way” beyond deploying the authors’ metaphor of data colonialism. In their framing, this is a story of the people everywhere versus corporations, undermining the role of complicity, coercion, and the complex, seductive intimacies between different people and how they use digital technology to separate and similar ends. In their formula, people are exploited and corporations benefit. When gestures to a kind of “internet studies” are made, it is usually to understand merely how a non-digital object translates online and not one that considers the emergent forms on the internet as new things to read and new things to learn how to read. However, these actions online are used to compose a portfolio on internet users, collecting and archiving their internet behaviors, searches, and, in some cases, what your eyes are looking at on the screen. Google search results are a curation contingent on what the machine “knows” about the user and what they are likely to click on based on geolocation, cookies, past searches while surfing the web (the metaphors could go on and on and on and . . .). Meaning the digital may be composed of more of the same — but that sameness is not distributed evenly nor is it read the same way everywhere — not in the global, universal way Google’s stories about its algorithms present as possible. To assume the digital is more of thesame in a way that warrants no attention, however, is to assume the internet is monolithic and that everyone uses it and reads it the same way. This insularity assumes the uneven and unequal access to technology and the dynamic repurposing of digital technologies by users to be enfolded into the academic arena — and the attendant shifts and turns that “literature” takes on — are not concepts worth noticing. As Lukas Sculz writes, “To ignore the context of one’s research means to follow utopian imaginations of the Internet as a deterritorialized cyberspace, which only obscures rather than explains the social role of the Internet.”


T. Allen Tennant is a doctoral candidate at Emory University studying reading, writing, queerness, metaphors, and the Internet.

*Note: The latter’s user group was called the Digital Equipment Computer Users’ Society (DECUS); IBM’s user group was named Guidance for Users of Integrated Data Processing Equipment (GUIDE). See: Thomas Haigh, “How Data Got Its Base: Information Storage Software in the 1950s and 1960s.” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing (2009).  Access via:Why were computer customers called ‘Users’?” Stack Exchange (2019).


Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. “Introduction: The Double Logic of Remediation,” in Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999)

Couldry, Nick and Ulises A. Mejias. “Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject,” Television & New Media 20, no. 4 (2019): 337. 

Ko, Andrew J.; Abraham, Robin; Beckwith, Laura; Blackwell, Alan; Burnett, Margaret; Erwig, Martin; Scaffidi, Chris; Lawrance, Joseph; Lieberman, Henry; Myers, Brad; Rosson, Mary Beth; Rothermel, Gregg; Shaw, Mary; Wiedenbeck, Susan (April 2011). “The State of the Art in End-User Software Engineering”, ACM Computing Surveys 43 no. 3: 4.

McGlotten, Shakka. “Black Data,”

Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense,” 1873

Said, Edward. Orientalism.

Sculz, Lukas. “The Geography of LGBTQ Internet Studies,” International Journal of Communication 8 (2014): 2929.

Thatcher, Jim, David O’Sullivan, Dillon Mahmoudi. “Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data,” in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34, no. 6 (2016): 991–992.