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Transcoding the digital : how metaphors matter in new media

By M.V.T. van den Boomen

Abstract

This study traces the role of metaphors in digital praxis. Digital praxis refers to a more or less coherent set of everyday practices – acts, habits, routines – that involve the manipulation, modification, and construction of digital-symbolical objects. Examples of these digital-symbolical objects are mundane things as mailbox, menu, and file, but also more complicated assemblages such as Windows, Facebook profiles, search engines, and online communities. Digital-symbolical objects form an onto-epistemological riddle since they are neither pure objects, nor pure symbolic forms, nor pure digital patterns or numbers. They are hybrids of computation, algorithms, and language: artifacts cut out of arbitrarily assigned numbers, processed by machines and humans, represented, symbolized, ontologized, and incorporated in social texture. The riddle, then, is: how do such composites of computer code and cultural code come about and get stabilized? And how do metaphors contribute to (or perhaps counter) these processes? In order to analyze the constitutive role of metaphors this investigation draws upon contemporary metaphor theory (Lakoff 1987; 1993; Lakoff and Johnson 1980), combined with insights from actor-network theory, new media studies, and material semiotics. From actor-network theory the notion of translation is mobilized in order to trace the heterogeneous actors that get aligned into stable ontologies (Callon 1986; Latour 2005; Law 2009), from new media studies the notion of transcoding in order to take computer code, software, explicitly on board (Manovich 2001), and from material semiotics the concept of material metaphor in order to account for the object-like properties of digital entities (Ray 1987; Hayles 2002). The leading research questions are: 1. Which digital-material transcodings and material-semiotic translations can be traced if we follow metaphors as actors? 2. How do such transcodings and translations get fixated into stable taken-for-granted entities and naturalized matters of facts? 3. Which further translations are attached to the transcoding labor of metaphors; which ideologies, narratives and discourses are enabled and sustained, which are suppressed and excluded? The analyses discuss conceptual metaphors that render the interface comprehensible (such as mailbox, page, hyperlink), discourse metaphors that organize popular and academic discourses (media as a window, mirror, container or channel, the Internet as electronic highway vs. cyberspace, software as thing or language), and material metaphors, which are objectified and materialized into software design (virtual community, Web 2.0, social networks). As it turns out, metaphors largely determine our access and interaction with new media and ICT. They not only format how we conceive what is possible and impossible with our computers, they also affect speech, discourse, and action in a wider context. As such they shape and direct public debates, academic discourses, technological innovations, and ideological subject positions. Saliently, the most dominant metaphors do so usually by making the medium, software, and networks invisible, that is, by obscuring and ignoring their materiality. A meticulous analysis in terms of digital-material metaphors can bring this back into the picture, by employing a methodology of what can be called analytical reverse engineering, or hacking metaphors

Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures
Year: 2014
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Provided by: NARCIS
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