Centre for Trustworthy Technology

Metaphors Matter: How Language Influences Technology and Society

Metaphors

“Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.” – James Geary

Metaphors have played a remarkable role throughout human history. They offer useful shortcuts to grasp complex concepts and create powerful images of the world and its potential futures. By framing subjects, whether unintentionally or deliberately, metaphors shape our understanding andarguments. They open certain ways of thinking while closing others down.

Given their integral part in language and communication, the specific choices of metaphors deserve careful reflection. How metaphors are used matters. They are not merely linguistic tools; they are powerful instruments that can shape perceptions, influence decisions, and direct societal progress. As society navigates the age of emerging technologies, the importance of selecting appropriate metaphors becomes even more critical.

Metaphors

Building sustainable trust in technology is a crucial task that requires comprehensive understanding from all relevant key stakeholders. As humanity enters a new age of emerging technologies like AI, quantum computing, and virtual reality, clear communication about these technical concepts and their capacities becomes crucial. The scientific and technological community must explain their knowledge using clear language to empower governments, businesses, and the public to act and react appropriately.

Metaphors help people understand complex and abstract concepts by linking them to more familiar domains, and policymakers often use them when describing technologies. These metaphors shape public perception and influence policy decisions. Some examples of commonly used technology metaphors and their implications:

  • Security through obscurity:
    1. A common metaphorical phrase in cybersecurity. While security can be enhanced through secrecy, it is important to incorporate the idea of rigorous and thorough security testing into the commonly used metaphors and language.
  • The Internet:
    1. “Cyberspace as a frontier” emphasises exploration and regulation while potentially neglecting issues like privacy and security.
    2. “Information superhighway” creates an image of the Internet as a public good requiring robust infrastructure but might overlook issues of individual identity verification and data privacy.
  • The World Wide Web:
    1. Initially, this metaphor accurately represented Web 1.0 as a linked hypertext-based information system connected through the Internet.
    2. As the technology evolved to Web 2.0, the metaphor became less relevant due to its structure including various access controls and data management practices, which creates distinct, curated spaces more reminiscent of maintained gardens within a larger ecosystem.
    3. Web 3.0 promises to re-decentralise the Web, realigning it with its original intention and making the Web metaphor relevant once more.

In creating communication frameworks around AI specifically, brands increasingly use metaphors to describe the technology and its features, such as “black box,” “AI as a brain,” and “hallucinations.”

The use of metaphors may oversimplify AI’s complexities, causing people to misunderstand how the technology works. For example, comparing AI to a “brain” or a “thinking machine” can make people think it has consciousness or emotions. This oversimplification may obscure AI’s true capabilities, limitations, and misapplying it in contexts requiring human-like understanding. Using human-related metaphors anthropomorphises AI, and can affect how people interact with, and trust AI systems, sometimes leading to over-reliance or fear.

Metaphors reinforce existing biases and stereotypes. For instance, calling AI a “magic wand” obscures the biases and limitations in the data and algorithms. This creates an unrealistic belief in AI’s infallibility and overlooks the importance of addressing biases in AI systems. Anyone involved in regulating AI and other emerging technologies must understand the values these metaphor choices embody, and which policy concerns might be overlooked as a result.

Consider the metaphor of the AI “Arms Race.” At first glance, this intuitive framing conjures images of a high-stakes, competitive sprint towards global AI dominance. However, this metaphor falls short in several critical ways.

Firstly, it implies a monolithic end game for AI which oversimplifies the complex landscape of AI development. However, AI encompasses a vast array of technologies and applications, each driven by actors with diverse strengths, priorities, and values. The race metaphor fails to capture this multifaceted nature, reducing the nuanced pursuit of AI to a mere contest.

Secondly, it suggests a zero-sum game with one winner and many losers. This perspective inherently emphasizes competition over cooperation, sharing, and mutual benefits. It fosters a mindset where the focus is on outpacing rivals rather than collaborating for collective progress. This competitive framing may compel us to mimic the strategies of perceived leaders, forsaking our unique paths and innovative approaches.

Moreover, the more specific metaphor of an ‘AI arms race’ exacerbates these issues. It invokes the imagery of militarization and urgency, potentially stifling open debate and transforming investment in militarized AI from an option into a perceived necessity. This framing narrows the discourse, pushing towards aggressive advancements at the expense of ethical considerations and collaborative efforts.

In the realm of technical concepts, metaphors are indispensable—they transform abstract ideas into relatable terms, enabling people to navigate and understand complex concepts with clarity and insight. Therefore, innovators must thoughtfully and deliberately use linguistic tools when explaining technical concepts to create inclusive and comprehensive policies that empower innovation, regulation, and societal benefit.

As humanity advances into the future of emerging technologies, the chosen metaphors will play a pivotal role in shaping public understanding and policy. Let us commit to selecting metaphors that foster cooperation, encourage shared progress, and inspire a collective vision for the future. By doing so, society can harness the full potential of technology for the common good.

“Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.” – James Geary

Metaphors have played a remarkable role throughout human history. They offer useful shortcuts to grasp complex concepts and create powerful images of the world and its potential futures. By framing subjects, whether unintentionally or deliberately, metaphors shape our understanding andarguments. They open certain ways of thinking while closing others down.

Given their integral part in language and communication, the specific choices of metaphors deserve careful reflection. How metaphors are used matters. They are not merely linguistic tools; they are powerful instruments that can shape perceptions, influence decisions, and direct societal progress. As society navigates the age of emerging technologies, the importance of selecting appropriate metaphors becomes even more critical.

Metaphors

Building sustainable trust in technology is a crucial task that requires comprehensive understanding from all relevant key stakeholders. As humanity enters a new age of emerging technologies like AI, quantum computing, and virtual reality, clear communication about these technical concepts and their capacities becomes crucial. The scientific and technological community must explain their knowledge using clear language to empower governments, businesses, and the public to act and react appropriately.

Metaphors help people understand complex and abstract concepts by linking them to more familiar domains, and policymakers often use them when describing technologies. These metaphors shape public perception and influence policy decisions. Some examples of commonly used technology metaphors and their implications:

  • Security through obscurity:
    1. A common metaphorical phrase in cybersecurity. While security can be enhanced through secrecy, it is important to incorporate the idea of rigorous and thorough security testing into the commonly used metaphors and language.
  • The Internet:
    1. “Cyberspace as a frontier” emphasises exploration and regulation while potentially neglecting issues like privacy and security.
    2. “Information superhighway” creates an image of the Internet as a public good requiring robust infrastructure but might overlook issues of individual identity verification and data privacy.
  • The World Wide Web:
    1. Initially, this metaphor accurately represented Web 1.0 as a linked hypertext-based information system connected through the Internet.
    2. As the technology evolved to Web 2.0, the metaphor became less relevant due to its structure including various access controls and data management practices, which creates distinct, curated spaces more reminiscent of maintained gardens within a larger ecosystem.
    3. Web 3.0 promises to re-decentralise the Web, realigning it with its original intention and making the Web metaphor relevant once more.

In creating communication frameworks around AI specifically, brands increasingly use metaphors to describe the technology and its features, such as “black box,” “AI as a brain,” and “hallucinations.”

The use of metaphors may oversimplify AI’s complexities, causing people to misunderstand how the technology works. For example, comparing AI to a “brain” or a “thinking machine” can make people think it has consciousness or emotions. This oversimplification may obscure AI’s true capabilities, limitations, and misapplying it in contexts requiring human-like understanding. Using human-related metaphors anthropomorphises AI, and can affect how people interact with, and trust AI systems, sometimes leading to over-reliance or fear.

Metaphors reinforce existing biases and stereotypes. For instance, calling AI a “magic wand” obscures the biases and limitations in the data and algorithms. This creates an unrealistic belief in AI’s infallibility and overlooks the importance of addressing biases in AI systems. Anyone involved in regulating AI and other emerging technologies must understand the values these metaphor choices embody, and which policy concerns might be overlooked as a result.

Consider the metaphor of the AI “Arms Race.” At first glance, this intuitive framing conjures images of a high-stakes, competitive sprint towards global AI dominance. However, this metaphor falls short in several critical ways.

Firstly, it implies a monolithic end game for AI which oversimplifies the complex landscape of AI development. However, AI encompasses a vast array of technologies and applications, each driven by actors with diverse strengths, priorities, and values. The race metaphor fails to capture this multifaceted nature, reducing the nuanced pursuit of AI to a mere contest.

Secondly, it suggests a zero-sum game with one winner and many losers. This perspective inherently emphasizes competition over cooperation, sharing, and mutual benefits. It fosters a mindset where the focus is on outpacing rivals rather than collaborating for collective progress. This competitive framing may compel us to mimic the strategies of perceived leaders, forsaking our unique paths and innovative approaches.

Moreover, the more specific metaphor of an ‘AI arms race’ exacerbates these issues. It invokes the imagery of militarization and urgency, potentially stifling open debate and transforming investment in militarized AI from an option into a perceived necessity. This framing narrows the discourse, pushing towards aggressive advancements at the expense of ethical considerations and collaborative efforts.

In the realm of technical concepts, metaphors are indispensable—they transform abstract ideas into relatable terms, enabling people to navigate and understand complex concepts with clarity and insight. Therefore, innovators must thoughtfully and deliberately use linguistic tools when explaining technical concepts to create inclusive and comprehensive policies that empower innovation, regulation, and societal benefit.

As humanity advances into the future of emerging technologies, the chosen metaphors will play a pivotal role in shaping public understanding and policy. Let us commit to selecting metaphors that foster cooperation, encourage shared progress, and inspire a collective vision for the future. By doing so, society can harness the full potential of technology for the common good.

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