At the start of the digital era, metaphors from everyday life were used – in what was then the new computer environment – in order to make otherwise incomprehensible technology acceptable. Terms such as the digital highway and the desktop metaphor with its windows, folders, buttons and trashcans made the computer world accessible to almost everyone.
By now, of course, the digital environment is accepted almost everywhere and we see how proven concepts from the digital realm are gradually seeping into our physical environment. We call this phenomenon a ‘boomeranged metaphor’.
The delete key eraser, the pixel oven gloves, and the icon watch are amusing, somewhat anecdotic illustrations of this principle. Yet, it is not unlikely that we will be confronted with more radical boomeranged metaphors in the near future. Are the advanced ranking systems found in Internet forums perhaps also applicable to the democratic voting process? Will the young players of SimCity turn out to be the urban developers of the future? Can I select a new avatar for myself at the plastic surgeon’s office?
Metaphors enable us to use familiar physical and social experiences to understand less familiar things: meaning is produced by analogy. The boomeranged metaphors make us aware that once we spend enough time in a so-called virtual environment, it becomes so familiar to us that we start to refer to its objects and ideas in different contexts – outside the virtual realm. As the so-called ‘real’ world is increasingly understood by analogy of the so-called ‘virtual’ world, we learn that the presumed separation between the two isn’t really valid: Everything that enters our mind contributes to our experience of the world around us and through these mental concepts we understand and interact with our environment.
Undoubtedly the digital technologies that have emerged during our lifetime are well on their way of becoming just as familiar and common as light bulbs or cars, which at the time of their introduction were described metaphorically as electric candles and horseless carriages. And surely, the digital natives will in their turn be referring metaphorically to elements from the digital realm – their first nature – to familiarize themselves with the newly emerging phenomena of the future. Metaphors are lubricants of change.