Metaphor Debt

There is the common concept in software called technical debt. It is the implied debt of additional work caused by choosing the easier solution rather than the better one that would take more time and resources to complete.

Just like there is technical debt, I wonder if there is also metaphor debt. Could using a easy hand-me down metaphor cause more problems in the long term than it solves in the short term?

Take computer interfaces. Brenda Laurel, a pioneer in the field, expressed the importance of metaphor in creating computer experiences. She even goes so far as to say that we could be held back by one of the metaphors that holds this field of study together *: * From Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology

What metaphors haven't been used? Maybe the interface is a barrier. I think that it is more than a technological question. You can't expect to solve a problem by building better interfaces if the whole idea of interface is based on an incomplete metaphor.

We have to remember that what we think of as an interface is built on a metaphor. Take the general definition I found in a dictionary:

a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, or phases.

This is usually associated with oil and water. It just so happens that we chose to extend the association to man's relation to machines. Now, interface design is the tinkering of that surface forming a common boundary between man and computer.

Brenda Laurel's comment makes one pause. Perhaps 'interface' is an incomplete metaphor. Perhaps it makes us think inefficiently about problems around software design and web development. Perhaps it leads us down unnecessary dead ends. What happens if we used a different metaphor?

But to call the whole thing 'metaphor debt is misleading. It is another form of technical debt. Because metaphor, like language, is a technology. Michael Nielsen labels it a 'cognitive technology'. I find his definition useful *: * “Thought as a Technology” (source)

An external artifact, designed by humans, which can be internalized, and used as a substrate for cognition. That technology is made up of many individual pieces – words and phrases, in the case of language – which become basic elements of cognition. These elements of cognition are things we can think with.

No wonder I was taught not to mix my metaphors. They are the things by which we can think, by which we can process things, by which we can live. Metaphors are powerful beyond our own comprehension.