On the misleading metaphors of the information age

By Hans Schnitzler


Perhaps the most apt definition of privacy comes from the Dutch artist and Internet critic Tijmen Schep: “privacy is the right to be imperfect,” he argues. This view of privacy is at odds with an ideology also known as computationalism. This is a philosophy of life that reduces the human mind to an information-generating machine, that sees a data problem in every social problem and that has replaced the belief in higher values with a belief in mathematical values.


With this bits and bytes approach to reality, one chases absolute control and predictability of everyday existence. In his book New Dark Age, James Bridle, a computer scientist, characterizes computationalism as a ‘cognitive hack’: decision-making processes and responsibility are transferred to machines, automated thinking – i.e., computation – replaces conscious thought, with the ultimate result that we increasingly act like ‘perfect’ machines. At least, that is the suggestion.


According to Bridle, computational thinking has now penetrated into the smallest capillaries of daily life. And indeed: in order to optimize daily life, the art of peeping has risen to unprecedented heights. All kinds of digital surveillance – from individual track and trace applications to the prying eyes of the tax authorities – have nestled themselves in the fabric of society. But the denser the system of data pipelines, the greater the chance of leakage or sabotage.


Even more important is the blind spot underlying computational thinking: the dominant technology of our time (information technology) is used as the paradigm for the basic structure of reality as a whole. For this matter, history has an important lesson to teach us. Think about it: it is of course no coincidence that the most important technologies of the Antiques (their water works) led them to understand the functioning of man in terms of bodily fluids. Nor is it a coincidence that at the time of the Renaissance, when clockwork and timepieces became widespread, people began to compare the essence of man with the workings of an ‘artful and ingenious cog’.


“After all, who buys a stupid refrigerator or decides to move to a stupid house or stupid city?”


‘The explanatory metaphors of a given epoch incorporate the devices and spectacles of the day and reflect, probably in more subtle ways, the predominant social forms and everyday practices,’ observes computer scientist John G. Daugman in his treatise ‘Brian Metaphor and Brain Theory.’ In this, Daugman criticizes the frequent use of computer metaphors in the neuro and cognitive sciences and even dismisses them as a band­wagon effect. That is, a fallacy caused by the enthusiasm with which a majority runs after an idea or innovation.
The metaphors may be patient, but their effect is real. This is especially true for those of the information age, simply because their metaphorical application, their actual reach, is through technologies that are more comprehensive, intimate and invasive than ever before. The creation of the Internet of Things, a world in which all objects and subjects are connected by invisible data wires and are therefore crowned ‘smart’, is the result of an industry that has successfully deployed the metaphorical use of the word ‘smart’. After all, who buys a stupid refrigerator or decides to move to a stupid house or stupid city?


However, anyone who takes note of the history of technology, and the misleading role that metaphors play in it, cannot rule out the possibility that this semantic success will eventually prove to be one of the most influential misfires of technoscientific discourse. ‘Smart’ systems may well generate a certain kind of (selective) knowledge or facts, a certain kind of knowing, but that is of an entirely different order than the task of making sense of something or giving meaning to something. That task requires effort, is precarious and more often ends without ready-made or perfect answers.
It seems to me that there is every reason to replace predicates such as ‘smart’ or ‘intelligent’ with less ambiguous terms. Instead of a ‘smart city’ it would be better to speak of a ‘pre-programmed city’, and for the term ‘artificial intelligence’ it seems to me that ‘machine comprehension’ would be more appropriate.


There is much to be done to sober the machine discourse; demythologizing the smart device universe is perhaps the most appropriate route to greater understanding, and thus ultimately to greater grasp.


About the author
Hans Schnitzler is philosopher, author, columnist and speaker. He is the author of ‘Het digitale proletariaat’ (2015) & ‘Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding’ (2017) at De Bezige Bij, columnist for Follow the Money, former columnist at de Volkskrant. His essays and columns are published in NRC, NRCNext, Trouw and more.