So, Google has chosen an Earth element for its first browser. It’s a pretty name, somewhat intense to articulate, and round in the mouth, forcing an O. It’s designed to take browsers in a new direction in terms of design and function, but it also pushes towards a new kind of metaphor.
I’ve spent the summer collecting examples of nature metaphors used in the way we write and speak about cyberspace. So far I already have around 500 and I’ve hardly begun. Last week I started categorising them according to the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air and Fire and it became immediately clear that we favour watery metaphors – flow, stream, torrent, river etc – way above the other three. What makes Google’s choice of name so interesting is that its origin as a lead-based pigment breaks away from this trend and looks to the Earth for its symbolism.
Chrome 1800 – from the Greek – so named from the brilliant colour of its compounds. Chem. 1. The metal CHROMIUM. 2. The yellow pigment and colour obtained from chromate of lead; as orange, lemon. attrib. and Comb: c. alum, a double sulphate of chromium and an alkali-metal, isomorphous with common alum; c. green, (a) the sesquioxide of chromium, used as a pigment; (b) a pigment made by mixing chrome yellow with Prussian blue ; c. orange. c. red, pigments prepared from the dibasic chromate of lead; c. yellow, the neutral chromate of lead, used as a pigment. [Shorter Oxford English Dictionary]
Just for fun, what might this mean? Well, we might think about Chrome’s intention to stop the bloat that has made Firefox so sinkingly slow. Right-click on the pretty blue bar at the top of Chrome and you’ll find a link to its very own Task Manager where you can watch live as it ‘recycles’ memory between the tabs, demonstrating a dependable foothold which treats each tab as an independent entity and protects it from any flooding memory-leak from the neighbouring tab next door. For those of us floundering in the messy primeval swamp of Web 2.0 and scared stiff by the threat of a recession it’s quite comforting that in Chrome we can now be less impacted by our surroundings, that each tab can keep itself to itself.
In their well-known study
Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson say that "Many of our
activities are metaphorical in nature. The metaphorical concepts that
characterize those activities structure our present reality. New metaphors have
the power to create a new reality. This can begin to happen when we start to
comprehend our experience in terms of a metaphor, and it becomes a deeper
reality when we begin to act in terms of it."
So, what’s going to happen as we float away from Firefox and IE and plant ourselves firmly in the earthy world of Chrome? Of course, lead is a very heavy metal and, more importantly, it’s very poisonous, as those living in houses where their water flows through lead piping are all too aware. In fact, this browser name is loaded with metaphors, both good and bad. Were Google aware of that when they chose it? I’d be very surprised if they weren’t.