Slides from the Society for the History of Technology meeting, Tacoma, Oct 2010

 SHOT 2010 30 September – 3 October 2010

Session Title: Networks as Places in the History of Computing

Paper: Shaping the Landscapes of Cyberspace: West Coast Metaphors

Topic: This paper discusses the contribution of nature metaphors drawn from the West Coast / Pacific North West to the computer technology and the culture surrounding it. It focuses on the experience of two key individuals:  Douglas Engelbart, inventor of many revolutionary technologies including the hyperlink and the mouse, and native of the Pacific Northwest, and Tim O’Reilly, CEO of O’Reilly Media and initiator of the concept of Web 2.0. O’Reilly emigrated from Ireland to San Francisco as a child and his technology discourse is permeated with metaphors of the Northern California landscape.

Download SHOT 2010 Thomas

Argument: In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson explain that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another”.  Since their earliest beginnings computers and cyberspace have been saturated with images of the natural world: fields, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and islands. Then the flora: apples, apricots, trees, roots, branches, and fauna – spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not forgetting the ubiquitous bug and mouse. Preliminary research for my forthcoming book Nature and Cyberspace: The Wild Surmise  has revealed interpretations of the Internet as an ocean, a solar system, a jungle, a desert, a swamp, an archipelago, a subterranean world, an estuary or, to quote novelist Bruce Sterling, a ‘bubbling primal soup full of worms and viruses.’

Evidence: Personal interviews by the author with Douglas Engelbart, Tim O’Reilly and others. Context is taken from computer documentation such as manuals, bulletin boards, online fora, websites, conference presentations, reports, books and journalism. Contextual sources include the Hacker’s Dictionary (1992); ‘The Search for an Internet Metaphor: A Comparison of Literatures’ (Palmquist,1996), and ‘A Natural History of the @ Sign’ (Herron, 1997)

Contribution to literature: The contribution of what might be called the ‘West Coast mind-set’ to the development of computers and the internet has been discussed in histories such as Markoff’s ‘What the Dormouse Said’ (2005) and Turner’s ‘From Counterculture to Cyberculture’ (2006). However most commentators have focused on its culture rather than its landscapes. But Erik Davis has written: ‘The American frontier is one of the great mythic mindscapes of the modern world. An El Dorado of literally golden opportunity, the Western territories were also a landscape of the solitary soul, virtual spaces where the American self could remake and rediscover its longed-for origins’ and the American West, says Rebecca Solnit in her biography of San Franciscan photographer Edweard Muybridge, inspired people ‘who saw themselves just starting out in a landscape of Edenic freshness and infinite resources, infinite possibility.’ This research uniquely connects those perspectives by identifying distinctive metaphors of West Coast settings in the discourses of two important figures – Engelbart and O’Reilly.


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