Anyone who knows me very well knows that I think a lot about metaphors. It’s important to me, when communicating an idea, to find an apt metaphor. Metaphors, as George Lakoff argues, create systems and help structure our interpretation of the world around us. An apt metaphor, in my mind, helps translate an idea in my head into something someone outside my head can understand, and shapes my interlocutor’s perception of that idea.

This implies that a poorly chosen or ill constructed metaphors can also disrupt understanding. Moreover, if two different people deploy metaphors that are incompatible or conflict with one another, it can be difficult to find common ground.

I think about this a lot. My day job often involves trying to translate digital technology and its possibilities to folks who are, well, typically thinking about other things. In my role, I’m responsible for understanding “digital”; they’re not. So, it’s on me to help them understand my world, just as they try to help me understand the real concerns that they have. They have a problem, and they know that technology can help them, but they’re not sure how. I have to help explain that.

One of the areas where this creates friction is around the metaphor we use.

I find that in many cases people who are not as digitally savvy will fall back on very concrete, even spatial metaphors. In their heads, a website is a place. They have information, and their concern is that it’s put in the right place. The understand data and information in very physical terms. They want to know where something goes and why.

People who spend a lot of time working in or on digital environments, though, understand things differently. There’s a fundamental difference between working with atoms (physical objects) and working with bytes. As Nicholas Negroponte put it way back in the 1990s, “In the world of atoms, physical limits preclude having both breadth and depth in the same volume—unless it’s a book that’s a mile thick. In the digital world, the depth/breadth problem disappears and we can expect readers and authors to move more freely between generalities and specifics.”

Not only that, but information is no longer something the user has to go out and collect; rather, it can come to the user right when they need it. I remember back in the early days of the world wide web, the spatial metaphor maybe made a bit more sense. Back then (and I’m dating myself), before things like Wordpress and other content management systems were mainstream software, it was more labour intensive to make information really portable. I remember hand-coding a “blog” before “blog” was a word in my lexicon, adding each post in reverse chronological order manually. Today, though, you can draft your content, put some metadata on it, and syndicate it out—or have it syndicated for you—across all kinds of channels. The content can be quite far removed from the form.

Digital content designers understand this; they can no longer make assumptions about the format their words will appear in. It might come to a user on a webpage, but that page might be rendered on a wide variety of screens. Portions of it might appear at the top of a Google search results page. It might be communicated via a chatbot, or pronounced by a virtual assistant.

But if you’re someone whose metaphors for things like websites are based on physical objects—paper, boxes, atoms of any sort—this can be really hard to grasp. It’s not easy to cast aside old metaphors. Digital technologies have upended a lot of the metaphors that people use to understand the world. These are deep-seated ideas. And it’s a lot easier understand a metaphor that is concrete, that you can touch, feel, and picture in your mind’s eye. And when you’re someone whose work involves building bridges between “digital” and “non-digital,” or “the business,” or whatever you want to call it, it’s important to understand that, and be empathetic toward it.