A Tool Without a Handle

This is a short essay to introduce three topics I’ll be exploring in various ways, including writing, talking, and reading:

1) How metaphor powerfully shapes the beliefs we hold about the Internet - and is used by advocates seeking to shape the beliefs of others.

2) How the “cyberspace’ metaphor has outlived much of its usefulness, causes us to focus attention on the wrong things, and inaccurately describes how people use information technology.

3) How thinking of information technologies as tools responds to weaknesses in the “cyberspace” metaphor. 

At the same time, I’m conscious of the limitations the "tool" metaphor has also, in particular the unpredictability and complexity of the Net.  Hence, “tool without a handle.”

My aim is to help bring a bit more clarity to discussions about information technology and the Internet. There is no particular policy agenda involved, and my views are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.  This is just a conversation to explore what we know, what we’d like to know, and what we can connect together better in the area of technology law and policy. 

Understanding the Internet has, in a variety of scholarly analyses, been approached through the lens of metaphor.  For example, Annette Markham identified three foundational metaphors:  the Internet as Place, the Internet as Tool, and the Internet as Way of Being.1  As she and others have noted, the lens of metaphor is applied not merely to illuminate meaning, but to see how metaphor embeds certain beliefs, shuts out others, suggests policy directions, and either advances or limits mutual understanding.  What metaphors define policy debates have significant impacts on outcomes, particularly in political contexts where beliefs and reactions result from through instinctual or emotional thought processes.

To suggest some productive directions for policy and to bridge potential conflicts, I propose a new, hybrid metaphor for use in cyberlaw discussions:  a “tool without a handle.”  The phrase “a tool without a handle” is poetic; it evokes a mental image of something imperfectly formed and, literally, something unwieldy.  The essence of the thing is tool – a device that can be used to produce an item or achieve a task.2  The thing, however, lacks a basic feature that enables full control over its capabilities.

Conceiving of the Internet (and related communications technologies) as tools recognizes their essential nature:  something used by physical, embodied beings, exercising will and intention.   As Julie Cohen’s book Configuring the Networked Self  describes so eloquently, modern insights recognize that the only route humans have to apprehending reality is through our bodies.  Human beings turn on their connected devices, manipulate them to create, distribute, or access data using any number of services or software.  The purposes for doing so may be artistic, financial, social, or commercial but regardless those purposes aim at producing items, achieving tasks or results.   

The fact that human beings do so in a fashion that involves shared resources, or that social tasks are quite common on the agenda, does not change the fact these goals are achieved by use of a tool.  The tool does change our experience, including our experience of physical space - which is no longer the barrier to information or commerce it once was.  But by focusing on the fact that living, breathing human beings ultimately control the Internet’s various endpoints – both as consumers and producers –the way we think about the Internet is changed, and changed for the better.

The metaphor of “cyberspace,” in contrast, connotes an Internet which is “a place you go.”  And given the electronic and digital nature of the landscape, the only way to get “there” is as a disembodied being.  “Cyberspace” is a metaphor for a virtual world, one occupied only by minds.  In this metaphor, physical interactions with technology, including even the basic functions of typing and clicking, are ignored to highlight a “consensual hallucination”3 - data bits intersecting with remote servers at the speed of light.

The “cyberspace” metaphor, in all its shortcomings, still plays a fundamental role in thinking about technology.  In part this is because, as embodied beings, we orient ourselves with spatial concepts:  to access a website is to ‘visit’ or be ‘on’ a website.  And in part this is because ‘cyberspace’ is core to the way the Internet’s popular identity was formed, and how that identity informed early Internet policy.  

Images of “pioneers” setting out on an electronic frontier - or an “information highway” - nested well in the early 1990s Clinton/Gore agenda to position a new Democratic administration as both innovative and centrist. The image of Internet service providers as “mere conduits” to this space was, in turn, key to forming a political consensus for legal provisions protecting such intermediaries from liability for the content sent or received by others, and freeing them from broadcast-style content regulation.

While these legal provisions continue to make sense, the situation of the Internet has changed considerably in 20 years.  It has grown to become essential infrastructure for connecting families, performing school or work assignments, shopping and trading, and participating in civic and political life.  The availability, reliability and openness of the Internet are now matters of public safety, foreign affairs, international trade, and cultural development.

Additionally, the explosion of networked information technologies into this role has brought with it clouds of personal information, being exchanged in novel and interesting ways; often with consumer benefits, but in ways that are often invisible to users or complex to understand.  With accelerations in social networking, online advertising and behind-the-scenes data brokering, a number of commentators have critiqued traditional approaches such as written privacy notices,4 or even the fundamental viability of notice and consent as an allowable basis for personal data exchange.5 

Whether technology and services enable effective, intuitive control by users – in ways that users can (and will) readily understand and use – is an important question.  I don’t think privacy notices or notice and choice concepts are going away, but these sorts of concerns – essentially concerns about the “handlessness” of networked information tools - are a reason to pay attention.  In response, I suggest three areas of action

1) We must collectively work to change how we think about information technology and the Internet – shifting from metaphors of “cyberspace” (a place you go) to metaphors that frame these technologies as “tools you use.”

2) We should continue to explore and encourage forms of interaction with technology rooted in the physically embodied nature of human beings.  Capabilities such as natural user interfaces, visceral privacy notices, visual and audible indicators and other innovations, may help re-align the natural capacities of human beings with how they experience information technology.

3) We should take steps to reduce the unpredictability of information technology for an average consumer, being careful not to erode the technology’s malleability, interfere with its capacity for a variety of uses (including political and cultural uses), or undermine the business models that allow services that are “free” to the consumer and add value for businesses of all sizes. 

Innovation can and should change how technology works over time, and this will inevitably create some surprises.  Some changes may be uncomfortable at first but accepted over time.  In other cases, business models may run into boundaries of human preferences and require adjustment. 

In other words, it is simplistic to argue that it is either Internet businesses or that it is consumers who must adapt.  Innovation thrives on exchange between consumers and producers – something networked information technologies enable.  Indeed, these technologies enable uses that blur boundaries between consumers and producers.  It seems a bit off to praise “innovation,” yet be unwilling to change a business model that isn’t sustainable given consumer behavior.

At the same time, all this dynamism should integrate with reliability.  A consumer should not have to guess what will happen every time she logs on.  Technology should be intuitive to use in order to accomplish a particular task.  Creating reliability and intuitive interfaces, too, is a challenge for consumers and producers alike. 

Focusing on ‘cyberspace’ as landscape – something one moves through rather than something one manipulates – is likely to slow progress on innovation and reliability goals.  Simply put, focusing on the model of technology as tools is a better way to build better tools.


[1] Annette Markham, “Metaphors Reflecting and Shaping the Reality of the Internet: Tool, Place, Way of Being,” http://markham.internetinquiry.org/writing/MarkhamTPW.pdf (2003).  Raymond Gozzi refers to these as “master metaphors,” which spawn other, related metaphors, such as “on ramps” to an “information superhighway.” Raymond Gozzi, “The Cyberspace Metaphor” (1994), p. 218-223.


[3] Burning Chrome, William Gibson; see http://www.antonraubenweiss.com/gibson/sprawlgloss.html

[4]See, e.g., http://lorrie.cranor.org/pubs/readingPolicyCost-authorDraft.pdf

[5]See  http://cyber.jotwell.com/the-end-of-notice-and-consent-as-meaningful-privacy-protection/



Photo Credit: Library of Congress


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