Murmurings On Our Modern Metaphors

When I think of modern computing and communications, it is difficult to escape certain metaphors. Alan Kay’s desktop and Ericsson’s smartphone dominate this space of analogy.


Why these metaphors exist is a history lesson for another post. That they exist is of more import for this small stream of consciousness. All communication is analogy. In order to share an idea, it has to be communicated in a way that resonates symbolically with those being communicated to. Modern computer software evolved from business and academic worlds where desktops were a common symbol. Smartphones evolve in a similar scope, with that notion of “phone” being a more apt symbol for communication device.


However, modern computing stopped being an exclusive domain of corporations around that same time phones began being less about voice communications. Actual mobile phones sans “smarts” represented social economic status in that same way that pagers/beepers did. While desktop computers, arguably even laptop computers prior to early 2000s, lacked a certain commercial sex appeal and “street credibility”, their main selling point, a graphic user interface based on office desktop metaphors, was still a more common parlance for devices, ironically. When Steve Jobs introduced Apple’s iPhone, it was not a digital replica of an alphanumeric touchpad he showed, but another analogy for a desktop. So why call it a phone when its least common practical functionality was a phone of any sort?


I could speculate a number of factors, but I am more privy to what was occurring in public space when we started calling personal computers “phones”. Around that time, flip phones, a design inspired by Star Trek’s communicators, had reached fever pitch in popularity with Motorola’s Razr. Hip hop stars, and their underworld counterparts, would impress their consumer/fan base with two-way pagers. It would seem to me, even if Jobs was not as aware of popular consumer trends as his legend suggests, that his iPhone was just that right evolution of that metaphor despite it not being a phone at all. People simply associate small communication devices as “phones” regardless of a form factor and percentage of software space that was more computer than actual phone.


What is important is not what actually is, but how a majority of people will be able to associate in their minds.