English 794X: The Metaphors of Computing

Winter 1999


Instructor: Neil Randall

Meetings: Wednesday, 6:00-9:00 p.m., HH259 and/or ML109


By their nature, computer interfaces are abstractions of the computer's electronic processes. Even those few users who know how to interact with the

machine on its own terms - binary notation - use the typed numbers "0" and "1" to represent these processes, and these, too, are abstractions. Operating systems and applications carry the abstractions much further, abstracting the complexities of binary and hexadecimal notation through multi-process commands such as Save, Delete, Format, Copy, and so on. Almost nothing the vast majority of users command their computers to do affects the computer directly; instead, a series of translations and transformations occurs in the machine to render the abstraction real.


To a large extent, computer operating systems, computer applications, and entire computer concepts use metaphor as a means of providing a way for people to comprehend and use these abstractions. Commands such as save, copy, move, cut, paste, launch, and open, to name just a few, are all metaphoric. Items in the graphical user interface such as the desktop, the recycle bin or the trashcan, the control panel, the folder, the scroll bar, and the window itself are metaphoric as well. And so are the notions of cyberspace, navigation, going to a site, and many other Internet-based concepts. The vast majority of computer users, in fact, experience the technology primarily through metaphor, to the degree that the technology itself is almost entirely obscured.


In this course, we will examine computer metaphors from a variety of perspectives. The textbooks offer a wide range of theoretical discussions of metaphor, and we will add to these readings a series of selections from the Web. The first seven sessions of the course will focus on theoretically driven critiques of existing computer metaphors, with the first assignment, a paper offering such a critique, due March 3. The final five sessions will work towards the re-design of existing metaphors or the creation of new metaphors, for specific computer applications, operating systems, or concepts. The second assignment, a team project, combines a brief presentation of these metaphors to the class in the final week with a paper or report offering a theoretically based justification of the design. In other words, this course combines critique and design: analysis for the purpose of making.


Note: This course assumes a working knowledge of computers and the Internet: i.e., you should have some experience working with software applications such as word processors, and with email and the Web. You are encouraged to read some mainstream computer magazines (PC Magazine, Windows, MacWorld, etc.) to familiarize yourselves with interface issues and computer discourse. But there's nothing truly tech-y about the course itself. You have to be willing to determine what a specific metaphor actually stands for - for example, computers don't really use "folders" - but only on a broad technical level. Technical information in readable form is widely available on the Web.




Ortony, Andrew ed. Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1993.


Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1996.


Turner, Mark and Gilles Fauconnier. “Blending as a Central Process of Grammar.” 1996 www.wam.umd.edu/~mturn/WWW/centralprocess.WWW/centralprocess.html




Possible Readings


Coyne, Richard. Designing Information in the Postmodern Age: From Method to Metaphor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.


Fauconnier, Gilles. Mapping in Thought and Language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1997.


Fauconner, Gilles and Eve Sweetster, eds. Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1996.


Holyoak, Keith J. and Paul Thagard. Mental Leaps: Analogy in Creative Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.


Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1987.


Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1980.


Lakoff, George and Mark Turner: More than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1989.


Mac Cormac, Earl R. A Cognitive Theory of Metaphor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985.


Online Resources (among many others)


Encyclopedia of Metaphor Research




Online Center for the Cognitive Science of Metaphor




Conceptual Metaphor Home Page




ATT-Meta Project Databank: Examples of Usage of Metaphors of Mind








Metaphor Critique – 50%, individual assignment, 2500-word essay, due March 3, 6:30 p.m., topic clearance by February 10 


This paper requires a critique of (a) the use of one specific computer metaphor, (b) a set of 2-3 related metaphors, or (c) the major metaphors of a particular interface system. An example of (a) might be an analysis of the use of the cyberspace metaphor itself, or at a much lower level, of the metaphor of the “window” in graphical interfaces. An example of (b) might be a critique of 2-3 metaphors related to “location” on the Internet. An example of (c) might be an examination of the desktop itself, of the numerous metaphors in word processing software that reflect working with paper, or of metaphoric system(s) that surround electronic communication (email, chat, etc.). Please clear your topic with the instructor before the class of February 10.


The paper must demonstrate a solid understanding of the readings in the texts. Obviously, you can’t base your argument on all the theorists, but you must demonstrate either throughout the paper itself, or through endnotes corresponding to the points you raise in your paper, how other theorists would treat your specific points of argument. You need not refer to all the theorists we study, but certainly to those whose ideas would most readily apply to your argument, either positively or negatively.



Metaphor Design – 50%, team assignment (primarily), In-class presentation on March 31, 3000-word essay or report due April 12


For this assignment, each team of three or four people will examine the metaphors for one specific operating system or software application, or metaphors that cut across two or more operating systems or software applications, and then either redesign the existing metaphors, or design a new set, for the chosen interface(s). Your design or redesign must be theoretically grounded in the readings on the course and any supplementary reading you choose to do (supplementary readings are not mandatory), but apart from that requirement there are no limits to the creativity you may apply to the project. All teams will present their design/redesign to the class on March 31.


In addition to the presentation, the team will collaborate on a 3000-word essay or report to be submitted no later than April 12. This paper must present the design/redesign and then justify it from one or more theoretical perspectives. Like the first assignment, this one requires that you demonstrate an understanding of a variety of other theories as well, again either within the text of the paper or as endnotes (or, for this assignment only, as an appendix). Note that you can submit either an essay or a report, but both types of paper require a well-demonstrated argument.


Although the report comes from the entire team, you must clearly distinguish who did what. This requirement would seem to denigrate the entire purpose of collaboration, but two justifications suggest themselves. First, rightly or wrongly, humanities disciplines rarely value collaboration, and co-authors of papers in these disciplines are frequently advised or even required to clarify which author was responsible for which parts. Second, while your instructor in this course does value collaboration, he is also aware of the potential problems arising from collaborative assignments. This requirement is his best attempt to deal with these problems without undue artificiality. Still, even with author-distinguishable components, the report is collaborative, and it must hold together as such.


Class Participation – 0%


There is no participation mark in this class. But talk anyway, okay?






Topics and Readings



Jan 06

Introduction to the course; introduction to computer metaphors (ML109)

Jan 13

Black (MT 19), Searle (MT 84)

Jan 20

Levin (MT 112), Glucksberg/Keysar (MT 401)

Jan 27

Reddy (MT 165), Lakoff (MT 202)

Feb 03

Turner (LM 3-84) – ML109

Feb 10

Turner (LM 85-115), Turner and Fauconnier (Web) – team administration

Feb 17

Winter study break – no class

Feb 24

Fraser (LM  329), Kuhn (LM 531) – ML109

Mar 03

Levin (MT 112), Pylyshyn (MT 543) - Metaphor Critique paper due

Mar 10

Ortony (MT 342), Miller (MT 357) – ML 109

Mar 17

Mayer (MT 561), Petrie/Oshlag (MT 579) – ML 109

Mar 24

TBA – ML 109

Mar 31

Team Presentations

Apr 12

Metaphor Design paper due