Even the Interface is for Sale:
Metaphors, Visual Blends and the Hidden Ideology of the Internet

The original luster of optimism about the internet and the world wide web has begun to fade both as the technology has matured and as financial concerns about a web site's bottom line have begun to play an increasing role in the content of a web site. The internet has embarked on a transition from its origin as a conduit for global information exchange into an advertising driven commercial marketplace. In an earlier study of political speeches and news media articles about technology policy (Rohrer 1997; presented at ICLC 95), I analysed the metaphors of the internet and argued that much of the political rhetoric concerning the internet was conceptualized as an elaborate conduit metaphor where the information is goods that can travel to the user (the CYBERSPACE conceptual metaphor) or by a spatialization of time metaphor in which the internet is conceived as a transformative social program that will bring about a better future by creating jobs, stimulates the economy, etc. (US Vice-president Al Gore's CYBERFUTURE metaphor). I also investigated several other alternatives for characterizing the internet and world wide web, but concluded that they had not then captivated enough public attention to present viable opposition.

In this presentation, I explore how the internet has come to possess a hidden ideology which largely takes place in visual blends. Visual blends are visual representations of one or more conceptual metaphors which, like conceptual blends (Fauconnier and Turner 1998), prompt considerable inferential work on the part of the viewer.

I begin by arguing that the transition to a cybermarketplace constitutes a successful conceptual blend of these two metaphor systems which has effectively squelched all alternatives. I analyse the humor of a political cartoon to explain how two different metaphor systems can be recruited together into a novel visualization of a conceptual blend. In fact, parts of the cybermarketplace blend are now being built into web browsers as features like "channels," "push" technology, the "active desktop," etc. In the United States, Microsoft finds itself the target of anti-trust suits regarding allegedly monopolistic practices, including its integration of such browser technology into the operating system itself.

Further, the failure of most internet corporations to make a profit has driven the graphic designers to new heights of desperation in advertising. While the human computer interface has long shared a intimate relationship with conceptual metaphors such as the DESKTOP metaphor, I present several examples of a recent perversion of this innovation in computer design. These are visual blends in which the successful elements of the DESKTOP metaphor such as command and option buttons are now being coopted as elements of advertisements, where they serve no operating system function but instead intended to deceptively lead to an unsuspecting user to the advertiser's web site.

I conclude by arguing that the recent history of the ideology of the internet has shown that while it might be true that absolute power might corrupt one absolutely, it is even truer that modern capitalism can corrupt an metaphoric innovation even more quickly.

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