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March 8, 2001

Metaphors are way to communicate about technology, lecturer suggests

In round numbers, John Gage said, humans have been communicating orally for 60,000 years; writing things down for 6,000 years; producing mass printing for 600; sending messages over distances via telegraph for 160; using computers for 50; communicating via the Internet for 30; using the Java computer language for 4 years, and creating multiform network objects (World Wide Web-based symbol systems) for 2.

Things are moving so fast that 20-year-olds are scratching their heads at what 13-year-olds can do, said Gage, who is chief researcher and director of the science office at Sun Microsystems.

Gage delivered the inaugural lecture of the Sara Fine Institute for Interpersonal Behavior and Technology March 1.

Pitt's School of Information Sciences (SIS) established the institute in 2000 to provide a forum for scholars and professionals to address issues relating to human aspects of an increasingly technological society, commonly called the human/machine interface.

The institute is named for SIS professor emerita Sara Fine who believed that problems engendered by technological change merit study at the university level.

Gage's lecture, "The Future of Technology and Humanity: It's Not What It Used to Be," was co-sponsored by the Pittsburgh Technology Council.

"When we talk about interpersonal behavior and technology, we don't think of computers, these cold things, in the same context as human communication. Java, for example, is a computer language using fixed meanings with narrow definitions.

"Contrast that with the way we communicate. Human communication is complex, empathetic and intricate. When I talk, I gesture, I look out at the room. Even in a large lecture hall, I can see you 50 feet away. I can perceive who is awake, who is paying attention.

"Machines don't do that very well."

On the other hand, as Gage's timeline indicates, technology can augment, even alter, human communication forms.

In the context of technology, Gage said, there needs to be a new definition of literacy. "It's not just reading and writing; but it is instinct for metaphor that exists within us. You cannot have civilization without it.

"I see you, I talk to you, you talk to me. I have a 'passing theory' of what you say; but we do not necessarily share a convergence. If I'm on a desert island and ask for a cup of water and instead I get a cocoanut, that's close, but only a passing theory."

So how do humans communicate about technology? We need metaphors that capture what we're doing, Gage said. "Words and sentences that say: 'This is a that.' New metaphors create objects; new objects create new industries; new industries create new economics."

To illustrate his point, Gage used a litany of metaphors describing what a computer is; many of these metaphors were the inspiration for today's technological industries and products, he said.

* The computer is a desktop. "That's something we can understand. On a desktop, we have stacks of paper, piles arranged on a surface that we can move around." Gage said this metaphor led to Microsoft's development of spreadsheets and Windows technology.

* The computer is a sketch pad (which led to computer-aided design).

* The computer is a linked book. It is a library.

* It's a command and control center.

* It's a foundation for conversation (hence e-mail).

* It's an organism, a body, an ecology. It's an evolutionary ecosystem.

* The computer is a distributed accounting system allowing new efficiencies.

* The computer is a market place (which developed into the world of e-commerce).

* It's a city. ("We see that with the Internet. We're still building that city.")

* The computer is a network of distributed functions that lead to a human/machine symbiosis, amplifying, not replacing, a combination of the capabilities of humans and machines.

And there are new metaphors being developed all the time, Gage said, that make us think about possibilities we could not have considered earlier.

When we apply this to the way human minds work, Gage said, we find that communicating through metaphors helps humans bridge the gap between certain intelligences that set us apart from each other. "The relatively tiny difference in our genes doesn't capture the richness of humanity some of us have."

Gage said some people have better developed linguistics intelligence; some have keener legal, mathematical or logical intelligence; some musical, some spatial, some interpersonal, some intrapersonal, some naturalistic, some spiritual or existential intelligence.

"We need to develop translations for these differences: cross-lingual, cross-cultural. Something that makes a great deal of sense in one culture can be a great mystery in another. We need a change in the conversation, in the entire way we understand each other."

Critical to our ability to exchange information in new ways is that we not be resistant to it or afraid of it. "Far more ideas perish from inaction that do from being refuted by argument. It's better to merge disciplines, to connect, to create a conversation between those who don't ordinarily communicate with one other. But if we're going to build new conversations, we have to have everyone understanding the language."

As for the next round of technological advances, Gage said, "We're rapidly building a world of mobile interaction: we're mobile, information can be mobile." You don't have to go to your computer at work or home to communicate over distances. There are wireless devices that weigh a third of the typical cell phone and can receive e-mail and have the capacity to store up to 100,000 web pages, he said. "It's got color graphics. It talks to you. It's interactive. It's still a small screen, but that will change."

Devices like this are altering the way humans interact, Gage said.

"The problem is that we can't have empathetic emotional conversation beyond about 500 miles. Even at the speed of light there are delays; it takes a while to get the signal. My raised eyebrow loses its meaning after a delay. The evolutionary value of well-developed emotional perception is enormous," and is what separates humans from other living creatures, he said.

Further, this interaction over distances so far is on the human to human or human to service levels. "Now, we're beginning to see service to service, that is, machine to machine, device to device," Gage said.

Machines at utility companies, for example, will be able to communicate to a device in your refrigerator. The device will say, "I'm using up more electricity than my master says I am allowed to. I don't care if the milk sours, I'm shutting off."

Fears of machine take-overs , technological weapons in the wrong hands and genetically manipulated DNA proteins and micro-chips that can reproduce themselves — formerly the stuff of science fiction –are now dangerously close to reality. "There's enough truth in this to make us all a little depressed," Gage said.

Technological advances do not come without ethical considerations, Gage said, which is why centers like the Sara Fine Institute for Interpersonal Behavior and Technology are necessary.

"Can we stop researchers? No. Can we shape the direction technology research goes or control it? We can try. But what is clear we can't just let people go out and develop technology without being responsible."

–Peter Hart

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