the metaphors and analogies we live by

New media are understood in part via the metaphorical logic of the print-based office. “Desktops,” “documents,” “files,” “folders,” and “recycling bins” are among the terms used to describe and explain how the tools of information technology manipulate the ones and zeros that make up electronic data, demonstrating how new technologies are often conceived in terms of the old, and suggesting that our concept of information is defined by print.

Other popular terms in common use are taken from outside the logic of print–“screen,” “mouse,” “web,” “virus,” for example–a vocabulary which suggests that the print-based metaphor is breaking down, and the mixed-metaphorical nature of these terms also demonstrates that a coherent new way of thinking about information has not completely coalesced.

I’ve been thinking about issues like these because I recently figured out how to get my wireless card working with my laptop (it’s been a busy year). I can sit in my office and use the signal from the AirPort in Jeff’s office next door, and I know Jeff is fine with my doing so because we’ve talked about it. But what about signals I might pick up from other sources? Is using them legal? Is it ethical? I started looking online for information and discussion.

At I came across this analogy:

A business location has an umbrella in front of their building. It is placed there so that their employees and customers can get out of the rain or sun. Occasionally passerbys will use the umbrella. The business owner really doesn’t mind because it does nothing to diminish the value of their umbrella or their business as a whole. If crowds of people start hanging out under the umbrella making it so the employees or customers cannot use it, the business can take away the umbrella or place a little fence around it.

In response, someone else proposed the analogy of a foyer in an apartment building:

The foyer exists so residents and their guests don’t have to stand outside and wait. Every now and then, a homeless person will take up residence in that foyer, and if allowed to stay, the word gets out among the local homeless community that it’s a good place for shelter … The builders didn’t put that shelter there for them, nor do residents want to step over them every time they enter the building. Plain and simple, they are tresspassing.

As I understand it, if you have a wireless router, you can adjust it so that the signal is only sent to authorized computers. However, most routers are shipped with a default setting that does not restrict which devices can receive the signal. Some people never change the setting and, well, that’s why we have war driving.

One possible argument: “You have set your wireless router such that anyone can use your wifi signal; that’s implicitly inviting anyone to use it.” And a possible counter-argument: “If I don’t lock the front door to my house, it’s not an invitation for you to come in, sit on the couch, and read my newspaper.”

The problem with the architectural analogies is that (if I understand the technology correctly) the wireless card in the computer is a passive recipient of a signal actively sent out by the wireless access point. A user does not have to “break into” a network in order to make use of the signal; rather the unsecured signal is being broadcast out to any and all users. You’re not invading their space; arguably, they are invading yours.

If a business is located near a coffee shop, and their signal happens to be broadcast into that shop, on what grounds could they object to patrons of the coffee shop tapping into that signal? You sit down to drink your coffee, turn on your laptop to get some work done and *boink!* you discover you have a signal. Cool! Let’s email. You’re not camped out near the office with the goal of exploiting their internet access. Instead, they are the ones flooding nearby spaces with their wifi signal; certainly they can’t claim authority over all space within broadcast range of their access point. “Don’t turn on your laptop! If you do, disable your wireless card!”

So what works as a analogy? If a stranger walks into my home through an unlocked front door and reads my newspaper, I think that’s clearly wrong. But if I leave the newspaper in the coffee shop, I shouldn’t be upset (or even surprised) to learn that others have chosen to read it. No one is trying to deny me the right to read the paper, but since it was just sitting there they decided they’d read it, too. If I don’t want someone else to read it, I shouldn’t leave it in the coffee shop.

In the first draft of this post I wrote “eats my chips” for “reads my newspaper,” but I realized that after someone eats your chips, you don’t have any chips. By contrast, after someone uses your Internet access, you still have Internet access, so the newspaper seemed like a better analogy. But now that I think about it a newspaper doesn’t have much value, and its unauthorized use would not represent a great breach of etiquette.

Hmmm. Have a better suggestion?

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