#IAMondays: Symbols as Metaphors

So, Devon posted a rather interesting site with some interactive icons.  While the overall design was very simple, the Simbly website has an interesting interface.  The icons shown on the site can be dragged around, which I found to be a lot of fun.  I even went so far as to record a video of bowling with the icons.

Looking back at this site after discussing and reading about metaphors, I got to thinking about the nature of symbols.  They’re essentially metaphors.

We understand icons and symbols only through other things.  The icons themselves are intangibles; you can see them, but not touch them (unless clicking on them counts as touching them, but if it does, THAT is a metaphor).  We don’t think of them in terms of the code that makes them function, but instead we think of them as objects.  If they’re objects, then it’s arguable that a website is a container, which contains the objects of icons.

Yet icons on a web page can be seen as more than just objects.  They’re perceived as having different functions and meanings.  We understand these meanings through the use of metaphor.  Here’s an example from Symbly:

A ‘battery’ icon from http://www.symb.ly/

When we look at that icon, we see a battery.  Beyond that, we see it as a partially-full battery, indicating that it needs to be recharged.  Yet even beyond that, we understand it as a symbol that represents the state of the physical battery (typically one inside a cell phone), and the icon is communicating that state to us.

All together, what we have here is a symbols that communicates to us the state (full/empty) of a physical object (the battery).

We can only understand that by breaking it down into multiple metaphors.  The icon itself is a representation. It isn’t the battery itself, but instead it tells us something about the state of the battery.  If we consider the OBJECT AS CONTAINER metaphor, the battery would be considered a container, and what it contains is electricity.  We know that, through our sensory perception, we can view a physical object and judge it’s state of fullness.  The battery icon draws on this basic concept by showing MORE white-filled area to represent MORE electricity in the container.

Yet the icon depicted on the Symbly site takes this a step further.  That icon is not actually representing the state of a physical battery; it is an ‘object’ that can be used on any website for a variety of purposes.  The actual use would depend upon the design of the site in question, though that use must almost necessarily be limited to our understanding of the meaning of the icon.  Depending on the context it is placed in, it could represent the state of a battery, the battery itself, the concept of electricity, or a number of other things.  Regardless of the actual placement and usage, the icon would be understood through the metaphors that connect it to the physical objects we think of when we see it.

Furthermore, the icon can represent other things that might not be related to an actual physical battery.  On the Symbly website, the icons are for sale at a certain price (a few are free, the rest come in ‘packs’ priced at £1.99).  Thus, if the icon represents an OBJECT and we can conceive of OBJECTS AS MONEY then therefore the ICON IS MONEY.  That is, the icon has a value related to how much we pay for it.  This is despite the fact that the icon itself has no physical existence; it is nothing more than a series of electronic signals that represent 1’s and o’s of binary code which are in turn translated by a CPU and processed by a video card before being displayed on a computer monitor by flashes of light.  Yet we pay money for it.

Does this mean that binary 1’s and 0’s are ALSO money?


Categories: #IAMondays | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “#IAMondays: Symbols as Metaphors

  1. Devon

    Of course! 1’s and 0’s are money in the same way TIME IS MONEY because computer programmers, electrical engineers, and various other technological designers and workers deal with 1’s and 0’s daily. The time they spend dealing with these numbers is money, so the numbers themselves are money. We assign value to these numbers by employing people who work and understand these numbers. They go through schooling to use these numbers, and that requires time and money in itself. The more we understand how to extend metaphors such as OBJECT IS MONEY = ICON IS MONEY = BINARY CODE IS MONEY, the more I wonder what ISN’T money. It is sort of scary. Just as Lakoff reminds us about the relativity of truth, he also begins to ask us to question what these metaphors and meanings we make shape how we perceive the world. If we can link things together in the above way, we can morph many meanings through metaphor. This shows that we must constantly be aware of how we use words. You never know what you might REALLY be saying!

  2. There was a great class-forget which-where we talked about where we go to borrow metaphors for new technology. Even in this class, I think we talked about using the image of an old phone to show an incoming call. Makes you wonder if such image metaphors need changing after time-do these lose their referentials when they become too old? Does binary=money? It certainly costs money to generate. This would seem to suggest that it does.

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