About IT metaphors
Don’t get me wrong I’m not against jargon; one person’s jargon is another person’s essential business or technical language. The problem with jargon and acronyms is when they hamper open communication, inclusion and clarity of meaning – all things that IT elementary school holds dear.
I digress, metaphors and idioms can be fun and engaging, they can provide a useful way to explain complex, abstract or new ideas, often using shorthand references to familiar everyday objects and activities,
Used effectively and sparingly metaphors can help to bring people together, not the opposite.
Our very own Prime Minister, no not David Cameron, the other one Theresa May, recently referred to silver bullets – in the sense that a difficult or intractable problem (in this case unchecked immigration to the UK) cannot be easily and simply resolved.
The reference goes back a long way to the killing of werewolves, but more recently a seminal paper in the IT industry about endemic problems with software maintenance, cost and quality (Fred Brooks – No Silver Bullet)
Of course metaphors should be understandable to everyone hearing the message not a closed group or select clique; that path leads the same way as jargon. Beware the Emperor’s new clothes – oops another metaphor!
I came across an example of this recently in a networking group presentation with Digital People in Peterborough about a product called Docker. I admit to being at the wrong end of the scale in terms of knowledge of the subject matter, but admired the imagination and branding that took the concept of containers*, to shipping containers, whales, seagulls and Captains (product experts and advocates).
*(Ed. code wrappers that can be used on different physical devices and operating systems, separating or abstracting software applications from the underlying hardware)
Another big metaphorical universe exists around coffee; Java and [coffee] beans – but that’s a subject for another time.
An added problem in our multi-cultural and globally-connected world is excluding non-English-English speakers who aren’t immersed in our rich history of prose, poetry and culture from Shakespeare to George Orwell, Robin Hood to Harry Potter, the Great Fire of London to the rules of Cricket, and from The Beatles to Benny Hill! And yes, I did hear a reference to Benny Hill in front of Indian colleagues seconded to a UK team – not an easy thing to explain.
We in IT often enrich our domain terminology by mining (erhem) diverse themes and subject areas. Being a relatively young industry undergoing almost constant technological change seems to encourage a more colourful and eclectic use of language.
About war and sport
I don’t mean The Art of War by Sun Tzu but more subtle references that we use, although not exclusively in IT projects, but more so in male-dominated environments. Unfortunately IT can still be a bit blokey, but things are changing.
For example, perseverance, celebrating success and exceeding expectations; hit for six (Cricket), out of the ball park (baseball) and back of the net (football). Or how about going the extra mile, the final push, and crossing the line. They may sound a bit like buzzwords, but goal-oriented and motivational phrases are important.
Less positively, hidden costs or problems can be under the wire, the RADAR or the carpet, and what about putting the ball in your court (often a euphemism for shifting responsibility), being left on the bench or dropping the ball etc.
About popular culture, entertainment and other random subjects
Software and by extension computers can have bugs, viruses and Trojan horses
Even though we are grown-ups (mostly!) we can work/play in a sandbox, and show-and-tell (demonstrate) work in progress.
We surf the Internet superhighway, what’s a mixed metaphor between friends.
Internet and network traffic is said to run along metaphorical pipes or buses – although the bus is the conduit not the vehicle,
As most IT and technology is about creating or effecting change, travelling metaphors feature strongly; Projects [plans] have milestones and checkpoints; strategies are referred to as roadmaps; you navigate websites using a [site] map. Moreover projects have lifecycles, from birth (inception) through to maturity (legacy or heritage systems), but IT seldom dies, even though projects are executed.
Telecommunications has given us bandwidth in the sense of limited (throttled) availability or capacity, WiFi and LoFi ( from HiFi). Bluetooth, one of the wireless protocols, is named after a Norse King Harald who helped to unify parts of Scandinavia but wasn’t a big mobile phone user as far as I know 🙂
The publishing and printing industries have given us tags and mark-up languages.
The Design process has borrowed heavily from other older technologies including patterns, templates, prototypes and wireframes (webpage/website designs)
Manufacturing and commerce have given us goods or ware of lots of different types, including soft- hard- middle- firm- shelf- wet- and malware. Large amounts of data are stored and accessed from [data] marts or [data] warehouses.
The film and entertainment industry has given us Actors, storyboards, [user] stories, back-stories, narratives and scripts (an alternative name for certain coded instructions), role-playing and scenarios (literally setting the scene).
About fruit, yes fruit
Not strictly used in a metaphorical sense, but you have to love an industry that went from Apples, Apricots and Acorns to Blackberries and Raspberries. Raspberry Pi enthusiasts meet in Jams , and digital nomads can go to Jellys…as I said earlier a rich imaginative language.
But things have got even stranger recently; imagine stumbling into a conversation about cucumbers and gherkins (software testing tools) in the office. I did, see Docker above.
All computers are metaphors
Not my own idea, I have the late great Douglas Adams (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) to thank for this – which I will paraphrase and expand.
If you think about it computers are not [only] computation machines or data processors, they are metaphor engines. Early PCs modelled a desktop – the name lives on as the place where all your stuff lives – with applications bringing physical artefacts into the virtual world; paper spreadsheets, hand- or type-written documents, overhead projector slides (remember them?) and filing systems (databases) etc.
(Ed. what about windows, that metaphor always worried me as a logical being…OK windows open and close, but you look through them not at them?)
To this day, smart devices, game consoles and most apps simulate and enhance familiar objects and concepts, from chatting to map reading, drawing to game-playing, and all the commercial activities of selling, buying and distribution (eCommerce).
So maybe it’s not too surprising that technology adopts and adapts so many real concepts and terms? That and the fact that all computing and information technology activities are created and managed by real human beings, not a race of devious capricious aliens or robots!
(c) 2016 IT elementary school