The Fault, Dear Troy, is not in our IRL Analogies, But In Ourselves

Even though we’ve now lived with the Internet for a few decades, it can still be tricky for the average person to think about. It’s somewhat understandable for people to try to relate to it in terms they can understand. Like any analogy, this can lead to some unintended implications if not thought through with any degree of rigor.

But Troy Hunt has had enough of this. He uses the (in)famous anti-piracy campaign (“You Wouldn’t Download a Car“) to show just how off the mark these can be. While he’s spot on that this wrongly conflates the issues of digital piracy to grand theft auto, I think it was never meant to be “accurate”. The RIAA isn’t in the business of properly elucidating the peculiar vagaries of intellectual property rights. If anything, be angry at the pure FUD this campaign represented. Whether the analogy they used is clumsy is beside the point.

On the one hand, I do agree with Troy on a base level: it’s more productive to talk directly about the issues of digital life. These issues are distinct and peculiar to their situation and don’t easily lend themselves to direct analogy.

But on the other hand, doing so requires a certain level setting with your audience. When dealing with a technically proficient or digitally native audience, this is a relatively low bar. But there are quite literally billions of people that this doesn’t apply to. I also think it’s somewhat unfair to either expect these people to educate themselves on these issues, or require anyone talking about digital concepts to spend the majority of their time on fundamental education.

Analogies and metaphors jump start how we relate and think about things. They provide the mental scaffolding around which we can build new thoughts and ideas. Which isn’t to say we can’t be critical when they are poorly made. Rather I think it is incumbent on those that would use them to put in the mental rigor to think out the implications of forcing a physical analogy into a digital concept. Acknowledge the limits of this approach, point out where things fall down, and they can still be useful.

Troy points out numerous examples of Twitter posts poorly understanding URL enumeration, comparing it to walking into a house with a door open. Perhaps the problem is that the issue is more complex than 140, or even 280, characters will allow. The problem is that an analogy or a tweet isn’t a conversation. They should be the start of how we think of these complex issues, not the end. Troy does a great job of having this conversation in this post.

Troy Hunt comments:

As I read these, I kept coming back to how totally irrelevant they often are; I’ve actually made a really conscious effort over recent years to avoid this pattern, particularly when responding to media queries the non-tech public will then read because frankly, they’re extremely misleading.

Read more at: IRL Analogies Explaining Digital Concepts are Terrible

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.