David Thorburn

David Thorburn is professor of literature and director of the Communications Forum at MIT. He is the author of Conrad's Romanticism and many articles on literature and media.

Recent Articles

Essay: Web of Paradox

The language of our emerging digital culture suggests adventure, daring, and unprecedented novelty, while we sit comfortably at our desks, alone, communing with our computer screens. Are we being taken in by our own metaphors?

The World Wide Web is more than technology, more than modems, bandwidth, computers. It is a thing made of language and of history, a Web of Metaphor. Of course, we view all new technologies through perspectives or metaphors that limit our understanding and obscure intrinsic qualities and possibilities. Nothing inherent in the internal combustion engine required that the first cars resemble horse-drawn carriages. That beginning was dictated by metaphor, by inherited notions of conveyance, by centuries of carts and wagons and palanquins. (My father, 92, remembers driving an early Ford whose elaborate leather dashboard was fitted with a pocket for the handle of a buggy whip.) So, too, though more dangerously, the dominant metaphors deployed to describe our experience of things digital constrain our understanding, limit and channel our inventions and even our speculations. Consider such rich but also limiting descriptors as cyberspace , highway (or the bilingual neologism infobahn ),...