A Message in a Bottleneck

The biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes that when botanists go out in fields and forests looking for flora, they call it a foray, and when writers do the same, it should be called a metaphoray.[1] Marshall and Eric McLuhan open their book Laws of Media: The New Science with the claim that each of our technological artifacts is “a kind of word, a metaphor that translates experience from one form to another.”[2] That is, each new technological advance transforms us by changing our relationship to our environment, just as a metaphor does with our knowledge.

“Each person is his [sic] own central metaphor,” wrote Mary Catherine Bateson.[3] Bateson saw the perceptual processes of the organism as a metaphor for the complexities of the world outside it. With the spread and adoption of personal media and the internet, the network metaphor has creeped further and further into our thinking.[4] The center thins out to the edges as the network becomes central.[5] Extending it inward, Michael Schandorf writes that “every ‘node’ is a network all its own, each with its own very fuzzy boundaries and interpenetrations.”[6] Expanding it outward, Barry Brummett writes that texts are, “nodal: what one experiences here and now is a text, but it may well be a part of a larger text extending into time and space. Texts tend to grow nodes off themselves that develop into larger, more complex but related texts.”[7] And Steven Shaviro adds, “The network is shaped like a fractal. That is to say, it is self-similar across all scales, no matter how far down you go. Any portion of the network has the same structure as the network as a whole. Neurons connect with each other across synapses on much the same way that Web sites are linked on the World Wide Web.”[8] From texts to networks, our minds are permeable.[9] I belabor the point here because we are complicit in the use of these metaphors.

The connections of a network are what gives it its power. In turn, the network gives each node its power as well. For example, a telephone is only as valuable as its connection to other telephones. Where value normally derives from scarcity, here it comes from abundance. If you own the only telephone or your phone loses service, it’s worthless. In addition, each new phone connected to the network adds value to every other phone.[10] At a certain point, fatigue sets in. Connectivity is great until you’re connected to people you’d rather avoid. Each new communication channel is eventually overrun by marketers and scammers, leveraging the links to sell or shill, forcing us to filter, screen, buffer, or otherwise close ourselves off from the network.[11] There is a threshold, a break boundary, beyond which connectivity becomes a bad thing and the network starts to lose its value.

Fig 6.1: A tetrad of the network. It enhances connectivity, obsolesces isolation, retrieves word of mouth, and reverses into fatigue.

In their Laws of Media, Marshall and Eric McLuhan outlined the ramifications of these media through their tetrad of media effects, which states that every new medium enhances something, makes something obsolete, retrieves a previous something, and reverses into something else once pushed past a certain threshold.[12] In Fig. 6.1, I’ve applied this metaphorical framework to the network.

When we buy into these infrastructures—networks or otherwise—we’re buying into their metaphors. Moreover, we’re buying into the idea that metaphors are an effective way to represent the world.[13] “A metaphor is always a framework for thinking, using knowledge of this to think about that,” Bateson once said.[14] The word metaphor means “carrying over,” and that’s just what their meanings do. Nodes and networks: eventually, we forget all of these are metaphors. “That is the real danger,” Robert Swigart writes, “unless we pause from time to time to consider how these metaphors work to create boundaries… they will control us without our knowledge.”[15] As long as we’re paying attention though, we can always defy them.



[1] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass, Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013, 46; With thanks to Michael Schandorf.

[2] Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988, 3; As Eric McLuhan notes in The Lost Tetrads of Marshall McLuhan, “Metaphor and the tetrad on metaphor are the very heart of Laws of Media.”; Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan, The Lost Tetrads of Marshall McLuhan, New York: O/R Books, 2017, 200n; So much of Marshall McLuhan’s work was done with metaphors. As he wrote, interpolating Robert Browning, “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor.”; Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1964, 64; See also, Yoni Van Den Eede, “Exceeding Our Grasp: McLuhan’s All-Metaphorical Outlook,” in Jaqueline McLeod Rogers, Tracy Whalen & Catherine G. Taylor (eds.), Finding McLuhan: The Mind, The Man, The Message, Regina, Canada: University of Regina Press, 2015, 43-61; Roger K. Logan, McLuhan Misunderstood, Toronto: The Key Publishing House, 2013, 39-40.

[3] Mary Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972, 284; See also, Gregory Bateson, “Our Own Metaphor: Nine Years After,” in A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York: HarperCollins, 1991, p. 285.

[4] This is a trend that John Naisbitt spotted in newspapers in the late 1970s; See Chapter 8, “From Hierarchies to Networks,” in John Naisbitt, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, New York: Warner Books, 1982, 189-205.

[5] Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark, Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014, 2.

[6] Michael Schandorf, Communication as Gesture, Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing, 2019, 108; Latour defines the black box similarly: “Each of the parts inside the black box is itself a black box full of parts.”; Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999, 185.

[7] Barry Brummett, A Rhetoric of Style, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008, 118.

[8] Shaviro goes on to flip McLuhan’s claim that electronic networks are an extension of the central nervous system to write, “every individual brain is a miniaturized replica of the global communications network.”; Shaviro, 2003, 12.

[9] Nicholas Carr writes, “Those who celebrate the ‘outsourcing’ of memory to the Web have been misled by a metaphor. They overlook the fundamentally organic nature of biological memory. What gives real memory its richness and its character, not to mention its mystery and fragility, is its contingency. It exists in time, changing as the body changes. Indeed the very act of recalling a memory appears to restart the entire process of consolidation, including the generation of proteins to form new synaptic terminals.”; Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, 191.

[10] Kevin Kelly calls this “the fax effect.”; Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy, New York: Viking, 1998, 39-49.

[11] Using metaphors from epidemiology, Malcolm Gladwell calls this fatigue “immunity.”; Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point, New York: Little, Brown, 2000, 271-275.

[12] McLuhan & McLuhan, 1988, passim.

[13] Neal Stephenson, In the Beginning was the Command Line, New York: William Marrow, 1999.

[14] Mary Catherine Bateson, How to Be a Systems Thinker: A Conversation with Mary Catherine Bateson, Edge, April 17, 2018: https://www.edge.org/conversation/mary_catherine_bateson-how-to-be-a-systems-thinker

[15] Robert Swigart, “A Writer’s Desktop,” In Brenda Laurel (ed.), The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Professional, 1990, 140-141.