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The Metaphors We Use Mobile Phones By

The third speaker in this ANZCA 2009 session is Rowan Wilken, whose interest is in the metaphors applied to mobile telephony. The power of metaphor lies in the fact that it enables one well-know domain to provide an interpretive framework for another, less known domain. Metaphor proliferates, therefore, especially also in descriptions of new technologies, and has been studied in some detail in relation to the Internet, but less so for mobile technologies.

Common metaphors include navigation - cyber, for example, comes from the Greek kybernetes, or steersman, and the information superhighway is a more recent metaphor in the same vein. Such metaphors also point to the need to regulate and control these spaces, and are also related to a common group of transportation metaphors. Another common metaphor is linked to pioneer myths - as in Howard Rheingold's book Virtual Communities, at one point subtitled Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. These perpetuate western colonial metaphors and a private property model, some have argued - again highlighting possible regulatory frameworks for these new technologies.

What about mobile technologies, then? Each of the three metaphor types (navigation, transportation, and pioneering) are present in mobile media advertising and similar trade press texts - but mobile media are framed slightly differently: not mobile media users are framed as pioneers of technology, but advertisers and media companies working in this space. There is a dominant double narrative of hope tempered by caution, due to concerns about spam and related issues. In academic analyses, there are other parallels, but metaphors cannot always be easily or successfully transferred from fixed to mobile Internet services, for example.

Additional metaphors employ biological metaphors of an ecosystem to describe mobile marketing; theatre metaphors to describe public/private tensions in mobile phone use; and domestic metaphors for describing the domestication of mobile technology. These often highlight the structural ambiguity of mobile phone use (and notably, the Janus face metaphor has also been applied to mobile phones).

Metaphor selection is never free of complication, of course; ill-chosen metaphors can be detrimental by closing off possible conceptualisations and confusing our understanding of technologies. Metaphors have the potential to orient research and fix results - but also provide for an interesting contestation of different conceptualisations where used effectively. There needs to be a close, attentive reading of metaphor, and a development of new metaphors to animate insightful discourse. This is far from easy, and metaphors' artifice must remain visible - on this turns the distinction between using metaphors and being used by them.

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