Books,  metaphor

Dangers of tech metaphors in nature

In Metaphors of Ed Tech I suggested that we should approach metaphors drawn from nature with caution, writing:

“it is worth emphasising that metaphors drawn from nature are probably the most prevalent, and the most dangerous, of metaphors. Making appeals to what is deemed ‘natural’ and applying it to any form of human endeavour has led to justifications for social Darwinism, misogyny and repression, with the implication that certain states are naturally occurring and therefore inevitable.”

But the opposite is also true – we need to be wary of technological metaphors applied to nature. I came to appreciate this because I’ve been reading Merlin Sheldrake’s intriguing overview of fungal life and science, Entangled Life. He sets out the many different ways that symbiosis and natural networks operate, including the oft-quoted Wood Wide Web, wherein resources are shared in through a complex mycorrhizal fungal network. Sheldrake points out however that the phrase Wood Wide Web leads us into “plant-centrism”, which ignores the active role of fungi, stating:

“It is a metaphor that tugs us into plant-centrism by implying that plans are equivalent to the webpages, or nodes, in the network, and fungi are the hyperlinks joining the nodes to one another. In the language of the hardware that comprises the Internet, plants are the routers and fungi are the cables.”

Fungi are not passive in the network and gain from the web and shape it themselves. This is not just unfair to fungi but also distorts our focus and understanding of the processes in play. In popular accounts the emphasis in always on trees, ignoring the role of the fungi. “Everything changes when we see fungi as active participants”.

He further argues that the metaphor is problematic because it encourages people to impose values and utopias onto the natural system. As the Internet promised non-hierarchical, more community based systems, so many people have latched on to the Wood Wide Web as demonstrating the value of sharing, and altruism. While there is some truth in this, it also varies widely, some plants just take, some take now and pay later, some make exchanges, etc.

The Wood Wide Web was a useful metaphor for what was quite a mind-blowing concept, that there was this subterranean connection between the visual forest we perceived. But while metaphors drawn from nature abound in much of our everyday language and as I argued, I’d always be wary of people proposing ‘natural’ metaphors for human activity, the book was also a useful reminder to see the manner in which technological metaphors applied to nature can be limiting also. Anyway, it’s a fascinating book. But it’s fascinating because it’s about fungi and that is enough in itself, their value is not determined by what we think it can teach us about ourselves.

PS – congratulations if you read this post without making the “he’s a fun guy” joke to yourself. I failed.


  • Alan Levine

    So interesting to lay out that metaphors in either direction can be problematic/dangerous. But can it be any other way? Were a metaphor to be directly applicable would it be a metaphor? (oh, now I am sliding down a hole of philos— oops, I metaphor-ed).

    Isn’t the imperfections of metaphot really their value? You analyze where they partilly work and then where they don’t. That’s the interesting space to me, not if a metaphor is right/wrong or good/bad.

    I have to admit I had to read the “fun guy” line a few times, before it clicked. Or I was under-caffientated. I wondered if it was some British show reference, until I said it outloud. Sure you are a fun guy!

    • mweller

      Hi Alan! Yes, absolutely – metaphors are not exact, otherwise they would be the thing itself. I just found it interesting the implicit values in the wood wide web metaphor.
      The fun guy joke is the type of one we get in christmas crackers eg Why did the Mushroom get invited to all the parties? A: ‘Cuz he’s a fungi!

  • David Cormier

    That tension between the technological interpretation of ‘node’ and its complex existance in life is troubling. The network model of knowledge as it’s portrayed in thousands of images (dot connected by many lines to other dots) makes it easy to count things, but isn’t particularly representative of the uncertainty with which we know things and the many connections that are contradictory. Like Alan I’m in for the imperfections of metaphors but they often hide the uncertainty that is the most important part of being human.

  • Simon Thomson

    Metaphors provide a useful way for us to communicate ideas beyond our own disciplines. Trying to explain how the World Wide Web works to my great granddad many years ago I used a visual metaphor of planes flying across the globe with the plane being the carrier of data, the people & luggage being types of data and the airport being the place where data gets transferred and eventually to a destination, which worked well in that context. Metaphors are dangerous if there’s not mushroom (sorry!!) for error in terms of understanding.

    • mweller

      Hi Simon! Yes , I’m obviously a big fan of metaphors – “dangerous” was probably overstating it somewhat here, but I thought the implicit assumptions in the Wood Wide Web metaphor and how it downplayed the active role of fungi was interesting. We probably do this all the time with metaphors

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