In an interview with George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Ian A. Boal examines the social, political and economic implications of language and its relationship to the conduit metaphor. The interview, published in Boal's essay, Body, Brain and Communication, takes a closer look at the conduit metaphor in connection with computers and communication on the Internet and World Wide Web. More importantly, Boal-who is also a Berkeley professor-solicits Lakoff's views of computer technology and artificial intelligence; their effects on human values and the basic way people communicate and understand information in today's world.
Essentially, the conduit metaphor enables thoughts and ideas to be communicated through connecting cables and wireless transmissions using language as objects and metaphors. An effective conduit metaphor causes the listener to receive and understand the meaning behind a message without having to engage in too much thought. Comprehension of an idea is achieved intuitively, instinctively or with feeling. The conduit metaphor is a basic parable belonging to a larger family of metaphors, many of which can be found on Lakoff's Conceptual Metaphors home page at Berkeley's Cognitive Science web site, http://cogsci.berkeley.edu/.
The conduit metaphor, as described by its creator Michael Reddy, suggests that the mind can interpret ideas as objects that can be put into words, and thoughts are the organization or manipulation of those objects. Reddy says the objects that make up words or language reside in a storage container, or memory, where thoughts and ideas can be retrieved or recalled when needed. When ideas are converted into words, they can be communicated to someone else who then draws out the meaning of the ideas from the words. For the conduit metaphor to succeed, the communication must invoke the correct interpretation through a "gut" or felt response by the listener. The conduit metaphor implies that if ideas are put into the right words, then communication is easy and little effort is required to understand or interpret what is being conveyed. This assertion is somewhat idealistic since communication is not necessarily easy; in fact, it can be very difficult, particularly when it's non-verbal. Consequently, there are many reasons why the conduit metaphor can fail, and it is this potential for failure that causes Lakoff to criticize the value of the conduit metaphor. He raises concerns about the expanding use of computers as a communications vehicle and the potential problems that face a busy society, which has become increasingly accustomed to impersonal human interaction.
As cited by Lakoff, there are many reasons that the conduit metaphor can fail. The most obvious cause is language barriers. Knowledge of use and understanding of the same language, by humans or machines, is essential to any form of successful communication. Dissimilar cultural and sub-cultural...