Lewis Mumford states in Technics and Civilization that

The clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age. For every phase of its development the clock is both the outstanding fact and the typical symbol of the machine: even today no other machine is so ubiquitous (Nueva York, 1934, 14).

In this quotation it is assumed that the clock is not only a practical tool with a proper meaning in a technical context but a model for human behavior and experience, and for social organization as well. Then it has, together with many other technological objects, a cultural dimension that plays a significant role in the construction of collective ideals and values. And as such it mediates our perceptions and representations of the world. For instance, both the presence of clocks and the mechanical order of time in ordinary language, art, films and literature reveals how technological metaphors contribute to expand human communication resources and to shape reality. There are many examples of this. To mention just the most well-known, “time is money” (an expression normally credited to Benjamin Franklin –mentioned in Advice to a Young Tradesman, 1748- but surely used before, according to Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs) refers to a philosophy of life focused on profiting time; “like clockwork” is used when someone or something follows an unvarying schedule; “slave to the clock” is normally attributed to business workers. In fictional writings, we find novels like the one composed by Anthony Burgess, Clockwork orange, whose title -an oxymoron- expresses the contrast between the natural and the mechanical and disciplined. In Alice Adventures in Wonderland, time reflected by clocks means among other things the adult world, conventions and the absence of childhood fantasy.

In addition to the particular world of the clock, there are plenty of references proving the extension of technological imaginaries. “Machine” can mean a precise and repetitive process as a consequence of the perfect adjustment of its parts. The French writer Paul Valéry defined the poem as “a sort of machine aimed at producing the poetic state by means of words”, and the Spanish writer Antonio Machado refers to the record player as a “mechanical parrot” and to photography and cinema as “satanic inventions intended to bore human beings” (Cano Ballesta, 1981, 15-16).

In other occasions, metaphors originate from a process of substitution of technology as a whole by a singular entity (although in this case when the part equals the whole it is properly a metonymy). Such is the case, for instance, in the movie Emerald forest (1985), where a dam under construction in the Amazonia, which represents technological progress, provokes a confrontation between the threat of technology and a fragile nature. Thus, the dam represents technology, and the destruction of the forest represents the devastation of a civilization.

Analogies between machines and both the human body and mind have been a powerful and persistent source of metaphors through history (see “artefactual mind” on this blog). In our age the dominant symbol is the computer. Theorists have been using this artifact in cognitive sciences as a source of metaphors to understand and explain mental activity. Firstly, computer components are defined using analogies coming from the human mind (brain, memory, intelligence, etc.); secondly, they are incorporated to the description of several human actions, contributing in turn to look at the human body in a different way, as if it had a computer like organization. Also related to the human body, we can find metaphors which compare it with a machine, a factory or a mechanism: the heart is an engine, the food is the source of energy, muscles are the motors, etc. As a consequence of this, we construct a mechanistic idea of the body (see also, in this dictionary, the term “human automata”). There are also metaphors that originate from instruments aimed at measuring human capabilities or psychophysical factors. The ergograph, an instrument invented at the end of the 19th century to measure human fatigue, is credited to establish the adjustment of the human being to the demands of specific tasks at a factory. The ergograph is then considered an extension of the body, and its design is intended to determine productive capabilities of workers. Therefore both the factory machine and the body, assuming the fact that there is continuity between each other, are represented in a crude mechanistic approach as motors that exchange energy.

We should therefore attend to the technology of each time to account for particular similarities, comparisons and analogies employed in definitions and models present in our language. The classic version of the metaphor of the wax tablet that represents memory as a writing surface is found in Plato’s Theaetetus. In this dialogue, Socrates states “that our minds contain a wax block, which may vary in size, cleanliness and consistency in different individuals” (Draaisma, 2000, 24). At the time of Plato, wax tablets, a recording technology consisting in a board coated with wax, had already been in use for several centuries for taking notes. Later on other metaphors were used with similar purposes, such as the book, the phonograph, the photography, communication networks and, as was already mentioned, the computer (Draaisma, 2000).

Furthermore, power sources, communications, and automatic devices have provided images that are integrated in collective representations of the world. They are sometimes linked to the experience of sublimity, a collective emotion related to technology and the conquest of nature explored by David E. Nye in his book American Technology Sublime. Among the power sources, steam engines, and especially their steam, became a frequent metaphor during the 19th and part of the 20th century. It was associated to the power and strength of technology and to its capacity for mastering nature, at times through the invasion of natural spaces. It was also endowed with negative connotations. On the one hand, it was used to show the dark side of progress under the image of factory fumes. On the other hand, this image represents in social imaginaries the contrast between the healthy life in the country and the unhealthy pollution of industrial towns. Related to this metaphor, and transmitting the idea of speed, efficiency and the rapprochement between cultures through the reduction of the Earth dimensions, is the one associated to communications and transports (steam ships and railroads), which are frequently depicted in literary works and paintings as crossing a wild nature.

At the end of the 19th century, another power source turned up: electricity. Setting aside metaphors associated to its contributions to “illuminate our lives” and the ones regarding the light bulb, proclaimed as the symbol of the coming up with new ideas, there are metaphors related to its mysterious nature that introduced a certain degree of uncertainty on technological inventions. A different way of perceiving electricity is represented in the next illustration, which reflects anthropomorphized technologies conspiring against new born electricity.


Electricity: ‘A Giant in Germ – what will he grow to?’ Punch or the London Charivari, 25 June 1881.

Finally, metaphors related to automatism represent precision, reliability, efficiency and comfort, being clocks, gears, conveyors and assembly lines the objects most frequently used to express these values. In the case of factories, the workers became part of the machine itself, as reflected in Charles Chaplin movie Modern times (1936). Human beings are depicted in these contexts facing repetitive tasks and consequently deprived of creativity. In general, artists have had an ambiguous relationship with technology: at one extreme, we place the emergence of the Italian futurism, which celebrated the outburst of machines; at the other, we have the dystopic tradition exemplified by many novels, movies and plastic expressions (notable examples in this respect are Raoul Haussmann and George Grosz).

The presence of metaphors in human symbolic manifestations is, in sum, a consequence of the ever increasing relevance acquired by technology in the western cultures, or as Jacques Ellul puts it, a result of the new “environment” in which human beings construct their experiences:

Technology constitutes an engulfing universe for man, who finds himself in it as in a cocoon. He cannot have any relationship with the ‘natural’ world except through technological mediation. By the same measure, he can only have relationships with other men through technological mediation, i.e. through material technologies like the telephone, radio and videophone: technology is at the same time immediate to man and the universal mediation between men. On the one hand, technology devalues all other mediations and man seems to have no need of symbolic mediation because he has technological mediation. It even appears to man that technology is more efficacious and permits him a greater domination over what threatens him and a more certain protection against danger than does the symbolic process. On the other hand, one does not perceive the need for the creation of new symbols because man has not become conscious that technology no longer constitutes a means, but is rather his environment. Hence it is now the relationship to technology that man must proceed to symbolize […] (Ellul, 1978, 216).

References and further readings: Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc., 1934; Francis D. Klingender, Art and the Industrial Revolution, London, N. Carrington, 1947 (Spanish edition: Arte y Revolución Industrial, Cátedra, 1983); Jacques Ellul, “Symbolic function, technology and society”, Journal of Social and Biological Structure, 1978, 1, 207-218; Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978 (Spanish edition: La enfermedad y sus metáforas. El sida y sus metáforas, Random House Mondadori, 2008); Juan Cano Ballesta, Literatura y tecnología. Las letras españolas ante la Revolución Industrial (1900-1930), Madrid, Editorial Orígenes, 1981; David E. Nye, American Technology Sublime, Cambridge (Mass.), The MIT Press, 1994; Douwe Draaisma, Metaphors of Memory: A History of Ideas about the Mind, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000; Patrice Flichy, L’imaginaire d’Internet, Paris, Éditions La Découverte & Syros, 2001 (Spanish edition: Lo imaginario de Internet, Tecnos, 2003); Vasilia Christidou, Kostas Dimopoulos, and Vasilis Koulaidis, “Constructing social representations of science and technology: the role of metaphors in the press and the popular scientific magazines”, Public Understanding of Science, 13 (2004), pp. 347-362, ; Rosa Delgado Leyva, La pantalla futurista, Madrid, Cátedra, 2012.