An Oracle blog about Dr Cloud's Flying Software Circus

  • February 3, 2014

Nebulous Analogies

Guest Author
Having done my doctoral research on analogies, including their
benefits and misuses, I am often amused by the analogies that crop
up in the field of computing.

Starting long ago with von Neumann's "The Computer and the Brain"
[1], computing analogies have both illuminated and confused many
important IT concepts. The use of the term "memory" for persistent
data storage, for example has a fairly clear and beneficial connection
to human recall concepts. Less clearly helpful are analogies to
thinking and consciousness common in AI research, as well as the
current discussions around "cloud" computing. The corresponding
characteristics of meteorological clouds and modern distributed
computing are imprecise and misleading. It’s not clear how that
analogy helps understand the critical technical concepts.

Now we have yet another unhelpful analogy, “Fog Computing” [2].
Attempting to characterize the “Internet of Things” [3] as an
all-pervasive, obscuring “mist” explains nothing about the nature
of ubiquitous, embedded computing services. And of course, computing
vendors will jump at the chance to exploit the latest analogical
buzzword to promote their products [4].

It’s difficult to communicate anything without using analogies,
since that’s how the human brain works — we think using analogies
[5]. But we should be careful in selecting the source analogs when
trying to explain complex concepts. Poorly chosen sources can
confuse and limit thinking and can hinder solution development.
Surely there are better source analogs than clouds and fog. The
“web” is clearly better than the “cloud” in conveying the idea of
connectivity. But what is the ideal analogy for computing services
that will eventually fill every corner of our daily lives, using
our always-connected devices like smartphones and tablets, and the
embedded services in our homes, cars, businesses, and social media?
I don’t think it’s atmospheric phenomena. And I’m not sure it’s the
“invisible computer” analogy either [6]. It’s probably more like
oxygen [7], although that implies that we can’t live without it.

Hmmm…maybe we can’t.

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Computer-Silliman-Memorial-Lectures-Series/dp/0300181116

[2] http://conferences.sigcomm.org/sigcomm/2012/paper/mcc/p13.pdf

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_Things

[4] http://newsroom.cisco.com/release/1334100/Cisco-Delivers-Vision-of-Fog-Computing-to-Accelerate-Value-from-Billions-of-Connected-Devices

[5] http://www.amazon.com/Surfaces-Essences-Analogy-Fuel-Thinking/dp/0465018475

[6] http://www.amazon.com/The-Invisible-Future-Integration-Technology/dp/0071382240

[7] http://oxygen.lcs.mit.edu/Overview.html

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