The Slightly Disgruntled Scientist

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Technical Analogies are Usually Garbage

Analogies are a hugely important part of science communication. When done well, they can catalyse that “light bulb” moment for students. They can be an excellent way to convey the irreducible, interacting factors in a physical system. They can emphasise the primary point of a lesson. Or they can present an old idea in a new way, that might finally help a student to understand some tricky concept.

And then, there are politicians trying to talk about technology.

And politicians really only bother to talk about technology when they are trying to foul it up.

And when politicians are trying to foul up technology to satisfy an agenda, they will not carefully communicate difficult concepts in an accurate and enlightening way.

Politicians, and those who quote them uncritically, don’t talk in analogies to simplify things. They do it to make their awful agendas seem reasonable. They choose analogies by deciding on the outcome they want to sell, and working backwards to find some contrived situation that fits it.

The elephant in the room is, of course, that not everyone actually understands technology. Shouldn’t politicians do their best to communicate these concepts to a lay audience? But… they’re not doing that. They never are. Reject this premise.

I’ll illustrate this with an example: the Internet.

But I Don’t Know what an Internet is!

Say I want to usher in new laws to enforce mandatory metadata retention by telecommunications companies. What this means is: your internet service provider will be required, by law, to record certain parts of your internet data so that government organisations can inspect it at some later date. But which parts of your data actually qualify as “metadata” and will be recorded? Well, that’s a good question.

The big argument against mandatory data retention is that it is mass surveillance, an invasion of literally everyone’s privacy that can be all-to-easily abused. So if I were a politician, and I wanted to defuse this argument, I would try to sell the idea that there are two classes of internet data: the really personal kind that any patriot might want to keep secret, and the impersonal kind that can only betray you if you’re doing something evil or treacherous.

In other words, I would insist that “metadata” is in a fundamentally different class to “data”, and I would choose analogies to suit this distinction.

The Australian Liberal Party, and in particular Tony Abbott, love the analogy of snail mail. There’s a letter: that’s personal. They won’t look at that. Indiscriminate tampering with the post is widely regarded as taboo amongst even the most ardent security-state-loving conservative voters. But then there’s the writing on the outside of the envelope. That’s pretty safe! No one who is, well, doing the right thing would care about that being read! Or recorded by the post office! Or being accessed by hackers used by police!

You’re A Grown Up, Use Grown Up Words

You know what’s a good way to describe the internet? By describing the internet. There’s a protocol called the internet protocol that’s used to direct small amounts of data (packets) from one computer to another. There’s a protocol called the transmission control protocol that’s used to make sure the packets are assembled and given to the correct application at the destination. And then… there’s… more. A lot more. But these two protocols — together referred to as TCP/IP — are, basically, the internet.

Even if you found that confusing, even if you didn’t understand that at all, even if you need an analogy to wrap your head around the concept… well, you’re going to have to learn it some time.

You can explain things without an analogy. You can. People won’t instantly understand it, but they won’t with an analogy either.

There comes a time in every analogy’s life when it’s time to grow up and reveal what the words really mean. That is, when we simplified things to “envelope” and “letter”, we need to still remember which of the real concepts correspond to which parts of the analogy. Brandis explicitly mentioned “web addresses”… So is TCP the letter, and IP the envelope? But that can’t be right at all; the IP packets contain both the address information and the actual data. So is the envelope the TCP part? The government really doesn’t seem to be insisting that telcos keep logs of every single TCP packet exchanged, so… probably not.

This is one problem then. An envelope is a physical object that is pretty much defined by having an inside and an outside. This fundamental distinction is what makes the metaphor so palatable, but it doesn’t even remotely correspond to how the internet actually works. Sure, it has distinctions: there is the internet protocol part of the data, there is the transmission control protocol part of the data, etc. But this has absolutely no correspondence with the “inside/outside” distinction used in the analogy.

Since the government can’t tell us which part of the stream of TCP/IP data is the outside of the envelope and which is the inside, the analogy just doesn’t work. It’s not a way to elucidate technical concepts to an audience without expertise — it’s a way to confuse the audience to push an agenda.

At this point you might accuse me of being disingenuous though.

There are higher level (ie. more abstracted) protocols than TCP. For example, when you visit a webpage, you’re using the hypertext transport protocol (HTTP). Your computer:

  • sends some IP packets to your router (and beyond) that…
  • establish a TCP connection to a server like, over which…
  • requests like GET /brandis-is-an-idiot are sent, and then…
  • the server sends you the contents of the page you requested.

The politician’s analogy might well work in reference to one of these higher-level protocols then — perhaps HTTP or email? The address used in the TCP layer will be subject to data retention, but not the contents of the HTTP session. So TCP = envelope, HTTP = letter…?

No, that can’t be right: the full URL (uniform resource locator) that you see in the address bar contains both the host (used by TCP) and the resource (used by HTTP):

       the TCP part (ie.
       envelope) contains
       ⬐  this   ⬎
                    ⬑      this      ⬏
                    is in the HTTP part
                    (ie. the letter)

By their own analogy, they’re going to have to “open” the TCP/IP “envelope” to “read” the HTTP “letter” to extract and retain the full URL. Brandis explicitly mentioned recording web pages in one of his interviews.

The whole metaphor breaks down no matter which protocol you try to apply it to. The email address is just another line in the same stream of data containing the contents. And so on.

Someone’s Going to have to Actually Do It

And here we get to another problem, and the crux of why such an analogy is garbage: they have their analogy, but they didn’t even start from a real concept. They are literally implementing an analogy as policy.

Think about it: at some point, after these laws are passed, someone is going to have to actually sit down and write some code to do this, and nobody knows what they’ll be implementing.

We know they don’t know, because when Brandis or Abbott or anyone advocating for data retention are directly asked about this, they spew utterly incoherent nonsense.

But I Still Don’t Know what an Internet is!

You know what? If you want to advocate for a fundamental change in how a technology functions, if you want to enforce expensive, sweeping, invasive tampering with a major class of infrastructure, FUCKING LEARN HOW IT WORKS.

Here’s another tip: if a politician is speaking to you like you’re a child, maybe don’t take it at face value like a chump. Yes, you. Yes, even if it’s the Prime Minister. Yes, even if it’s Scott Ludlam. Yes, even if you are a child. Especially if you’re a child.

Because if your goal is to stop certain kinds of crime, and you notice that criminals use the internet to communicate, then if you waffle on about envelopes and letters and tubes and traffic and don’t understand what’s involved: you will NEVER, EVER actually achieve your stated goal anyway.

Next time some technologically illiterate mouthpiece tries to argue about “the outside of an envelope,” or somesuch, insist that they talk details. Because there is only one way to become immune to misguided agendas pushed through puerile analogies: it is to simply not need them.


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