Metaphors of Data: a Reading List

This reading list brings together academic and popular writing on metaphors of data, along with pieces that approach questions of data and commercial/political power. The goal in assembling this list was to catalog resources that are helpful in unpacking and critiquing different metaphors, ranging from the hype around data as the new oil to less common (and perhaps more curious) formulations, such as data as sweat or toxic waste.

The list is best seen as an unfinished, non-exhaustive document. We welcome comments and, in particular, recommendations of further work to include. Please use the comment space at the bottom of the page to offer suggestions, and we will try to update the list in light of them. [Last updated on October 22, 2017.]

This list was compiled with the help of the Social Media Collective extended family. Thanks to all of those who have contributed so far!


Books and Articles on Data and Metaphors

Anderson, Steve F. (2017) Technologies of Vision: The War Between Data and Images. MIT Press.

Fiore-Gartland, Brittany, and Neff, Gina. (2015) Communication, mediation, and the expectations of data: data valences across health and wellness communities. International Journal of Communication, 9 (2015): 19.

Gregg, Melissa. (2015) Inside the data spectacle. Television & New Media, 16 (1), 37-51.

Hu, Tung-Hui. (2015) A Prehistory of the Cloud. MIT Press. [Especially the introductory chapter]

Markham, Annette N. (2013) Undermining ‘data’: A critical examination of a core term in scientific inquiry. First Monday, 18(10).  [A piece grounded in metaphor analysis that looks at advertisements that equalize all human experiences as ‘data’]

Mosco, Vincent. (2015) To the cloud: Big data in a turbulent world. Routledge.

Nafus, Dawn, (2014) Stuck data, dead data, and disloyal data: the stops and starts in making numbers into social practicesDistinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 15 (2): 208-22.

Peters, John Durham. (2015) The marvelous clouds: Toward a philosophy of elemental media. University of Chicago Press. (review of the book in IJoC:

Peters, John Durham. Cloud. Draft of a keyword piece (final version forthcoming in a 2016 anthology called Digital Keywords, Ben Peters, ed.).

Puschmann, Cornelius, and Jean Burgess. (2014) Big Data, Big Questions: Metaphors of Big Data. International Journal of Communication 8 (2014): 20.


Popular Press, Blogs, Video Essays

“’The Cloud’ and Other Dangerous Metaphors” by Tim Hwang and Karen Levy.

“Data is the New ‘___’” by Sara Watson.

“Haunted By Data” by Maciej Cegłowski.

The Personal Data Conundrum” by Mimi Onuoha.

“Missing Datasets” by Mimi Onuoha.

“Towards a Concept of Popular Data” by Rahul Bhargava. 

“Data Murals” by Rahul Bhargava.

“Big Data’s Empowerment Problem” by Rahul Bhargava and Catherine D’Ignazio.

“What Would Feminist Data Visualization Look Like” by Catherine D’Ignazio.

“Screening Surveillance” by Steve Anderson. [A video essay that proposes an interpretive chronology of surveillance in Hollywood from Charlie Chaplin to Edward Snowden]

“Surveillance and Computation” by Steve Anderson.

“Swimming or drowning in the data ocean? Thoughts on the metaphors of big data” by Deborah Lupton

“Big Data Metaphors We Live By” by Kailash Awati and Simon Buckingham Shum

“Metaphors of Big Data” by Irina Raicu

“When data do not make sense” by Deborah Lupton


Key Thinking about Metaphors

Chandler, Daniel (1994). Semiotics for beginners. [A good resource on metaphors and how they work]

Donath, Judith (2014). The social machine: designs for living online. MIT Press. [Especially section 3 on metaphor, visualization, and application design]

Edge, David (1974). Technological Metaphor and Social Control. New Literary History, 6(1), 135.

Johnston, Rebecca (2009). Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the Internet. First Monday, 14(4).

Lakoff, George (1993). The contemporary theory of metaphor.

Lakoff, George and Johnson, Mark (2003). Metaphors We Live By (2nd ed.). University Of Chicago Press

Ortony, Andrew, ed. (1979) Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wyatt, Sally. (2000). Talking about the Future: Metaphors of Internet. In N. Brown, B. Rappert, & A. Webster (Eds.), Contested Futures: A Sociology of Prospective Techno-Science (pp. 109–126). Aldershot: Ashgate Press.

Wyatt, Sally. (2004) Danger! Metaphors at work in economics, geophysiology, and the Internet. Science, Technology & Human Values, 29(2), 242-261.

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