The roadmap metaphor: speculative alternatives

Tom Lee
7 min readNov 24, 2020

(This analysis is in part based on a Twitter thread started by Cameron Tonkinwise)

Metaphors change based on the way they are used. As Ian Hacking says of the categories we use to name different kinds of people (people who have autism, child viewers of television, women refugees, etc.), they are more interesting from the perspective of their dynamics, rather than semantics (Hacking 1999). In other words, how terms or categories are used in turn changes the meaning of the term, which continues to inform a dynamic feedback cycle as terms with changed meanings continue to change. In this sense, what a roadmap means changes depending on the instances where the term is used.

Presumably, one of the advantages of the roadmap metaphor is that it makes an abstract, unfamiliar notion like ‘a vision for the future’ more tangible. This is in part why metaphors for abstract concepts are often anachronistic: the past can appear more solid and reassuring than the present or the future which might seem, as Karl Marx put it, to be melting into air. The same impulse informs skeuomorphism, a practice in digital interface design whereby so called real-world or analogue objects are used to represent digital alternatives: the rubbish bins, folders and hourglasses that populate our computer desktops — not to mention the notion of a desktop itself!

For this reason, using the metaphor of ‘a pattern book’ has a certain appeal as the source domain for the target domain of ‘navigating towards future goals’ (as an alternative to ‘roadmap’, in other words). It doesn’t, however, avoid the problem of anachronism and in a sense, a pattern book is no different to a roadmap with regard to linearity: neither tell you where to go, but offer a range of different options for different navigational alternatives. A roadmap is no more or less inherently linear than a pattern book, constellation or a plan. Due to contingencies of usage, the roadmap metaphor may have drifted towards more deterministic conceptualisations of planning and rigid linearity, it is, however, simply a pattern book by another name.

One of the problems with the roadmap metaphor relates to a misunderstanding of what maps do. As noted by November et al (2010), maps are better understood as having a navigational rather than mimetic relationship with the places they are said to represent. The authors refer to the example of a yachtsmen in her cabin looking at a map while navigating the high seas: “The relation she is looking for is based not on some resemblance between the map and the territory but on the detection of relevant cues allowing her team to go through a heterogeneous set of datapoints from one signpost to the next” (2010, 585). While the mimetic or resemblance model of the map suggests a direct correspondence between map and territory, what November et al call the navigational model “emphasizes the establishment of some relevance that allows a navigator to align several successive signposts along a trajectory” (2010, 586).

The authors suggest that a more extensive consideration both of how maps are produced and used highlights the limitations of the mimetic notion of mapping. The “miracle of reference” to which maps attest is not the outcome of a great leap from territory to representation, but the product of a network of “explorers, navigators, cartographers, geometers, mathematicians, physicists, military personnel, urban planners, and tourists that have `logged in’, so to speak, on those `platforms’ in order to feed the `databanks’ with some piece of information, or to draw the maps, or to use them in some way to solve their navigational problems” (2010, 586).

November et al (2010) use a number of terms that seem like laudable alternatives to the mimetic temptations of the roadmap metaphor, including: navigational platform, and dashboard. While capturing the interactive aspect of making and using maps, these two terms have the disadvantage of already being quite common in the vernacular of digital computing. Though perhaps for some audiences this might be an advantage on account of familiarity and a sense of contemporaneity that is lacking from the roadmap and pattern book alternatives.

My personal favourite candidate as an alternative to roadmap is ‘smartphone’. A clunky and no doubt in most circumstances impractical candidate: in present circumstances it is hard to imagine a consultancy, for example, delivering a metaphorical ‘smartphone’ to a client in place of a metaphorical ‘roadmap’ without some laborious exegesis. Imagine politicians talking about their ‘smartphone for a hydrogen future’ or a ‘smartphone to better aged care’. There would be a few raised eyebrows.

The superficial clunkiness of the smartphone metaphor masks a deeper interpretative fecundity, at least this is what I will attempt to argue in what follows. And remember, at one point in history, using ‘roadmap’ in place of ‘smartphone’ in the above examples might have seemed just as perplexing.

While it might lack the romantic undertones of large-scale organic metaphors like constellations, trees and landscapes, the smartphone is nonetheless deceptively complex and large in scale, despite also fitting in a palm or pocket. Furthermore, this lack of romanticism is, I would suggest, also one of its advantages. The world of digital entrepreneurship has pillaged the so called natural world for cosily familiar, seemingly benevolent things and places (e.g. Apples). Better to sacrifice the smartphone to this cause than the sky or the forest.

Presently, it is almost impossible to ‘black box’ the smartphone metaphor as something that is taken for granted in terms of its interpretative affordances. Unlike ‘roadmap’ which is close to becoming so conventional to qualify as ‘dead’, the smartphone is, in this context, alive with a sense of the inappropriate. As the source domain for a metaphor describing future planning, it is at once familiar and yet so obscure to demand unpacking. Granted, this is not advantageous in circumstances where brevity is the top priority. In the more gratuitous contexts of academic theorising, however, the smartphone metaphor comes into its own.

The smartphone is among the most widespread, most advanced pieces of navigational equipment that has even been created in the Western world. While the pocket globes of the 18th and 19th centuries might have been advanced in their time, the multifunctional, computational and creative powers of the smartphone testify to the massive advances in navigational technologies over the intervening centuries. Furthermore, not only does the smartphone allow people to navigate through and between places, like previous mapping technologies, it also possesses unprecedented affordances for logging into different platforms. In this sense it is not a bounded, static, or even well understood technology, but a mutable, polymorphous, adaptable digital guardian.

Smartphones are cameras, photo albums, navigational tools, telephones, internet browsers, alarm clocks, messaging tools, music archives, music players and measuring devices for how far we walk — just to name some of the more obvious functions. Considering this polyvalence, I’m reminded of a story from The Bible, Mark 5:1–20, when Jesus encounters a man possessed by demons in the region of Gerasenes and asks his name. “My name is Legion,” the man replies, “for we are many.”

Smartphones are inadequately grasped by the same metaphysics that has a stock and trade in what the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin so quotably called “moderate-sized specimens of dry goods” — that is, tables, chairs, rocks, vases, balls, jugs and so on (Austin 1976, 8). Better analogies for the smartphone can be found in spiritual and mythological realms, such as the Roman birth gods Genius and Juno, which Peter Sloterdijk includes in his speculative archeology of phenomena that exemplify the primary condition of withness. Sloterdijk characterises the culturally widespread notion of such a spirit being as “a mysterious union of the wonderful and the reliable” which “ensures the psychological space inhabited by the ancient subject discretely and continuously borders on proximate transcendence” (2011, 425).

Sloterdijk uses the example of Andy Warhol’s relationship with his tape recorder as a technological manifestation of a guardian spirit. Warhol was an obsessive recorder, he created over 4000 hours of recordings and referred to the recorder as his ‘wife’ and claimed that it solved all of his emotional problems. Rather than objects, Sloterdijk prefers to call such quasi-objective forms ‘nobjects’: “things, media or persons that fulfil the function of the living genius or intimate augmenter for subjects” (Sloterdijk 2011, 467).

The aptness of the guardian angel concept as metaphor for the smartphone also highlights its advantages for characterising the same target domain as roadmap. Why would any organization want a roadmap when they could have their own institutional genius; a guardian being that facilitates projective problem solving?

Like many familiar nouns, the smartphone is itself metaphoric. Due to the multi-functionality of the device, a more straightforwardly literal name is hard to conceive. ‘Intimate Augmenter’ or ‘Inti-Aug’ for short, seems a reasonably decent alternative, or perhaps Micro-Media-Factory (MMF). Nonetheless, while ‘phone’ might still register a referential sense of the more recent, now largely defunct, location-specific technological ancestors of the smartphone, the longer etymological history of the word can be traced back to the Greek word for ‘voice’, which, when combined with ‘smart’, captures a sense of an intangible, advisory being offering navigational help in an unpredictable context.

No metaphor is perfect. Furthermore, different appetites for obscurity, on the one hand, or clarity and directness on the other hand, tend to divide different users and voters on what is best when it comes to the poetics and performance of language. To once again echo Hacking (1999), perhaps the most innovative and interesting alternative to a single metaphor is not a word or phrase that is more meaningful in terms of its applicability and adequacy, but one that awakens users, institutions and communities to the dynamism of language.

As a closing gesture, below is a list of three criteria that I’ve used in my teaching practice for metaphor design, or, if you want the deluxe version, try this free, self-paced, online learning experience, which takes roughly 2–4hrs

  • Adequacy: the extent to which the metaphor accounts for all of the elements of the target domain
  • Applicability: the extent to which the source domain is readily understandable as a metaphor for the target domain
  • Surprise: the extent to which the metaphor uncovers fresh interpretations of the target domain

List of works cited

Austin, J. L., (1976). Sense and Sensabilia. London : Oxford University Press.

Hacking, I., (1999). The Social Construction of What. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.

November, V., Camacho-Hübner, E., & Latour, B. (2010). Entering a risky territory: Space in the age of digital navigation. Environment and planning D: Society and space, 28(4), 581–599.

Sloterdijk, P., (2011) Spheres: Microspherology. Vol. I: Bubbles. Translated by W. Hoban. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).



Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz.