Parallel circuits: real and virtual networks

A new editorial project reminds the Monitor's language columnist how computer networks are a rich source of metaphor.

We are all our own network administrators.

When I mentioned to a friend a while back that my latest editorial project was on "networking," there was a little half-beat pause in the conversation.

"Networking? Do you mean with people? Or computers?"

It was an utterly reasonable question.

We have a friend in common who is a well-known expert in social networking, and she's been into it way before Facebook. She coaches people in the techniques of "working a room," reading name tags, shaking hands, trading business cards.

(And yes, all you good people to whom I owe answers on LinkedIn and Facebook and whatever that other one was that I signed up for and really haven't gotten the hang of yet: I know you're out there. I do promise to get back to you!)

On the other hand, our networking is often digital in this age of technological self-reliance, when computer technology is supposedly within the grasp of us all.

At home we have to make sure that our computers talk to our routers and all the other gizmos they need to; away from home, we fret about "connectivity," whether at a coffee shop or other public place.

We're all, it seems, necessarily into both kinds of networking nowadays.

But the book in question, just to end the suspense, is on computer networking. And as I've worked on it, I've been reminded what a rich source of metaphor geekspeak is for situations in our "real," rather than virtual, lives.

For a start, there's "bandwidth." It's used broadly as a metaphor for capacity in a general sense: "Do you have the bandwidth to get to that this afternoon?" But more specifically, it's a great metaphor for the breadth and capacity of a channel between two people. Sometimes the two work together: "That message was too important to send by e-mail."

"Open shortest path first" sounds like a good life lesson, if not an actual law of physics, but capitalized – Open Shortest Path First – it turns out to be the formal name of a networking protocol.

I was amused to learn about the "Hot Standby Routing Protocol." It's "designed specifically," my author writes, "to support and provide network resilience" – to help a message cut a path through to its destination even if some of the network links are broken. But I can imagine a "hot standby" being a reference to that cute new guy you'd like to go to the dance with if you can get the message to him that your usual date is out of town that weekend.

Another term from the book that drew a chortle was "optimistic transmission," in which "the transmitting node assumes its transmissions will all be successful."

The idea that a mere gizmo can be optimistic is intriguing: Does hope spring eternal within microchips as well as human hearts?

And now that I'm onto the concept, I want to apply it to real life: If I try to convey a carefully framed constructive criticism and hope it will be received in the spirit in which it is given, is that an example of optimistic transmission?

"Global Load Balancing Protocol" sounds like an overstressed multitasker's fantasy come true. I don't really know what it means for a computer network. I don't need to know. I just love the name.

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