10 Words Technology Borrowed from Nature

Art by Peter McFarlane

1. Ecosystem. The internet is often described as an ecosystem (or a sky, or a park, or a jungle), and many of its parts are named after the natural world. “Cyberspace,” says the technology historian Fred Turner, “is a frantic mingling of biological, digital, and frontier metaphors.”

2. Tree. Inside every computer, smartphone, and server is a floating forest of branching directories, all sprouting from a deeply buried “root” folder. Open one and you’ll find it connected to many others, like a leaf atop a twig that’s attached, eventually, to a trunk.

3. Spider. One of the first search engines was named after Lycosa kochii, or the wolf spider. Called Lycos, the system was designed to imitate the spider’s habit of catching its prey by relentless pursuit.

4. Virus. Computer scientists have categorized two main kinds of digital viruses. “Zoo viruses” are those that have little chance of spreading; often they are collected and preserved. Viruses that exist “in the wild” are much harder to control—some are shape-shifters that imitate more benign forms of code, while others are parasitic and invade computers, telephone systems, and other networks.

5. Water. The digital world is full of watery metaphors. We follow the Twitter stream, surf the web, listen to torrents of music, and meet at online watering holes. We swim in seas and oceans of data.

6. Bug. The first known computer bug was a real bug—a moth, in fact—that got stuck inside the enormous inner workings of an early computer in 1947. After removal, its body was taped to a sheet of paper on which the computer recorded its daily data, alongside the words “first actual case of bug being found.”

7. Swarm. At Kobe University in Japan, scientists used a swarm of forty soldier crabs to simulate the logic function of a computer. They watched the creatures navigate a maze, and then imitated their behavior in an effort to improve circuit designs.

8. Worm. The first computer worm was invented by John Brunner in his 1975 science fiction novel, The Shockwave Rider. He called it a “tapeworm,” since it worked in a way similar to the fleshy parasite. Real computer worms followed soon after.

9. Brain. The Mandarin word for “computer” means “electric brain.” Technologist Tim O’Reilly believes that hyperlinks allow the web to grow in the same way that synapses form—but is the internet like a brain, or is a brain like the internet?

10. Cloud. Until recently, a cloud was just a visible mass of condensed water, but today we also imagine it as a fog of data, accessible with a username and password, floating somewhere above the planet. In reality, though, it’s an earthbound network of enormous computers, as is the internet itself. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once wrote that clouds—the puffy kind—help us dream of transformation. They still do.

Sue Thomas’s books include Nature and Wellbeing in the Digital Age: Practical Ways to Connect to Nature Without Logging Off (2017); Technobiophilia: Nature and Cyberspace (2013), a study of metaphors in nature and technology; Hello World: Travels in Virtuality (2004), a travelogue/memoir of life online; and the novel Correspondence (1992), a story of transformation which was short-listed for the Arthur C. Clarke Science Fiction Award. From 2005 – 2013 she was Professor of New Media at De Montfort University and is now a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University. In the United States, she has been a Visiting Scholar at UMASS, UCLA, and UCSB. She lives on the south coast of the UK and dreams of California.


  1. Twitter, Chevron, Kindle Fire.

    These make me furious. I feel that the language of poetry is being stolen from us. Real life–real clouds, real flames, real birds–becoming flattened and falsified.

  2. You’ve left out the most powerful metaphor that conditions our acceptance of ‘technological progress’ which is itself a pillar of a increasingly technological ideology and worldview. We speak of generations of technology as though ‘tech’ was an independent system evolving separately…as though it was immune and elevated from human interventions and human concerns. But we are not machines, we are organic. We live in a universe that invites our empathy and which cannot be reduced to mechanical processes without losing what is most essential for human beings: our connectedness. Biological metaphors emphasize ‘tech’s weakness. It does not live. It is not a substitute system for life. It is only an increasingly sophisticated set of skills and tools, an example of how human beings have become overly reliant on one evolutionary adaptation imagining to encompasses the whole world and affords us protection from everything even ourselves.

  3. What about “browse” the internet. As if the internet is a field of grass and we browse it like cows.

  4. There is a phase of Evolution that I call evolution of non-living matter made by living matter. This phase also involves Natural Selection where a living thing chooses non-organic and/or dead organic matter to make something (a tool: nest, weapon, means of transport, etc.) to enhance their fitness. This phase of evolution began long before hominids, but exploded with the dawn of Homo sapiens. Modern humans acquired the ability to perceive, understand , and make highly complex connections with matter in their environment and use this ability to make complex things. The making of non-living things by living things follows the same general progressive path of general evolution of matter: an average increase in diversity and complexity over time. Humans understand and use this path and should make changes. Technology not only uses biological teminology. It uses full blown Darwinian Evolution structure.

  5. The articles could be a little bit longer like half a page or more on a piece of paper.

  6. Amazing…great research and we are always with Nature and Its Contributions …!!

  7. We also use (not necessarily nature specific):

    terminal, stack, queue, intelligence, morph (objects can morph/change/evolve), migrate (moving data or systems), subject/observer, farms (server farms), landscape (networks), facade, and clone (virtual machines and objects).

  8. Everything around is inspired by ‘NATURE’. And hence there is one more word called ‘biomimicry’.

    Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. The goal is to create products, processes, and policies—new ways of living—that are well-adapted to life on earth over the long haul.

  9. Dear all

    Thanks so much for your very interesting comments. I’ll try to respond without taking up too much space.

    Nina, I understand your emotion here but in terms of nature metaphors, t’was ever thus. Human have always used nature as a foundational metaphor for anything they seek to understand, whether it be simple ideas like ‘family tree’ or much more complex concepts. So it’s not surprising that early explorers in the new highly abstract terrain of cyberspace would do the same.

    Flore, thanks for your great photos. I really enjoyed them, and it’s nice to keep company with your family’s clever pictures!

    Seth and Rahima, remember the mouse, indeed! Unfortunately there wasn’t room in this piece to list all the metaphors described in my book Technobiophilia, but I discuss there both the early design of the mouse as well as the interesting cultural background of the @ sign, which is called a mouse in some languages (e.g. Finnish and Mandarin).

    Giles, I see your point, but actually I’d venture to suggest that many elements of our bodies are biological machines. As MIT’s Marvin Minsky once said, “we are machines made of meat”. As biological computing advances I suspect that the boundaries between meat and machine will become less and less obvious. (See also Neeti’s point about biomimicry)

    Margarita, thanks for proposing ‘browse’. And, of course, ‘field’ is also a very common computing metaphor.

    Tom, I’m in sympathy with your point of view. I might query, though, the separation you make between organic/non-organic and perhaps even between dead/alive. I think some cultures would see those boundaries as more blurred. For example (and I’m a bit hazy here) I believe that Shintoism considers everything to be alive, as do a wide range of thinkers including some physicists. No space here to go into more detail, but thanks for raising the issue.

    Mark, thanks for adding more words to the list. You have some great terms there, and of course words like ‘morph’ carry considerable abstract meaning too.

    And last but not least in my reading thus far, Neeti, thanks so much for mentioning biomimicry. Interestingly, I decided against discussing it in ‘Technobiophilia’ because there was not enough space to do it justice, but it keeps following me around! Indeed next month it’s the topic of a panel I’m on at an event about the Future of Cities in Bristol, UK. https://suethomasnet.wordpress.com/2015/10/07/biomimicry/

    Once again, thank you to everyone who has contributed their thoughts. Please do keep them coming.

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