I’ve been thinking about ways we use metaphor when talking about (new) technologies for a bit. Choosing the metaphor with which we describe a new technology does real work: it can help kick-start understanding, but its price is limiting how we conceptualize the technology and thus close-off our minds to possibilities we might have considered had a different metaphor been chosen.

Recently, I finally got to a book that had been on my shelf for a while: Metaphors We Live By by Mark Johnson and George Lakoff. It was first published in 1980, but, phew, it still feels radical to me.

For Johnson and Lakoff, metaphors are not merely “devices of poetic imagination and… rhetorical flourish”.

… most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

They quickly provide an example of such a metaphor: “argument is war”. They list 10 common English phrases that show this connection between argument and war, like “Your claims are indefensible”, “He attacked every weak point in my argument”, “His criticism were right on target”, and “I demolished his argument.”

Still just words, though, right? Poetic imagination? Not so, say the authors:

It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lost arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument – attack, defense, counterattack, etc. – reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.

I’m nodding along, but not totally sold? Then, crucially and immediately, the authors pose a hypothetical:

Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or losses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently, and talk about them differently. [In fact, modern Western cultures] would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different….

This is an example of what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.

Inflation example

Another good example they use (remember, it’s 1980) is “inflation is an adversary”. This metaphor

not only gives us a very specific way of thinking about inflation but also a way of acting toward it. We think of inflation as an adversary that can attack us, hurt us, steal from us, even destroy us. The INFLATION IS AN ADVERSARY metaphor therefore gives rise to and justifies political and economic actions on the part of the government: declaring war on inflation, setting targets, calling for sacrifices… etc.

This shows how government officials (and the media) may affect the real world through the metaphors they choose to describe a relatively abstract problem like inflation.

It could be otherwise

The most interesting part of this framework for me is that it provides tools for re-visiting concepts and actions that may have seemed “natural” but now may appear more arbitrary or of a particular culture (or even – gasp – politically useful). The authors aren’t afraid to flirt with this slightly subversive thesis:

TIME IS MONEY, TIME IS A LIMITED RESOURCE, and TIME IS A VALUABLE COMMODITY are all metaphorical concepts. They are metaphorical concepts. They are metaphorical since we using our everyday experiences with money, limited resources, and valuable commodities to conceptualize time. This isn’t a necessary way for human beings to conceptualize time; it is tied to our [American] culture. There are cultures where time in none of these things.

And later, on labor and leisure (66):

When we are living by the metaphors LABOR IS A RESOURCE and TIME IS A RESOURCE, as we do in [American] culture, we tend not to see them as metaphors at all. But… both are structural metaphors that are basic to Western industrial societies…

LABOR IS A RESOURCE and TIME IS A RESOURCE are by no means universal. They emerged naturally in our culture because of the way we [again, I take it they mean Americans] view work, our passion for quantification, and our obsession with purposeful ends. These metaphors highlight those aspect of labor and time that are centrally important in our culture. In doing this, they also deemphasize or hide certain aspects of labor and time….

The quantification of labor in terms of time, together with the view of time as serving a purposeful end, induces a notion of LEISURE TIME, which is parallel to the concept of LABOR TIME… As a result, LEISURE TIME becomes a RESOURCE too – to be spent productively, used wisely, saved up, budgeted, wasted, lost etc. What is hidden by the RESOURCE metaphors for labor and time is the way our concepts of LABOR and TIME affect our concept of LEISURE, turning it into something remarkably like LABOR.

It could be otherwise!

What is Truth? Getting more radical

How far do Lakoff and Johnson go? By page 159, in a chapter called “Truth”, we get:

We believe that the idea that there is absolute objective truth is not only mistaken but socially and politically dangerous. As we have seen, truth is always relative to a conceptual system that is defined in large part by metaphor. Most of our metaphors have evolved in our culture over a long period, but many are imposed upon us by people in power – political leader, religious leaders, business leaders, advertisers, the media, etc. In a culture where the myth of objectivism is very much alive and truth is always absolute truth, the people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true – absolutely and objectively true.

Truth, for the authors, is based on understanding through metaphor. From 184:

For us, meaning depends on understanding. A sentence can’t mean anything to you unless you understand it. Moreover, meaning is always meaning to someone. There is no such thing as a meaning of a sentence in itself…

Here our theory differs radically from standard theories of meaning. The standard theories assume that it is possible to give an account of truth in itself, free of human understanding, and that the theory of meaning will be based on such a theory of truth. We see no possibility for any such program to work and think that the only answer is to base both the theory of meaning and the theory of truth on a theory of understanding. Metaphor… plays a central role in such a program. Metaphors are basically devices for understanding and have little to do with objective reality, if there is such a thing.

What a liberating notion to those of us learning a new concept: Its truth is not some objective thing, apart from your understanding, that you are chasing. The truth of it is your understanding of it. In other words, the old adage of “know your audience” seems to be far more important than one might have assumed: If you want to write true things, you must know where your audience is coming from (i.e. what metaphors they have access to).

What this means for a person who wants to explain things to other people (Metaphorical imagination)

How can we make this all a bit more practical? Let’s say you’re like me and are interested in explaining technical concepts to other people, either through technical writing or in-person.

In general, I’ve found it’s easier to explain something to a friend of 10 years than a new colleague. This makes sense given our new framework, since we have a ton of shared (cultural) experience to draw on and form more precise metaphors with, and we likely have more confidence our listener will “know what we’re talking about.”

In a section called “Interpersonal Communication and Mutual Understanding”, Lakoff and Johnson address the trickier case:

When people who are talking don’t share the same culture, knowledge, values, and assumptions, mutual understanding can be especially difficult. Such understanding is possible through the negotiation of meaning. To negotiate meaning with someone, you have to become aware of and respect both the differences in your backgrounds and when these differences are important. You need enough diversity of cultural and personal experience to be aware that divergent world views exist and what they might be like. You also need patience, a certain flexibility in world view, and a generous tolerance for mistakes, as well as a talent for finding the right metaphor to communicate the relevant parts of unshared experiences… Metaphorical imagination is a crucial skill in creating rapport and in communicating the nature of unshared experience. This skill consists, in large measure, of the ability to bend your world view and adjust the way you categorize your experience.

Here’s to cultivating a diversity of cultural and personal experience and maintaining a certain flexibility in world view!

The canonical person

Armed with this idea that two people need at least some shared experience to negotiate meaning through metaphors, I thought about if this illuminated an unexplored advantage of being in a member of a group in power. As a common example that you may have heard before (but this framework may illuminate in new ways), business people may use sports metaphors that may be easier for sports fans to understand compared to people who don’t watch sports.

We might now venture even deeper. Lakoff and Johnson spend a good amount of time taking about orientations as metaphors (HAPPY IS UP, SAD IS DOWN; HEALTH IS UP, SICKNESS and DEATH are DOWN; VIRTUE IS UP, DEPRAVITY IS DOWN,). Much later in the book, they briefly acknowledge something interesting, especially when considered in light of disability: that these foundational orientation metaphors rely on a “prototypical” or “canonical” person.

Cooper and Ross (1975) observe that our culture’s view of what a prototypical member of our culture is like determines an orientation of concepts within our conceptual system. The canonical person forms a conceptual reference point, and an enormous number of concepts in our conceptual system are oriented with respect to whether or not they are similar to the properties of the prototypical person. Since people typically function in an upright position, see and move frontward, spend most of their time performing actions… we have a basis in our experience for viewing ourselves as more UP than DOWN, more FRONT than BACK, more ACTIVE than PASSIVE… (132)

What does this mean for a person who can’t stand UP unassisted, whose leg is twisted “sideways”, or who requires more PASSIVE time to rest than others? Are they othered by entrenched cultural metaphors in ways that few understand?

Computer viruses as a more modern example

Obviously in the time since 1980, computers and the internet became huge parts of our worlds. The number of metaphors we use (and, I’d say, need) seems to have grown exponentially (desktop, files, interNET, the web, recycle bin, the save icon, password vaults, distributed ledgers….).

There’s a ton of interesting work we could do in applying these metaphorical concepts from the 1970s to modern technology and the world it has created. In 2017, Sam Zucchi explored one such example: the metaphor of a computer “virus” as a biological disease.

The language of infection, infestation, and disease are routine ways of comprehending the digital world: Not only do computers suffer from viruses, but errors are diagnosed, bugs are found in code, and worms parasitically invade host servers. PEN America conducted a survey and found that some of the most frequent metaphors describing digital surveillance relied on the language of invasive biological procedures: “hemorrhaging, implanting, infect, ingest, inject,” and so on. The computer is now perceived as a biological entity; any fault in the system is now a symptom of disease.

Zucchi observes a sleight of hand performed by the choice of metaphor here, namely how blame is apportioned:

And these diseases have been seen as deserved. Your computer was infected because you did something morally objectionable, like torrenting a video game, stealing an album, or searching for porn. In opening an email attachment from a stranger, you acted foolishly and what did you think would happen? To let your machine become infected was to have been at the very least thoughtless and, at the worst, culpable — you sent the plague. The implied lesson of any such infection, then, was that you, the user, needed to be careful and responsible.

In conclusion Zucchi offers us the idea that metaphors, as we’ve been discussing them, may outgrow their purposes after a time.

Sontag’s Illness and Its Metaphors ends with the notion that the kind of anxieties dealt with by metaphors of illness will likely outlast the usefulness of the metaphor itself. On our computers, viruses cannot stand for themselves — as independent agents, as actors with their own volition. They always stand in for power, and their presence is a reminder of the power that the individual user, ultimately, does not have. When the image of the computer virus is no longer useful, perhaps that apparent powerlessness will become easier to see and confront.

This implies that explanatory metaphors need to be revisited occasionally to see if their explanatory power is still worth the trade-offs of what they hide. Our (“Our”) understanding of either or both sides of the metaphor (computer errors and biological disease, in this case) can shift. I think it’s pretty obvious that almost every culture’s understanding of “plagues” or contagious diseases has shifted dramatically since 2017, specifically how blame of disease contraction is placed on individuals vs. “society”/ “public.”

This idea of metaphors growing out-dated over time is not something I picked up on in Metaphors We Live By. However, the authors do take care to explain that these metaphors are necessarily partial, not total. “If [they] were total, once concept would actually be the other, not merely understood in terms of it. For example, time isn’t really money.” That this already-partial explanatory power may wane as our (“our”) understanding of one or both of the connected concepts (computer errors and biological disease, in this case) changes makes sense within Lakoff and Johnson’s framework.