Making sense of the world with metaphors

That could have been my dad, except he doesn’t sport the same intense mustache. But the clip is a nice encapsulation on how we’ve relied on metaphors to make sense of unfamiliar things, and how difficult it was and can be, still, to achieve a level of abstraction that allow us to function in a new world.

It also reminded me of the fact that it is not engineers or coders that make the new world, but the writers and poets and artists in them and working with them. Technology comes into the world wrapped in metaphors, and when you get bad writers who come up or persist with bad metaphors, you end up with bad technology.

It’s not always technical walls that stop change in its tracks. Sometimes, innovation is limited by language itself.

When was the last time, for instance, that you used the word “desktop” to refer to the actual surface of a desk? Our desktops are imaginary now — but in the days of the earliest graphical user interfaces, comparing a computer to a piece of office furniture was odd enough that tech companies had to spell it out for us. “First of all,” read one of the earliest Macintosh print ads, “we made the screen layout resemble a desktop, displaying pictures of objects you’ll have no trouble recognizing. File folders. Clipboards. Even a trash can.”

Go to Athens to read some literature, or Broadway to look up theater shows.

Go to Athens to brush up on some literature, or Broadway to look up theater shows.

The awareness that metaphors can inhibit innovation as much as they advance it leads any number of technological misfires to make an odd, new kind of sense. Early cars weren’t simply called “horseless carriages,” they were literally designed to resemble carriages with the horse removed; the Model T, in turn, was one of the first cars to successfully eliminate the carriage metaphor. If driverless cars are ever feasible, we might expect the pattern to repeat itself: early entries modeling themselves on familiar sedans and minivans long after their function is gone, and successful competitors breaking through the metaphor entirely, into shapes we haven’t yet imagined.

When Apple decided “flat design” was the way to go for iOS 7, it wasn’t because Google and other companies were necessarily deemed cooler and better in their aesthetics; it’s because the need for  old metaphors died, though we should not forget it was those metaphors of desktops and leather-stitched calendars that got us to our state of comfort with the current technology of touch screens etc in the first place.

Science and math may increasingly be the curriculum’s glory subjects — when’s the last time you heard a politician demanding that schools churn out more classics majors? — but innovation has always demanded just as much verbal creativity, a feeling for the possibilities and limits of words themselves. Innovators need an eye for what George Orwell called “dying metaphors”: not those newly vivid ones (like “desktop” in 1984), nor the dead ones that have stopped reminding us of images at all (like the “hands” of a clock), but the images that have outlived their usefulness.

It’s one of many reasons that upset me when I read reports about the need to score well in standardized math and science tests, or an insistence to choose a career in something that can be reliably, if arbitrarily, measured (finance and page views come to mind). When we lose the capacity to articulate a vision for a new world, we lose more than the words – we lose the ability to create one.

Quoted passages via The Millions

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