Metaphors For Work

Posted by on 16.12.2009 in concepts, science, web

Metaphors aren’t just literary devices, they affect our intuition and reasoning in ways we’re barely aware of.

Which isn’t to say they’re bad; they’re essential — that’s the point.

By calling Metaphors We Live By a “landmark” in the previous post, I wasn’t trying to be dramatic, I was simply trying to provide better information so readers can clearly place it in the bigger realm of ideas.

Same with the phrase “literary devices.

Even my use of the word clearly uses a conceptual metaphor (UNDERSTANDING IS SEEING), and the notion of placing derives from another (IDEAS ARE SPATIAL OBJECTS).

A lot of these are very deep; a lot rarely change, as in the metaphors representing our common spatial bias. Here are more examples via Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought:

… the pronoun it (A SITUATION IS A THING) and the prepositions in (TIME IS SPACE), to (INTENTION IS MOTION TOWARD A GOAL), and among (AFFILIATION IS PROXIMITY)… of, from a Germanic word related to “off,” and for, from the Indo-European term for “forward.”

Those kinds of metaphors won’t change any time soon, but think of all the industrial and military metaphors people still use that aren’t appropriate in organic situations we face in the networked, open, social economy.

For example, if you find yourself thinking and talking about “innovation engines” you might be missing subtle-yet-essential insights into the emergent, heuristic, generative nature of innovation. Rather than connotations of combustion and automation, it might be more appropriate to think in terms of cultivation and cross-pollination, etc.

Also, is something like a “product launch” (with connotations of one massive, carefully planned thrust) still appropriate in world of rapid-prototyping and beta?

What do people think? Are there others we should think more carefully about?

Personally I wasn’t this aware of the effects of language until I read Metaphors We Live By a few years ago (btw thanks to reader Liz for recently putting it back on my radar).

Now that it’s become habit I’d say awareness of metaphors is definitely one of the keys to thinking in the 21st century.