Hyperlinked Organization Title

For those who need to understand how the Web is changing the way businesses work

June 4, 1998


Special Edition

This special mini-edition of JOHO is occasioned by an especially tasty contribution by Chris "Rageboy" Locke, the editor of EGR, a web newsletter that has perfected the delightfully-cranky category. Frequent readers of JOHO will recognize Rageboy as the scourge of JOHO.

Please be assured that this special issue is in addition to, and not instead of, our normal schedule of publications which continues later this week with our special CTO Swimsuit edition.

It's just another example of JOHO living up to its motto: "Under-promise, over-deliver, and check for typos later!"

(Click here to go to the regular issue of JOHO of May 16.)


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Are Metaphors Like Baloney or Las Vegas?:
A Colloquoy

In the previous issue of JOHO, I prattled on about why it's important to get metaphors right, and why "knowledge management" doesn't. This elicited a somewhat wonderful response from Rageboy.

I have taken the editor's liberty of adding comments to elucidate, challenge and in general distract you from the thrust of Chris's argument in order to prove myself his superior in every conceivable way. In other words, I am pretending that Chris and I are academics.

RageBoy's Missive

Commentary & Elucidation

So David old pal whom I love as dearly as my own nearly departed Mom: Chris is here referring to a contretemps is a previous issue when some readers mistook our ill-natured badinage for actual animosity. The truth is that Chris and I long ago moved beyond friendship all the way to rough sex.

wrt "Knowledge Management and the The Importance of Metaphors," I don't think this heading is long enough. It cries out for a colon -- or some mechanism from which the gas can escape. How about this?

Here RB subtly tweaks my nose for having explained in a previous issue that "wrt" stands for "with regards to" instead of "with regard to." Chris knows that I am deeply embarrassed by making grammatical mistakes of this sort. Here he cleverly forces me to bring the issue up again in public. He's a cruel man.

Also, notice the diabolical pun on "colon" as both a punctuation mark and that from which gas escapes. This refers to our recent meal in a Vietnamese restaurant in Boulder which Chris dragged me to. Tofu and lemon grass. Enough said.

Knowledge Management and the The Importance of Metaphors: How Looking Even *More* Closely at Our Own Mental Processes Can Reduce Us to Quivering Cognitive Jell-O.

That, to me, has more the look of a paper title that might make the cut for the annual convention of the Modern Language Association.

Aha! Not only does Chris miss with his MLA reference (my degree is in philosophy and I can assure you that the American Philosophical Association meetings are nothing like MLA meetings, except, well, in debating minute points in sessions with intimidating titles...) but Chris himself here uses a metaphor: cognitive Jell-O! And he leaves out the trademark! Things are definitely going my way!

Actually, what I'm getting really tired of is the whole metaphor metaphor. This has to be one of those bad jokes perpetrated by people still using Lisp machines with META keys who learned about recursion way too early in life and it's since colored everything they know. I mean, we've had paper for thousands of years, and people simply did not do this. They didn't say: "Look, this is not really a piece of paper. It's actually a house! Here's the door, here's the window, and see -- I'm especially proud of this one -- here's the little TRASHCAN!"

No. It's was always just frickin paper. It was what you wrote on it that determined whether or not it belonged in the little trashcan.

Another veiled personal attack! Chris knows one of my pathetic books is on programming Interleaf documents with LISP. Frankly, this type of maneuver really just makes me look sympathetic, don't you think?

If I may veer into some substance, might I point out that the situation is more complex than Chris makes it out to be here? The aesthetic experience -- being moved by art, for those who lost their notes to their required college art appreciation course -- is in part a sense of wonder that mere canvas can express what isn't canvas. You stand there in amazement that someone could turn pigmented oils into a picture so beautiful. This is already a "recursive" experience.

The "meta"-ness of art is distinctive of art. Take that!

Another thing? All this stuff about "knowledge" -- can we please just knock that off? It's so Germanic. Wissenpissenwaftegesundheit. When I hear the word knowledge these days, I reach for my spam cannon. It makes me want to get in on some cheap Florida real estate.

Damn! He's made me laugh! Milk actually came out my nose. I hate when that happens.

The problem with "knowledge" is that it carries forward all the old baggage about legitimation. This is very old news if you haven't been exclusively reading Javascript documentation. You can make fun all you want of those continental lit-and-culture-crit dudes like Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, Habermas and like that, but whether their answers were right or wrong, they framed some questions about knowledge that didn't simply evaporate when T.B. Lee came up with angle brackets.

Now hold on one rootin'-tootin' minute! I believe I'm the one with the academic credentials to pretend he's read these folks! (By the way, don't fall for RB's bluff: He made up the name "Lyotard.")

As far as the search for knowledge being in fact a search for legitimization: Right on, baby! The idea is that knowledge is a power trip, man. Knowledge is the stuff that the power elite agrees on. Being "in the know" means believing "legitimate" things and being legitimized in return. (For example, a "knowing reference" to Tim Berners-Lee [the inventor of the WWW] as "T.B. Lee" might count...)

Of course, the original JOHO article argued against the idea that the K in KM was about big honkin' facts. Indeed, KM originally was about the from-the-ground-up, hands-on know-how that distinguishes field people from the management elite. My problem with this type of KM is that what you really want to do is not heap knowledge up in front of people but make them smarter by teaching them to learn better.

The problem, succinctly stated, is: who says?

Succinctness? Waaay too late for that.

The extra dimension that the speed of internet propagation brings to this problem is: who says when?

Usually, knowledge is construed to be the result of consensus among some (probably "professionally" bounded) community of practice that's had a while to chew on the options and digest them into something that fits a (pretty much) coherent and (mostly) cohesive -- you should forgive the expression, except in this case it's exactly what T.S. Kuhn was talking about -- paradigm.

Time out for a brief history of knowledge. Traditionally knowledge (episteme) was considered to be justified true belief (doxa). It was very interesting to the Greeks (and to 2,000 years of thinkers afterwards) that there was this distinction between knowing and believing and they really, really wanted to know what the difference was because, if you knew you knew some stuff, then you could deduce more knowledge and not slip back into mere belief. (Ah, knowledge is knowing you know and thus is already recursive!)

This changed with Francis Bacon and the Humdingers who replaced deductions from known assumptions with the Scientific Method.

T.S. Kuhn shook things up again -- and more decisively than the Frenchies Chris cites -- by showing (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) that the scientific method does not provide a continuous march of progress towards truth. Instead, even the questions science asks are based upon a paradigm, a set of beliefs that are internally consistent but are not necessarily any more true than other paradigms. As scientists work within the paradigm, anomalous results are found that are put aside until they are too plentiful to ignore and a new paradigm is invented/discovered that covers those anomalies.

This worked for Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and John Cleese, because in those days it took centuries to carry new ideas by donkey between the highly exclusive centers of learning (and vetting -- sometimes by virtue of burning at the stake). Now, what with all these packets flipping around the planet before you can finish blowing your nose, that don't work too pretty good no more.

Gosh, I love the way Chris writes! What a great paragraph.

So, is it knowledge because the boss says so? Or because Harvard Business School (where they all just got AOL accounts last month) says so? Or because you and your Satan worship coven say so? Really. This is serious.

Sorry, but I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid here. The fact that knowledge is paradigmatic doesn't mean that it's purely relative. Paradigms aren't wimpy little belief-sets that you can pick up from your boss, your coven, or even Thursday night Must-See TV. A paradigm has staying power -- Newtonian physics is still with us -- because it captures a lot of what's real and true.

In fact, that's the problem. It's way TOO serious.

Ok, here's where Chris hides the Queen in his 3-Card Monte game. He doesn't want us to think too long or too hard about what he's saying. This is The Game of the Century. Irony and sarcasm deflate seriousness, and when your seriousness becomes detumescent, you're not held responsible for your thoughts. Irony beats thinking like rock beats scissors.

J'accuse, RageBoy! I insist on taking you seriously!

For textbooks, it's important to know the consensus of what pretty-much-everybody-who-counts thinks. For innovation, on the other hand, it's important to know what's *missing* from all that. So it's best to ignore a whole lot of "What's Always Worked For Us" (sometimes called "The Canon"). Nobody knows what the missing stuff should look like anyway, because it's... well... missing! Otherwise, it'd already be there for god's sake. So how can you call that knowledge since a) nobody knows it yet, and b) deciding what counts as *real* knowledge is about as social a deal as an Iowa cornhusking bee?

Ok, I've got it, I think. What's in between the cracks is what's important but it isn't knowledge. Knowledge by its definition (Chris's) is what everyone agrees upon, so it necessarily isn't what's innovative.



Damn! I thought I was understanding this stuff!

Me, I vote for "play" (ludo, ludere). Substitute play for all those broken notions of "knowledge" and -- viola! -- nobody knows what's serious and what isn't; what they can safely ignore and what they might be best advised to check out; in short: what's going to be on the test. Therefore, they have to pay closer attention. Well... of course they don't *got* to. Nobody *gots* to do anything. As we're so rapidly finding out. Which is why all this paranoia about knowledge in the first place. Right?

Chris and I have a mutual friend named Ludo. This is probably a coded message to him.

On the other hand, RB is making an important point here. You can't really do the substitution of "play" for "knowledge" ("play management" ... quick, someone call the Harvard Business Review!), but is our interest in KM really a form of ass-covering? One of the most-cited apps for KM certainly is: the tobacco companies who need to know what they know before the FDA finds out. (Really, folks, if we can't come up with a better example of why we need KM, let's just fold-up our tin tables and leave our street corners.)

but hey: just kidding.

He's done it! The triple backflip with a double lutz, plunging into the deep end! Yes!!! You gotta be thrilled seeing this, don't you? You just gotta write like a sports announcer when a guy gives 110% like this!

So, we begin with a plea for dropping our fascination with metaphors on the grounds that there's something sort of pathological about insisting on standing an extra step away from the world. Then we move to a statement of the relativity of knowledge. Then RB performs a psycho-audit of the corporate lust for knowledge, putting it on the couch until it admits that it is really nothing more than a way to run from responsibility, adulthood, death and our desire to procreate with Mom and/or Dad. But just as he gets going, he says it's all too serious. Then he gets serious about play. And then, riding off on his horse, with the tail swishing over the last part of the horse you want to see, he strikes while the irony's cool and takes an extra step away from the world. Is he hoisting irony on its own petard, or are our petards being hoisted ironically?



Love ya, babe

The above comments were just sniping. Here's what I really want to say.

A metaphor (or model or paradigm) is a way of understanding one thing by way of another, assimilating the new to the familiar. You can complain that that's an essentially conservative, status-quo-hugging, anti-innovative way of thinking, but it's also the Human Condition. Without it, we don't have thought and we sure don't have language. If y'all don't like it, well, as we say in Trends in Neo-Realism, Empiricism and Facticity class: tough noogies.

So, when something seemingly new comes along, like knowledge management (KM), using the right metaphors is very important. Using the wrong metaphors obscures what may be of value in it. That's why Lotus Notes floundered and foundered for the first few years. And viewing word processing within the typewriter metaphor held it back as well; in addition, it distracted us from the important effects WPwas having on the nature of "written" words. (Michael Heim, a JOHO reader, was one of the first to write about this, in Electric Language.)

So, it's important to worry about metaphors because you're not futzing about how something is described but how it is understood ... and thus to some extent what it is.

Further, because metaphors compare one thing with another in some ways but not in all ways, the right metaphor shows not only what is familiar and understandable, but also what is new and murky. It's in those cracks in the sidewalk that innovation happens. (Then, occasionally, there is a change in paradigm or metaphor when innovation overtakes familiarity. The Web may be an instance of this; knowledge management sure isn't.)

Conclusion: JOHO will continue to futz with metaphors.


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Bonus Bogus Contest: The Above

Please reduce either column of the above table to a bumper sticker.

Extra points awarded for irony.

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Comments Requested

We here at JOHO are interested in -- in fact, fascinated by -- your reaction to this special issue. Should we do more? Fewer? Retract this one? Pursue this style? Calm down and write nicer prose? Whatever. Send your comments to [email protected].



Editorial Lint

JOHO is a free, independent newsletter written and produced by David Weinberger. Subscription information, or requests to be removed from the JOHO mailing list, should be sent to [email protected].

The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization is a publication of Evident Marketing, Inc.

"The Hyperlinked Organization" is trademarked by Open Text Corp. Information about Evident Marketing's Preemptive Trademarks can be found at: http://www.hyperorg.com/misc/trademarks.html.