Hyperlinked Organization Title

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

June 21, 1998


Special Edition

We recently published a special edition of JOHO which consisted of comments from Chris "RageBoy" Locke (the editor of EGR) in one column and my snarky sniping in the other column. The topic was the importance of metaphors.

The issue elicited a lot of comments. Apparently, JOHO readers care about metaphors the way, well, paramecia care about snail droppings.

Hence, this special issue in response to the previous special issue. Last in a series. Probably.


Extra Special
Special Edition

If you act now, you can read all about my recent dinner with RageBoy This, I think, will answer your questions about who he is and what makes him tick.

Act quickly before RageBoy discovers he has certain rights under the federal libel laws...

Click here

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Metaphorical Reactions

Joshua Newman points us to a book:

Have you read George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's book "Metaphors We Live By"? You write as if you have, but if you have not, you might enjoy it...

Lakoff and Johnson suggest that the underlying metaphors strongly influence, maybe even govern, how we think about things.

Somehow I missed this book but I've read it now. Thanks, Joshua.

Lakoff and Johnson show that our metaphorical ways of understanding things are inextricably linked with the things themselves. For example, we think of arguing a point in terms of war (we defend positions, we shoot down arguments) and we think of time as a valuable resource (we spend time, we don't have enough time to spare). As a thought experiment, the authors ask us to imagine describing arguments in terms of a collaborative dance, which conceivably some culture (or paradigm) might do. Their point is if your culture thinks about arguments as dances, arguments are different than in a culture where they are understood as battles; it's not just a matter of description.

They also address a question I've long puzzled over: Why do we think musical notes are "high" or "low"? They show that there are clusters of metaphors by which we orient ourselves and understand our world. For example, we remarkably consistently think of "up" things as positive, including having our spirits lifted and being upbeat.

After the first couple of chapters, the book delves into the sort of minutiae that keep philosophers off the streets and out of trouble, but this is definitely a book worth reading some of. You can get it here.


(If you really care about these things, Paul Ricoeur -- yet another Frenchie philosopher -- has a wonderful book, The Symbolism of Evil, on our understanding of sin as a stain.)


Joshua also unearthed the following document that discusses the early metaphors of the Web, showing why, for example, "The Information Superhighway" was doomed from the start (although I like to think I was one of the first people to make a joke about being roadkill on the Superhighway. -- I guess you had to be there):



John Peters writes:

At the risk of getting almost serious, there ain't no such thing as the right metaphor or sci-en-tif-ic the-o-ry, there is only adequacy. We build working models that let us predict, more or less, the behavior of a universe we can't understand. The models/theories/metaphors are more useful if we understand what they're applicable to and when they fall apart (Boyle's "Law" works OK at one atmosphere, is useful at pressures slightly above a vacuum. Trying to use it to figure out whether your SCUBA tank will blow the lid off your car trunk on a hot day is doomed to failure; pressure's too high, PV = nRT don't work).

Any of the models get really dangerous when people start regarding them as fact, the word of god, natural law, Mommy or Satan said...

Anyway, use the metaphors and theories, but sparingly. Distrust them while you use them. Ask why they apply. Try another. Do what makes sense. Apply random behavior as a reality check....

At the risk of being serious (and seriousness is the greatest risk these days):

I'm not sure I can find a way to disagree with John. (Arguments are battles, after all, not dances.) But how about this: Yes, we can only understand things within a paradigm, and there are many possible paradigms. Does that mean all paradigms are equal? Can one paradigm be said to be "true-er" than another? I think so.

The fact is that every year, we can explain more and more. Einstein could explain more than Newton. Newton was right-er than Aristotle. Aristotle was right-er than the early myths.

It would be comforting to say that later paradigms embrace earlier ones the way that Einsteinian physics leaves room for Newtonian physics at the macro level. (You can use Newton to dodge a dropped anvil without having to know anything about quantum mechanics.) But, unfortunately, there isn't a lot of Aristotle's science left in Newton, much less in Einstein. Aristotle's cosmological paradigm was pretty much wrong (although his theory of causation still works when applied to human behavior) unless Mir's problems can be traced to bumping into the sub-lunar ceiling.

Paradigms progress.

JOHO is responseless (almost) to the following from Gerry Murray of IDC:

My own ham and cheese sandwich of metaphors in review. Sort of Fear and Loathing in Philosophy or a metaphysical On The Road where Dean Moriarty is doing color commentary, of course Hunter or Dean would have been wired on bennies, LSD and long periods of sleep deprivation, while you're probably dashing off what you can in between bedtime stories and a good Chardonnay. Or maybe it was more like Siskel and Ebert at the tail end of a five day crystal meth binge on the verge of a shared paranoia in which they suspect each other of withholding the metaphorical key that would save them both from an embarrassing misinterpretation of the symbolism of flying cows in Twister. Something, that despite the prolific glandular activity that would be induced in Ebert, and the potential for either of them to suddenly tear off all their clothes and hop like a sack full of lard on two legs from row to row in the theater, I would definitely pay to see.

In other words, as delightful a conversational spectacle as I could have imagined dropping unannounced into my email.

I accept this metaphor so long as it's understood that I'm Siskel.

Michael Barrett apparently liked the issue although he does manage to find yet another way in which I am wrong:

Hoooo Ha! You guys can do more of this stuff any time! I was eating a bowl of some soup-like goo when I began reading your special issue and started chortling so hard I spilled unspeakable brown slime down my front. And friends, it won't come out of the fur with woolite.

"hugely amused"? And then some. Foment away lads. The format (foment? forment?) is so much more "interactive" than some of your usual stuff, not to mention taking up only half a screen width each. For such experienced web gurus, you two both use too much of a 10 or 12 in. wide reading space; my eyeballs don't swivel that well any more. You're not closet 1280X1024 resolution freaks by any chance?

But as Chris would say, "what about Kontent?"...

WOW! The complete History of Knowledge in three short paragraphs. That's showing him, David. I'm always a bit nervous when RageBoy starts quoting those foreign (and mostly dead) philosopher types. After all, they didn't even THINK IN ENGLISH! On the other hand; Chris, I'm a bit worried about some of the "techie bits" that David sometimes flubs; like computer speeds in "mH". Hmmm.... maybe it's a metaphor? MilliHenries. Some obscure convergence? Leftover COBOL syntax waiting for Y2k? We techie types love the metaphors but can get sidetracked by little pieces of mis-knowledge. Han Solo lost a lot of credibility when he measured speed in "parsecs".

I accept this metaphor only if it's understood that I'm Han Solo.

As to the mH "mistake," I suppose Mr. Barrett has never heard of "mitigating Heimlichs"! Please get back to me when you've completed your degree in electrical engineering!

(Showed him a thing or two, you betcha.)

Cynthia Hunter actually thinks Chris got the better of me! She writes:

Through it all he [Chris] held my attention with his subtlety, (like velvet-n-vanilla) and once again he delivered a dose of progressive thought!! OK so he was not "serious". He delivered what's most important--meaning. And who cares if that meaning was meaningless?

First, I have to object to Cynthia's touting of Velvet 'n Vanilla, a white group continuing the shameful tradition of ripping off black musical artists, in this case Salt-N-Pepa. Second, do you perhaps think winning by delivering meaningless meaning is the definition of a hollow victory?

Then, referring to my claim that Chris threw in the made-up name "Lyotard" just to look impressive, she adds:

Lyotards=lying retarded people. The way it is in the business world.

Wow! Awfully cynical for one so young! Clearly you must have taken a company public at least once in your life!

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The Pseudo-Bogus Contest

We invited you to sum up the special issue interchange in a bumpersticker.

Harmony Matthews suggests:

Knowledge Management:
Gassy Jello? Who says?


Tony McKinley suggests:

You Can't Know Nothin'

or, with a Zen slant:

What was your face before you were born = Knowledge you don't know

Andy Moore chimes in with:

I never metaphor I didn't like

Ross Knights has several suggestions:

Simile--Jesus is like you


1 is to Meta-1 as 4 is to ...

And the ever popular self-referential, possibly recursive:

A simile is like this statement.


Here is my own, a tribute to Marvin Gaye:

What is it good phor?
Absolutely nothin'.


Sure, it goes against everything I was arguing for. But it gives me a convenient way to end this thread.

(And, yes, I'm pretty sure that Marvin Gaye didn't record this song, but somewhere in my 60s-scorched brain I think he should have. Polite help, but not physical brain stem corrections, gratefully accepted.) (Also, please note that my entry does not refer to the META Group or any of its nefarious minions.)

Coming soon, a normal issue of JOHO. Whatever that means.

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].

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