As a tool for hackers, the metaphor offers both power and danger.
Power: It captivates, engages, and motivates people. Because it tends to trigger an emotional response it can galvanize people into action.
Danger: It's highly subjective and invites cynicism (as in "flavor of the month" and "Who Moved my Cheese?"). It's easy to poke holes in (as in, "That's very interesting Dave, but we're a technology company, not a spaceship").
So what is a metaphor exactly? It's a simple comparison between two seemingly unrelated objects. Hacking the Human OS uses the metaphor of a computer's operating system to represent the mechanisms of human mind.
Metaphors and analogies are like hyperlinks: they are a connection that molds a single thought out of two disparate ideas. You use them all the time without realizing it: for example, for most people up equals good and down equals bad. That's a metaphor.
Metaphors are frequently helpful when you want to explain something, especially when you want to clearly explain not just the facts but what they mean and why they are emotionally relevant. Frequently in business you will see things defined as a battle, or a race, or looming storms, even a tornado.
They are not merely tricks of language; according to two of the most recognized experts on the subject, they are concepts that govern our thought.
"The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor."
"To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with the concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:
ARGUMENT IS WAR
Your claims are indefensible.
He attacked every weak point in my argument.
His criticisms were right on target.
I demolished his argument.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
You disagree? Okay, shoot!
If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.
He shot down all of my arguments."
Here are some other metaphor examples from the same book:
Time is money
Communication is a conduit
Happy is up, sad is down
Conscious is up, unconscious is down
For many people, a metaphor can be a ruling principle or deeply embedded worldview. For example, what is life? People have different metaphors; knowing a person's ruling metaphor can help you predict how they will act in certain situations:
Life is a game
Life is a battle
Life is a conversation
Life is an adventure
Serious conflict can arise when people's metaphors are not aligned. Part of the problem is that people don't know why they disagree so strongly. This is because even though metaphors have major influence on our thinking patterns and actions, for the most part they remain under the surface, unrecognized. The story of the blind men and the elephant is a perfect example of dueling metaphors.
In interface design we use a combination of office and building metaphors, which includes things like folders, pages, windows and home. Usually new ideas are introduced using metaphors. The metaphors improve adoption and limit thinking simultaneously, for example:
Metaphor: A photograph is like a painting.
Limitation: For years, photographs were all the same; static portraits and landscapes that used almost all the same conventions.
Here's another example: Are computer programmers engineers, architects or artists? Each metaphor has a different connotation and drives a different pattern of thinking. No matter which metaphor you choose, it will have a tendency to constrain your full potential.
This is especially helpful when you run into conflict, difficult conversations, or have trouble getting a point across.
As a hacker, you can use metaphor to reframe an issue so that people see it in a different light. To change their understanding of an issue, you can "reboot" their OS and build the new understanding on a new metaphor.
Think of a metaphor as X=Y, where X is the thing being represented and Y is the metaphor.
To reboot, ask yourself "what are the characteristics of X? What are its attributes?" Then ask "What else has similar characteristics or attributes?"
Next, see if you can replace Y by asking "What is an equal or better metaphor to describe the same thing?"
When people have a deeply embedded metaphor that governs their thinking and can't be changed, work with it. Put yourself mentally within their metaphor: Who are the players? What are the roles? Then put yourself in the metaphor and speak from the perspective that will help you make your point. For example, if the metaphor is football (American) you might find it advantageous to take on the role of coach, quarterback or fan to get your point across.
You can read more about this kind of reboot in Metaphor in Mediation, by Suzette Haden Elgin, Ph.D.
You might also try keeping track of peoples' overriding metaphors.
Take note when people have a "life-ruling" metaphor, and try to use the same metaphor when making your points. In your address book, jot down the metaphors you've noticed people use. When speaking to them, "follow the script" of their active metaphor.
Personally I have several life metaphors:
Life is a game
Life is a puzzle
Life is a quest
What are your overriding life metaphors? Please share your thoughts.
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