How would it have felt to see the first ever automobile the day it was created? Did people get the concept of an automobile right away? To ease the cognitive leap, the automobile was introduced as a horseless carriage. The use of such metaphors to introduce or explain the unknown with the known is fundamental to human communication.
Metaphors have been on my mind for the past few weeks. I’ve been thinking about how they are deeply entrenched in the human psyche – from the language we use to the way we think and act. But they go beyond our language and thought process. They can help us become better problem solvers too.
Genes, Bees and Fungi
Back in 2005 I was writing a research paper on a specific application of Artificial Intelligence (specifically Genetic Algorithms) in mining vast amounts of data. Genetic Algorithms use the principles of evolution to solve real life computational problems. A Genetic Algorithm is a metaphor that looks at natural evolution as a problem solving process. I started thinking about the thought process of the people who pioneered Genetic Algorithms in the first place. How did they chance upon this new way of solving problems? Why was the process of evolution considered better than any of the thousands of other disciplines they could have drawn from? Something made evolution a more fitting metaphor than any other option.
I think the answer lies in what the end goal of a process is. Both computation and evolution seek optimization. Evolution strives to create the perfect gene while computation strives to generate the perfect solution. And if nature’s perfected the technique to evolve species and make them better with each generation, why not steal that method, codify it and use it to solve computation problems?
My mentor and internet rockstar Johanna Beyenbach wrote about the value of interdisciplinairty last year. She uses examples of bees, butterflies and urban planning to solve business and communication problems. In each case, we have two systems – both systems faced with comparable problems. One system has it all figured out; the other just steals and adapts the same method. Clay Parker Jones (a planner for whom I have immense respect) applies the metaphorical principles of fungi to designing new products.
Derivative and Absolute Fields
Advertising is a derivative field, it’s one of the reasons I love this industry. It gives me the liberty to draw from multiple disciplines to solve communication and business problems. This is where I find that models and metaphors have immense merit. They help me simplify, understand and give me the sense that the problem facing me isn’t incomprehensible. They act as bridges to connect two disciplines. However, I always try to keep in mind that they live as long as the first contact with the real world. I have rarely found any advertising theories. But advertising models are plenty. The creative brief itself is a model. Problems arise when we treat metaphors and models as theories.
“Theories tell you what something is. Models tell you merely what something is partially like.”
Abused Metaphors and Models
For every one of the fascinating cases above there are scores of examples that use metaphors to make a flawed argument appear valid. Marketing and advertising are especially riddled with these arguments. It happens each time someone posts a blogpost or article titled ‘5 Lessons Marketers Can Learn From The Movie Inception.‘ Or when a new model is proposed as panacea to all communication problems. Models to segment our audience. Models to run our agencies. Models to think about media. I am a lover of Venn Diagrams and models as much as the next guy, but they’re always just a starting point for me. The problems and systems we deal with are just way too complex to fit neatly into one or even a few “magic” models.
“A model is a metaphor of limited applicability, not the thing itself. In tackling the mysterious world via models we do our best to explain the thus-far incomprehensible by describing it in terms of the things we already partially comprehend………
…… The world is multi-dimensional. Models allow us to project the object into a smaller space and then extrapolate or interpolate within it. At some point the extrapolation will break down.”
I did a little more research on the nature of metaphors and how they are associated with our thinking. Writers are often asked to limit their use of metaphors. I think the same principles apply to the use of metaphors and models for problem solving.
“To start with, we use metaphors more frequently then we realize, and often without being conscious of the process. Because our thoughts and actions are structured by them, we have a difficult time seeing any aspects of reality that do not fit those metaphors.”
When solving problems using metaphors and models, this partial blinding of reality can be an issue. If I’m using a beehive as a metaphor for how humans behave in crowds, I must remember not to suspend the reality that there are a lot of factors that play a role in human crowd behavior and some have absolutely no counterpart in the beehive metaphor.
I will always consider metaphors and models as starting points but will always heed the warning set out by Arturo Rosenblueth & Norbert Wiener - “The price of metaphor is eternal vigilance.”