All posts by Dominik Lukeš

The most ridiculous metaphor of education courtesy of an economics professor

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Acclaimed academics have policy agendas just like anybody else. And often they let them interfere with a straightforward critical analysis of their output. The monumental capacity for blindness of highly intelligent people  is sometimes staggering. Metaphors and analogies (same thing for metaphor hacking) make thinkers particularly prone to mis-projection blindness. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics prof, is just the latest in the long line of economists and blowhards, who think they have the education system licked by comparing it to some -free market gimmick. They generally reveal that they know or care precious little about the full extent of the processes involved in the market and Glaeser is a shining example of this. His analogy is so preposterous and only needs so little thought to break down, I can’t believe he didn’t take a few minutes to to do it himself. Well, actually, I can believe it. It’s pretty,  neat and seductive. So who cares that it is pure non-sense. Here’s what he said:

Why Cities Rock | Freakonomics Radio: I want you to just imagine if for example, instead of having a New York restaurant scene that was dominated by private entrepreneurs who competed wildly with each other trying to come up with new, new things. The bad restaurants collapse; the good restaurants go on to cooking show fame. You have these powerful forces of competition and innovation working. Imagine instead if there was a food superintendent who operated a system of canteens where the menus were decided at the local level, and every New Yorker had to eat in these canteens. Well, the food would be awful. And that’s kind of what we decided to do with schooling. Instead of harnessing the urban ability to provide innovation, competition, new entry, we’ve put together a system where we’ve turn all that stuff off, and we’ve allowed only a huge advantage for a local, public monopoly. It’s very, very difficult to fix this. I think the most hopeful signs, and there’s been as you know a steady stream of economics papers on this, the most hopeful signs I think are coming from charter schools, which are particularly effective in urban areas. And it’s not so much that the average charter school is so much better than the average public school, but rather that in charter schools, because they can go bankrupt, because the can fail, the good ones will succeed, and the bad ones will drop out of the market. And certainly we’ve seen lots of great randomized studies that have shown the ability of charters to deliver great test score results.

As we know, metaphors (and their ilk) rely on projections from one domain to another. Generative metaphor (of which this is one) then try to base a solution on a new domain which is the result of the blending of the source domain.

So this is how Glaser envisions the domain of New York restaurants: there is competition, which drives up the quality of the food (note that he didn’t mention driving down prices, lowering expense per unit, and other tricks used by ‘wildly competing entrepreneurs’). Restaurateurs and chefs must strive to provide better food than others because there is so much choice, people will flock to their competitors for the better food.

This is how he wants to project it into schooling: give people more choice (and means to exercise that choice by using the intra city’s short commutes) and this will result in competition, the competition will increase experimentation and as a result the quality of education goes up. He also mentions test scores at the end but these have little to do with education (but why should somebody at Harvard know that?).

Of course, he makes most of the argument through a reverse projection, where he asks us to imagine what the New York restaurants would look like if they were run like a centralized public school system. He envisions the end process as similar to Apple’s 1984 commercial: a sea of bland canteens with awful food. But this is just so much elitist blather. Glaeser should be ashamed of himself for not thinking this through.

First, what he describes is only true of the top tier of New York restaurants. The sort of places the upper-middle glass go to because of a review on Yelp. The majority of places where New Yorkers (and people everywhere) eat their lunches and the occasional dinner are either real canteens, some local greasy spoon, or a chain that makes its consistent prices and dining experiences possible through resolute mediocrity. The Zagat guide is for special occasions, not daily nutrition.

Second, Glaser never asks how this maps onto schooling or education, in general. Probably because the answer would be that it doesn’t. Glaeser certainly refused to say anything useful about his analogy. He went far enough to promote his shallow ideology and stopped while the stopping was good. Let’s look at a few possible mappings and see how we fare.

So first we have the quality of the food. This would seem to map quite nicely onto quality of education. But it doesn’t. Or at least not in the way Gleaeser and his like would like.  Quality of the food that can impact on competition is a surface property. We cannot also always trust people that they can judge the quality apart from the decor of the restaurant or its reputation – just like with wine, they are very likely to judge the quality based on a  review or the recommendation of a trusted acquaintance. In Glaeser’s analogy, we’re not really talking about the quality of food but the quality of the dining experience. And if we project this onto the quality of a school, we’re only increasing the scope of the problem. No matter how limited and unreliable, we can at least judge the quality of the overall dining experience by our own reaction to our experience. But with schools, the experience is mediated through the child and the most important criterion of quality – viz an educated human being at the end – is deferred until long after the decision on quality has been made. It’s like judging the quality of a restaurant we go to for an anniversary dinner by whether we will be healthy in 5 years. Of course, we can force such judgements but arbitrarily ranking schools based on a single number – like the disastrous UK league tables that haven’t improved the education of a single child but made a lot of people extremely anxious.

The top restaurants (where the competition makes a difference) don’t look at food from the perspective of what matters for life, namely nutrition. It’s quite likely the most popular restaurants don’t serve anything particularly healthy or prepared with regard to the environmental impact. Quality is only important to them as one of many competitive advantage. They also use a number of tricks to make the dining experience better – cheat on ingredients, serve small portions on large plates, etc. They rely on ‘secret recipes’ – the last thing we want to see in education. And this is exactly the experience of schools that compete in the market. They fudge, cheat and flat out lie to protect their competitive advantage.  They provide the minimum of education that they can get away with to look good. Glaeser also conveniently forgets that there is a huge amount of centralized oversight of New York restaurants – much more, in some ways, than on charter schools. Quality is only one of the results of rampant competition and oversight is necessary to protect consumers. This is much more important in schools than in restaurants (but it almost seems that restaurants have more of it, than schools – proportionally to their importance).

But that is only one part of this important mismapping, which is the process of competition. Many economists forget that the market forces don’t work on their own. They work off the backs of the cheated and underserved. Bad restaurants don’t go out of business by some market magic. They go out of business because enough people ate there and were cheated, served bad food or almost got poisoned. And this experience had to have been bad enough for them to talk about it and dissuade others from visiting. With restaurants the individual cost is relatively minor (at least for those comfortably off). You have to contribute one or two bad meals or ruined evenings a year to keep the invisible hand doing its business among the chefs of New York. (This could be significant to someone who only goes out once every few months but still something you can get over.) Also the cost of making a choice is virtually nill. It takes no effort to go to a different restaurant or to choose to eat at home. Except for the small risk of food poisoning, you’ve made no investment in your choice and the potential loss is minimal.

However, in the case of schooling, you’re making a long-term commitment (at least a semester or a year but most likely at least four years). You can shrug off a bad meal but what about a wasted half-a-decade of your child’s life? Or what if you enrolled your child in the educational equivalent of Burger King serving nothing but giant whoppers. Everything seems fine all along but the results are clogged intellectual arteries. Also the costs of a school going out of business (and here Glaeser is one of the honest few that admit to bankrupt schools as a desirable outcome of competition in education) are exceedingly high. Both financial and emotional. Let’s say a school goes out of business and a poor parent has invested in books, school uniform and transportation choice only to have to start this again in a new school. Or how about the toll that making new friends, getting used to new teachers, etc. takes on a child. How many ruined childhoods is Glaeser willing to accept for the benefits of his ideology? As far as I know, the churn among New York restaurants is quite significant – could the education system sustain 10% or even 1% of schools going out of business every year.

And more importantly what about great schools going out of business because of financial mismanagement of capitalist wannabes? Not all market failures (maybe even not most) are due to low quality. Bad timing, ruthless competition, impatient investors and insufficient growth have killed many a great product. How many great schools would succumb to one of these? And won’t we see the same race to mediocrity once the ‘safe middle ground’ of survival is discovered? How many schools will take on the risk of innovation in the face of relentless market pressures? For a Chef, one bad recipe is just a learning experience. For a school, one unsuccessful innovation can lead to absolute disaster.

But all that is assuming that we can even map the “quality of education” onto quality in any sphere of commercial activity whatsoever. What business do you get a product or service from for four or eight years that requires a daily performance of a complex and variable task such as caring for and educating a young person is? Not your electricity provider who provides a constant but a non-variable service, nor your medical care provider who offers a variable but only periodical service. Also, “the consumers of education’s” requirements keep changing over time. They may have wanted a rounded and fulfilling education for their child at the start but just want them to get to university at the end. You can measure quality by test scores or graduation rates but that still doesn’t guarantee success for roughly 10-20% of students even in the best of schools.

To conclude, fine food plays a role in the prosperity of restaurants but so does convenience and habit. The quality of education is too complex to map successfully on the quality of food (and possibly any single commercial product). And even if that was possible, the cost of making the market forces work is incomparably higher in education than in dining. Glaeser’s proposed model for reform is just as likely to produce pinnacles of excellence as ruthlessly competitive MacDonald’s-like chains of garbage.

There’s nothing wrong with using metaphors to try to look for ways to improve education. But generally, these should be very local rather than global and always have their limits carefully investigated. That means detailed understanding of both domains and meticulous mappings between them as well as the relationships between them. Not all mappings need to be perfect and some need not be there at all (for instance, computer virus is still useful metaphor even though it doesn’t spread through the air), but this should be done consciously and with care. Steve Jones once said of evolution that metaphor is to it like bird excrement is to statues. The same often goes for education, but it doesn’t have to.

Finally, this analysis didn’t necessarily imply that the current system is the best there can be or that it is even any good (although I think it’s pretty good). Just that reforming it based on this cock-a-maney metaphor could be extremely dangerous. New solutions must ultimately be judged on their own merit but with the many market metaphors, very many their merit is irretrievably tied to the power of the initial metaphor and not any intrinsic solution.

UPDATE: It seems I may have a been a bit too harsh on Glaeser. Obsevational Epidemiology posts this quote form his book (the one he was promoting on the Freakonomics podcast):

All of the world’s older cities have suffered the great scourges of urban life: disease, crime, congestion. And the fight against these ills has never been won by passively accepting things as they are or by mindlessly relying on the free market.

Ok, so he’s not just a mindless free-marketeer. So why on earth would he suggest the above as a suitable metaphor to base educational reform on?

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Philosophers’ songbook #philbitescomp

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I was so inspired by the #philbitescomp twitter contest that I wrote a short history of philosophy in tweetable fragments of songs.

Parmenides’ lament:
I guess it will make a change
when things stop changing

Heracleitus’ blues:
I cried you the same river
thrice

Plato’s polka:
two steps out of the cave
and look at what you’re doing

Descartes’ swan song:
unbidden unwelcome it counts
yet for a penny I perish

Bishop Berkeley’s soccer fan chant:
Hey Samuel Johnson
You’re kicking that rock in my mind

Locke’s lullaby:
You’ve licked your plate clean
And now what do you know?

Kant’s shanty:
it’s a long way
from first principles

Voltaire’s spiritual:
Think low sweet chariot
Believe in Him and don’t cheat me

Hegel’s Carroll:
Give up the ghosts of times past
Master and slave, together at last

Marx’s revolutionary song:
I saw you coming Ford, a mile away
But Lenin came out of left field

Heidegger’s Rap:
With all my sein, I’ll do my zeit
Those sons of canines might not bite

Derrida and Wittgenstein’s duet:
Brick by brick move by move
you say circuses I say no more

High school philosophy teacher’s tattoo:
Be rational
you scabs

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Metaphor is my co-pilot: How the literal and metaphorical rely on the same type of knowledge

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“Thanks” to experimental philosophy, we have a bit more evidence confirming, that what many people think about the special epistemological status of metaphor is bunk. We should also note that Gibbs’ and Glucksberg’s teams have been doing a lot of similar research with the same results since the late 1980s.

This is how Joshua Knobe on the Experimental Philosophy blog summarized a forthcoming paper by Mark Phelan (http://pantheon.yale.edu/~mp622/inadequacy.pdf):

In short, it looks like it really is pretty impossible to explain what a metaphor means. But that is not because of anything special about metaphors. It is merely a reflection of the fact that we can’t explain what any sentence means.  Experimental Philosophy: What Metaphors Mean

Phelan went and asked people to paraphrase metaphorical and non-metaphorical statements only to find that the resulting paraphrases were judged equally inadequate for metaphors and literal statements. In fact, paraphrases of metaphorical statements like “Music is the universal language” or “Never give your heart away” were judged as more acceptable than paraphrases of their “literal” counterparts “French is the language Quebec” and “Always count your change”. The result shows something that any good translator will know intuitively – paraphrases are always hard.

So the conclusion (one to which I’m repeatedly drawn) is that there’s nothing special about metaphors when it comes to meaning, understanding and associated activities like paraphrasing. The availability of paraphrase (and understanding in general) is broadly dependent to two factors knowledge and usage. We have to know a lot about the world and how language is used to navigate it. So while we might consider “there’s a chair in the office”, “a chair is in the office” or “how about that chair in the office” as adequate descriptions of a particular configuration of objects in space, the same does not apply to usage. And things get even trickier when we substitute “a cobra” or “an elephant” for “a chair” and then start playing around with definiteness.  We know that chairs in offices are normal and desirable, cobras unlikely and undesirable and elephants impossible and most likely metaphorical. Thinking that we can understand both “there’s an elephant in the office” and “there’s a chair in the office” as simply a combination of the words and the construction “there’s X in Y” is a bad idea. And the same goes for metaphors. We need to know a lot about the world and language to understand them.

One of the pairs of sentences Phelan compared was “God is my co-pilot” and “Bill Thomson is my co-pilot”. Intuitively, we’d say that the “literal” one would be easier to paraphrase and we’d be right but not as radically: 47% of respondents chose “God is helping me get where I want to go” as a good paraphrase and mere 58% went with “I have a copilot named Bill Thomson”. And that goes slightly against intuition. But not if we think about it a bit more carefully. All the same questions we can ask about the meaning of these two sentences demonstrate a significant dependence on knowledge and usage. “In what way is God your co-pilot” makes sense where “In what way is Bill Thomson your co-pilot” doesn’t. But we can certainly ask “What exactly does Bill do when he’s your copilots”, “What do co-pilots do anyway”. And armed with that knowledge and knowledge of the situation we can challenge either statement “no God isn’t really your co-pilot” or “no Bill isn’t really your co-pilot”. Metaphoricity really had no impact – it was knowledge. Most people know relatively little about what co-pilots do so we might even suspect that their understanding of “God is my co-pilot” is greater than of “Bill is my co-pilot”.

This is because the two utterances are not even that different conceptually. They both depend on our ability to create mental mappings between two domains of understanding: the present situation and what we know about co-pilots. We might argue that in the “literal” case, there are fewer more determinate mappings but that is only the case if we have precise and extensive knowledge. If we hear the captain say “Bill is my co-pilot” and we know that “co-pilots sit next to pilots and twiddle with instruments”, we can then conclude “the guy sitting next to the captain and switching toggles is Bill”. If the person sitting next to us said “God is my co-pilot”, we can draw conclusions from our knowledge of usage e.g. “people who say this are also likely to talk to me about God”. It seems a very simple mapping. This would get a lot more complex if the captain said “God is my co-pilot” and the person sitting next to us on the plane would say “Bill is my co-pilot” but it would still be a case of reconciling our knowledge of the world and language usage with the present situation through mappings. So the seeming simplicity of the literal is really just an illusion when it comes to statements of any consequence.

–7 Aug – Edited slightly for coherence and typos

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The Tortoise and the Hare: Analogy for Academia in the Digital World?

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Dan Cohen has decided to “crowdsource” (a fascinating blend, by the way) the title of his next book with the following instructions.

The title should be a couplet like “The X and the Y” where X can be “Highbrow Humanities” “Elite Academia” “The Ivory Tower” “Deep/High Thought” [insert your idea] and Y can be “Lowbrow Web” “Common Web” “Vernacular Technology/Web” “Public Web” [insert your idea]. so possible titles are “The Highbrow Humanities and the Lowbrow Web” or “The Ivory Tower and the Wild Web” etc.

via Dan Cohen’s Digital Humanities Blog » Blog Archive » Crowdsourcing the Title of My Next Book.

Before I offer my suggestion, let me pause and wonder how do we know what the book is to be about? Well, we know exactly what it is to be about because what he has in fact done was describe its contents in the form of two cross domain mappings that are then mapped onto each other (a sort of a double-barrel metaphor). And the title, it goes without saying (in a culture that agrees on what titles should be) should as eloquently and entertainingly point to the complex mapping through yet more mappings (if this was a post on blending theory, I’d elaborate on this some more).

We (I mean us the digitized or unanalog) can also roughly guess what Dan Cohen’s stance will be and if he were to be writing it just for us, we’d much rather just get it as a series of blog posts, or perhaps not at all. The paragraph quoted above is enough for us. We know what’s going on.

So aware of the ease with which meaning was co-constructed, I would recommend a more circumspect and ambiguous title. The Tortoise and the Hare with a subtitle:  Who’s Chasing Whom in Digital Scholarship or possibly The Winners and Losers of Digital Academia. Why this title? Well, I believe in challenging preconceptions, starting with our own. The tale of the Tortoise and the Hare (as the excellent Wikipedia entry documents) offers no easy answer. Or rather it offers too many easy answers for comfort. The first comes from the title and a vague awareness of the fact that this is a story about a speed contest between two animals who are stereotypes for the polar opposites of speed. So the first impression is “of course, the hare is the winner” and this is a book about the benefits of digital scholarship, so the digital scholars must be the hare. Also, and also digital equals fast so that means the book is about how the hare of digital scholarship is leaving the tortoise of ivory-tower academia in the dust. And we could come up with a dozen stories illustrating how this is the case.

Then we pause and remember, ah, but didn’t the tortoise win the race because of the hasty overconfidence and carelessness of the hare? So that means that perhaps the traditional academics, moving slowly but deliberately, are the favored ones, after all? Can’t we all also think of too many errors made on blogs, crowdsourced encyclopedic entries and easily make the case that the deliberate approach is superior to moving at breakneck speed? Aren’t hares known for their short and precarious life spans as well as speed while the tortoise is almost proverbial in its longevity?

But the moral of the story is even more complex and less determinate. If we continue further in our deliberations, we might be able to get a few more hints of this. In particular, we must ask, what does this story tell us about speed and wisdom? And the answer must be: absolutely nothing. We knew coming into it that hares were faster than tortoises over any distance that can be traveled by both animals. We’re not exactly clear why the tortoise challenged the hare. Unless it had secret knowledge of its narcolepsy, it couldn’t have possibly known that the hare would take a nap or get distracted (depending on the version of the story) in the middle of the race? So equating the tortoise with wisdom would seem foolish. At best we can see the tortoise as an inveterate gambler whose one-in-a-million bet paid off. We would certainly be foolish (as was noticed by Lord Dunsany cited in the Wikipedia entry) to assume that the hare’s loss makes the tortoise more suitable for a job delivering a swift message over the same journey the following day. So the only possible learning could be that taking nap in the middle of a race and not waking up in time can lead to loosing the race. Conceivably, there could be something about the dangers of overconfidence. But again didn’t we know this already through many much less ambiguous stories?

What does that mean for the digital and traditional scholarship? Very tentatively, I would suggest it is that we cannot predict the results of a single race (i.e. any single academic enterprise) based purely on the known (or inferred) qualities of one approach. There are too many variables. But neither can we discount what we know about the capabilities of one approach in favor of another simply because it proved to be a failure where we would have expected success. In a way, just like with the fable, we already know everything about the situation. For some things hares are better than tortoises and vice versa. Most of the time, our expectations are borne out and sometimes they are not. Sometimes the differences are insignificant, sometimes they matter a lot. In short, life is pretty damn complicated, and hoping a simple contrast of two prejudice-laden images will help us understand it better is perhaps the silliest thing of all. But often it is also the thing without which understanding would be impossible. So perhaps the moral of this story, this blog, and of Dan Cohen’s book really should be: beware of easy understandings.

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Why Chomsky doesn’t count as a gifted linguist

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Somebody commented on the Language Log saying “of course [...] Chomsky was a massively gifted linguist” http://j.mp/9Q98Bx and for some reason, to use a Czech idiom, the handle of the jar repeatedly used to fetch water just fell off. Meaning, I’ve had enough.

I think we should stop thinking of Chomsky as a gifted linguist. He was certainly a gifted mathematician and logician still is a gifted orator and analyst of political discourse (sometimes putting professionals in this area to shame). But I honestly cannot think of a single insight he’s had about how language works as language. His main contribution to the study of language (his only one really) was a description of how certain combinatorial properties of English syntax can be modeled using a particular formal system.  This was a valuable insight but as has been repeatedly documented (e.g. Newmeyer 1986) its runaway success was due to a particular historical context and was later fed by the political prominence of its originator. Unfortunately, everything that followed was predicated on the model being isomorphic with the thing modeled. Meaning all subsequent insights of Chomsky and his followers were confined to refining the model in response to what other people knew about language and not once that I can think of using it to elucidate an actual linguistic phenomenon. (Well, I tell lie here, James MacCawley who worked with GB – and there must have been others – was probably an exception.) Chomsky’s followers who actually continued to have real insights about language – Ross,  Langacker, Lakoff, Fillmore – simply ceased to work within that field – their frustration given voice here by Robin Tolmach Lakoff:

[Generative approaches to the 'science' of language meant] “accepting the impossibility of saying almost everything that might be interesting, anything normal people might want or need to know about language.“ (Robin Tolmach Lakoff, 2000, Language War)

So who deserves the label “gifted linguist” defined as somebody who repeatedly elucidates legitimate language phenomena in a way that is relevant across areas of inquiry? (And I don’t mean the fake relevance followers of the Universal Grammar hypothesis seem to be finding in more and more places.)

Well, I’d start with MAK Halliday who has contributed genuine insights into concepts like function, cohesion, written/spoken language, etc. Students on “linguistics for teachers” courses are always surprised when I tell them that pretty much all of the English as first or second language curriculum used in schools today was influenced by Halliday and none by Chomsky – despite valiant efforts to pretend otherwise.

But there are many others whose fingerprints are all over our thinking about language today. The two giants of 20th century linguistics who influenced probably everyone were Roman Jakobson and Charles Fillmore – neither of whom established a single-idea school (although Jakobson was part of two) but both were literal and metaphorical teachers to pretty much everybody. Then there’s William Labov who continues to help shift the “language decline” hypothesis on which much of 19th century philology was predicated. And, of course, there are countless practicing linguists who have interesting things to say about language every day – one needs to look no further than the contributors to the excellent Language Log. I don’t want to list any others of the top of my head lest I forget someone important, but here some of my favorites:

My personal favorite linguist has long been Michael Hoey whose “lexical priming” hypothesis deserves more discussion and a lot more following than it has received. I got a real chill of excitement reading William Croft’s “Radical Construction Grammar”. It is probably the most interesting and innovative view of language that has come about since de Saussure.

Most of my thinking about language has been influenced by George Lakoff (so much I translated his thickest book into Czech – http://cogling.info) and Ronald Langacker who could both be said to be ‘single-theory’ thinkers but are actually using this theory to say interesting things about language rather than using language to say interesting things about their theory.

I have said to people at one point or another, you should read one of these linguists to understand this point about language better. I have never said that about Chomsky. Not once. I have said, however, you should read this thing by Chomsky to understand Chomsky better. (Not that it always helps, I’ve come across a book called Structure of Language whose authors’ sparse reference list includes all of Chomsky’s books but who refer to his work twice and get it wrong both times.) There is no denying Chomsky’s multi-disciplinary brilliance but a particularly gifted linguist he is not. He is just the only one most people can think of.

BTW: Here’s why I think Chomsky’s wrong. But that wasn’t really the point. Whether he’s right or wrong, he’s largely irrelevant to most people interested in language, and the sooner they realize they’re wasting their time, the better.

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Why ideas aren’t enough to solve the Palestine-Israeli conflict

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An advertising agency is trying to solve a bloody conflict. This is presumptuous on such as scale that it could be called idiotic. Quoth http://www.theimpossiblebrief.com:

“Rather than ‘out of date’ policies, we need ‘out of the box’ solutions. Let’s show the world that creative minds at their best can inspire even political leaders.”

Assuming that there’s an idea out there about resolving this conflict that noone’s ever thought of is nonsense. We should call this assumption that simple ideas can solve difficult problems the “TED Syndrome” (btw: I love TED talks, even if I share Stephen Downes’ misgivings about the TED ‘elite’). Simple solutions to complex problems exist but they are very rare and when we hear about them, we are seldom told the whole story. Generally, it should be safe to assume that a solution should be of proportional complexity to the problem.

What Saatchi and Saatchi are so ineptly asking for could be thought of as a kind of metaphor hacking. But could metaphor hacking done right find a solution to the Palestine-Israeli conflict?

Short answer: No.

And now for the long answer. Metaphor hacking can’t solve anything. There are never any magical conceptual ways out of configurationally difficult situations. Metaphor hacking can provide insight and direction for individuals or groups (see the paintbrush example) but it has to be followed by hard work (both real and conceptual – I would call simplistically this ‘propositional’ work). On its own insight (whatever its source) achieves nothing.

Let’s try a few small hacks and see how far we get.

Although it can certainly be helpful to be aware of the conceptualizations that are involved, this awareness doesn’t necessarily give us power over them (I know a stick half-immersed in water is not broken but no power on Earth will make me see it so, I know that there is no up and down for the Globe, yet seeing a map with Africa on top will seem strange). First, metaphor is not the only conceptual structure involved in how people understand this situation. Metaphor (and its brethren) are mental structures relying on similarity. We also need to look at structures of contiguity (metonymy) and add other conceptual structuring devices that are propositional, imagistic and textual.

Let’s start at the end. I purposely entitled the problem Palestine-Israeli conflict. Logically, it shouldn’t matter, conflict is a commutative relationship – if I’m in conflict with you, you are in conflict with me. But we have textual iconicity. The thing that is first in real life is more important, and therefore we tend to put the more important things first in language first. That’s why we are instructed to say politely “Ladies and gentlemen” which only underscores the hidden sexism behind “boys and girls”, “men and women”, etc. So a small hack for all involved. Make sure you always describe the conflict with an iconicity that goes against your natural inclinations. This is not going to solve anything but it might keep you more attuned to your own possible prejudices.

We can also hack the “we were here first” trope. Now remember, there’s no hidden metaphorical solution. But if we can accept that our understanding of “claim by primacy” is structured by a number of source domains from which no perfect mappings exist, we can perhaps invest the claims with a bit less weight. The only way to settle this argument would be to close off or designate as illegitimate some of these source domains. But since such closing off is always the result of the application of power and not some disembodied logic, this is not the right way to go about it. So a useful hack would be to list all the possible source domains for understanding the domain of “we were here first, therefore we have a claim to this X”, draw all the mappings from the obvious to the ridiculous and see how easily challenged any such claim must always be (or maybe we’ll find that one side has many more favorable mappings than the other but I don’t think that’s very likely).

Can we hack our way out of the holy place and holy war controversies? Again, mostly no. A lot of religion is based on similarity and contiguity: from sympathetic magic or Anglican liturgy to free market capitalism or theory of evolution. These are bolstered by textual constructions that normally don’t carry a particularly heavy semantic load but will discharge their potential meanings in times of conflict. The same formulas that are mindlessly droned by the faithful during their rituals (be they Sunday worship or a Wall Street Journal editorial) can be brought into full conceptual battle readiness when necessary. This conceptual mobilization is always selective. All liturgical systems are internally contradictory (they might tell you to love your mom and dad one day and to ditch them the next) and it is necessary that some formulas remain just that while others are brought out in their full semantic splendor. This is what makes ecumenicalism possible. But from there we can perform a useful hack. Not all ideas potentially contained in a text have to come to fruition. Ours and theirs. If we can just keep them as part of the liturgy and not get too incensed over them. If we can accept that while the others may recite verses that would have us die, they may not necessarily mean “really” die, then we can go have a cautious conversation to make sure of that.

Growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, I remember my largely pacifist and moderately Christian family and friends singing to the tune of John Brown’s Body (unaware of the gruesome irony) “when all the communists are swinging from a tree, when all the communists are swinging from a tree, when all the communists are swinging from a tree, then there will be paradise.” Few of them would have probably even supported the death penalty let alone be part of a lynch mob. But in the right circumstances…who knows? A similar case is made for the traditional song “Shoot the Boer” sung in South Africa in this On The Media feature. (Cf. also the fluctuating militarism of Onward Christian Soldiers.)

In the case of Israel-Palestine, of course, we know that some of the people involved would be and have been involved in the carrying out of the underlying meanings of their phrases. However, the thing to remember is that they don’t have to be. We just have to keep in mind that words and actions aren’t always in sync and that is usually to the good. So in other words, we can’t solve the idea problem with more ideas but we can temper the ideas and divorce them from actions. Not easy and not instantaneous but historically inevitable.

So the hacks might be interesting but we come back to the original assumption that difficult situations are difficult to resolve. There are many ways in which you can hack somebody else’s mind, magicians, con artists and advertisers do it all the time. But these hacks are very straightforward, build on frame-based expectations and rarely have a lasting effect. Propaganda and brain washing are a kind of a mind hack but they only work predictably in conjunction with real power closing off other sources of cross-domain mappings. Mostly, when it comes to metaphor, we can’t hack somebody else’s, we can present a few alternative mappings, we can offer a more detailed analysis of the source domain or even reject or replace a source domain altogether. But whether this will carry weight is dependent on factors outside of the metaphor itself (although perhaps relying on the same sort of principles) such as social prestige, context, material resources, political clout, etc. Ideas always come with the people who espouse them and I doubt ideas coming with Saatchi and Saatchi will have enough internal coherence to carry them over the disadvantages flowing from their carrier. Let’s hope, I’m wrong.

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I write like… a new more sophisticated stripper name?

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Making connections between ourselves and other people no matter how arbitrary, is an incredibly popular communal as well as private activity. The many algorithms for generating one’s stripper, mobster or some other kind of name have graduated from napkins in bars to Facebook apps and now proper quantitative analysis of text samples. But deep down they’re still the same. Is there a space here for hacking? Can we take this natural tendency, take it apart and put it back together again? Use it for good or for ill? I suppose most social engineering is the hacking of propositional frames, but are there explicit hacks of figurative language and thought? It’s certainly powerful enough when you find out that based on the About page here:

I write like
Vladimir Nabokov

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Just like with horoscopes, jumping on the connection gravy train is not easy to avoid. Mappings immediately started forming in my head: like with Nabokov, English isn’t my first language; like with Nabokov, I occasionally find my writing a bit tedious. But of course, taking a piece of writing from another blog, I find I also

I write like
Edgar Allan Poe

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


Drat, I was kind of getting used to the Nabokov simile. Ok, maybe I have a certain feel for the macabre and a book of the 12 different Czech translations of the Raven was one of my favorites… But just when I ought to quit while proverbially ahead, I paste a few paragraphs from my academic writing and find…

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


And I had to look this guy up! Simile fail!

NB: I wonder if they occasionally put up comparisons like Dr Seuss or complete nimrod.

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Hacking a metaphor in five steps

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Preliminaries

This is the image of the structure of "Th...
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1. Before you start metaphor hacking you must first accept that you don’t have a choice but to speak in some sort of a figurative fashion. Almost nothing worth saying is entirely literal and there are many things whose “literalness” is rooted in metaphor. Look at “I sat in a chair the whole day.” Looks very literal at first glance but it depends on our understanding of a chair as a container (e.g. he was spilling out of his chair) and the day as an object (e.g. she was counting the days, cutting the day short, a long day, etc.)

2. You must also learn to recognize how metaphors are constructed through mappings from one domain to another. Sometimes these mappings are explicit, sometimes they are hidden, sometimes they are clear cut one-on-one connections and sometimes they are fuzzy and cross levels of categorization. But they’re there. If you say, “life is a journey” you can also say “I’ve reached a fork in the road” or “I’ve hit a rough patch” because you map elements of the “road/journey domain” such as intersections, rocky surfaces, hills, etc. to elements of the “life domain” such as decisions and difficult time periods. This way of thinking about metaphor was popularized by Lakoff and Johnson in their 1980 book “Metaphors we live by” which is a great weekend read. However, do read the 2003 edition which contains an important additional chapter.

Metaphor hacking

Once you’ve done the above, you can start hacking (or really do them at the same time).

1. Find an example of a metaphor being used in a way that limits your ability to achieve something or one that constrains your thinking or actions. For example, “education is a marketplace.”

2. Identify the domains involved in the metaphor. The source domain is the domain of knowledge or experience which is being used to structure our understanding of the target domain. This is frequently being confused with concrete/abstract or known/unknown but very often the source domain is just as abstract or well/little known as the target domain. For example: The source domain of marketplace and business is no more concrete or better known than the target domain of education. But it can still be used to structure our understanding  of the domain education.

3. Identity the most common mappings between the source and target domains. These generally have the form of “X is (like) Y” and carry with them the assumption that if X is like Y, it should have a similar relationship to Z or perform similar activities. The “is like” function relies on a fuzzy concept of identity, a sort of family resemblance. For example, in the “education is a marketplace” metaphor, some common mappings are “students are customers” and “schools are companies providing a service”. Don’t make any judgements at this stage. Simply list as many mappings as you can find.

4. See which of the existing mappings are problematic in some way. Some mappings may lead us to others which we didn’t set out to create. This could be good or bad.  For instance, if we think of students as the clients of schools, it’s a very short step to thinking of  teachers as service staff and performance pay. This may be good or bad. But it also leads to students saying “I’ve paid you money for my education” so I deserve to pass. Which is a consequence very few would describe as good. You can also find some one-to-many mappings to see where the metaphor may get you into trouble. For example, if schools are businesses who is their customer? Students, parents, government or society? What is the currency? Knowledge, career prospects, etc. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with one-to-many mappings but they can underscore a possible problem area in the way the metaphor is being used to generate new understandings.

5. Finally, find other possible mappings and try to imagine what the consequences would be. For this, you must strive to learn as much as possible about both of the domains involved and keep an open mind about the mappings. Anything goes. This can be done in a negative manner to bring into question the premise of the metaphor. For instance, Jeffrey Henig pointed out in his book on the Market Metaphor in education that one of the key prerequisites to the functioning of the market is a failure of business entities but none of the market reformers in education have provided a sufficient alternative to failure in their market model of schools.  This should certainly give the market advocates a pause. It doesn’t automatically mean that the marketplace metaphor cannot help us understand education in a useful way but it points to a possible limit to its utility. This process is similar to the rhetorical technique known as reductio ad absurdum but it has a different purpose. Also the metaphor hacker will approach this process with an open mind and will rule nothing out as a priori absurd but will also understand that all these mappings as just options not necessary consequences.

But driving a metaphor forward is most often a positive experience. Donald A Schön called this kind of metaphor use the “generative metaphor”. He gives a great example from engineering. When trying to design a new type of synthetic bristle for a paintbrush, a group of engineers was stuck because they were trying to figure out how to make the paint stick to the threads. This led to blobs of paint rather than nice smooth surfaces. Until one engineer said “You know what, a paintbrush is really a pump”. And immediately the research shifted from the surface of the bristles to their flexibility to create a pump like environment between the bristles rather than trying to make the paint stick to them. Anywhere else the “paintbrush is a pump” metaphor would have seemed ridiculous but in this context it didn’t even need an explanation. The engineers just got on with their work.

This process never stops. You can always find alternative mappings or alternative domains to help you understand the world. You can even have more than one source domain in a process called blending (or conceptual integration) that generates new domains Fauconnier and Turner give the example of a computer virus which blended the domain of software with the domain of medicine to generate a domain of computer viruses that has some properties of both and some emergent properties of its own. But this is for another time.

Conclusion

All good hackers, engineers, journalists or even just members of a school or pub debate club have been hacking at metaphors ever since the phrase “is like” appeared in human language (and possibly even before). But this post urges a transition from hacking at metaphors to hacking metaphors in the best sense of the word. This requires some work at understanding how metaphors work and also getting rid of quite a few prejudices. We’re all used to dismissing others’ arguments as just metaphors and “literalness” is seen as virtue. Once we accept metaphors for what they are, we can start using them to improve how we think and what we do. Not through a wholesale transformation but through little tweaks and a bit of conceptual duct tape. And that’s what the hacker spirit is all about.

Readings

  1. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors we live by (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  2. Jeffrey R. Henig, Rethinking school choice: limits of the market metaphor (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  3. Donald Alan Schön, Displacement of concepts (London: Tavistock Publications, 1963).
  4. Donald A. Schön, “Generative metaphor: A perspective on problem-setting in social policy,” in Metaphor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 254-283.
  5. Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, The way we think: conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
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What it’s all About

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Rendering of human brain.
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Metaphors are not just something extra we use when we’re feeling poetic or at a loss for le mot juste, they are all over our minds, texts and conversations. Just like conjunctions, tenses or word. And just like anything else, they can be used for good or ill, on purpose or without conscious regard. Their meanings can be exposed, explored and exorcised. They can be brought from the dead by fresh perspectives or trodden into the ground by frequent use. They may bring us into the very heights of ecstasy or they may pass by unnoticed. They elluminate and obscure, lead and mislead, bring life and death. They can be too constrained or they can taken too far. They can be wrong and they can be right. And they can be hacked.

Hacking metaphors means taking them apart seeing how they work and putting them back together in a creative and useful way. People hack metaphors all the time without realizing what they’re doing and often getting into trouble by not recognizing that this is what they’re doing.  Paying a bit more attention to how metaphors work and how they can made work differently can make their hacking an easier process.

Oh, and …

Metaphor doesn’t really exist as a separate clearly delineated concept. It is really only one expression of a more general cognitive faculty I call conceptual framing. Depending on who you ask, it is different from or the same as simileanalogyallegory and closely related or in opposition to metonymysynechdoche, irony, and a host of other tropes. On this site, these distinctions don’t matter. All of the above rely on the same conceptual structures and metaphor is just as good a label as any for them.

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