Be water, my friend

I find myself saying this a lot when I try to explain something, “It is like…” or trying to form some sort of equations of one thing to another, “imagine Thing A and Thing B in a Situation X…”. It was at that point of time I realised how useless we would be if we wouldn’t know how to use analogies and metaphors in our everyday conversation, especially if we struggle to explain about something much more complicated.

In Radical Technologies, author Adam Greenfield expresses the concern on the struggle to explain bitcoin in ways of analogy to others, because there seemingly isn’t one that would be apt enough to articulate — which brings to the concern, if we are unable to explain how it works it in the simplest term, that means the power is disproportionately given to individuals and organisations who do understand how it works, and they have the upper hand to decide what to do with that information and technology.

When startlingly new ideas are presented to us, we generally proceed by analogy. We approach understanding crabwise and scuttling, via any number of conceptual placeholders and intermediate metaphors. For the most part, we’re able to gloss an emergent technology as something we’re more familiar with: for purposes of assimilation, anyway, a car is merely a “horseless carriage,” or a pocket nicotine vaporizer an “e-cigarette.” Sometimes this gloss is misleading, even badly so—for some of us, evidently, the internet remains a series of tubes—but it gets the job done. We arrive at a mental model and a theory of action that allow us to fit the new thing into our lives, however haphazardly at first. And over time, we are occasionally able to refine it. But where Bitcoin, the blockchain and related technical developments are concerned, there aren’t really any handy metaphors we can bring to bear. The ones that do get pressed into use are, for most of us, counterintuitive.

It reminded me of the time when I attended a science communication workshop last year. One of the activities was for us to set up a table with three rows, where we would list down some of our technical jargons, its translation and meaning, and come up with a word which could be used as a broader association. I found this difficult not because I couldn’t come up with them, but as someone in social sciences, our terms are rife with analogies and metaphor! For example, the most seminal work would be Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical model, scattered with metaphors: backstage, front stage, self as a mask, etc. Then we have W.E.B Du Bois’ veil as a metaphor for the racial dynamics between how African Americans see themselves and how others see them. Max Weber’s iron cage! Jürgen Habermas’ public sphere! Some more contemporary ones: Ethan Zuckerman’s cute cat theory, Mark Granovetter’s weak ties, etc.

James Geary wrote in his book I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World, in which he also recognises that the gift for coming up with metaphors has the same root with creativity, which is, pattern recognition!:

Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another, as when the author of the Old Testament Song of Songs describes a lover’s navel as “a round goblet never lacking mixed wine” or when the medieval Muslim rhetorician Abdalqahir Al-Jurjani pines, “The gazelle has stolen its eyes from my beloved.”

Yet metaphor is much, much more than this. Metaphor is not just confined to art and literature but is at work in all fields of human endeavor, from economics and advertising, to politics and business, to science and psychology. … There is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch. Once you twig to metaphor’s modus operandi, you’ll find its fingerprints on absolutely everything.

Metaphorical thinking — our instinct not just for describing but for comprehending one thing in terms of another, for equating I with an other — shapes our view of the world, and is essential to how we communicate, learn, discover, and invent.

Metaphor is a way of thought long before it is a way with words.

Also, did you know that the term ‘surfing the web’ was invented by a librarian after she was asked to write about the Internet for a library bulletin?

In casting about for a title for the article, I weighed many possible metaphors. I wanted something that expressed the fun I had using the Internet, as well as hit on the skill, and yes, endurance necessary to use it well. I also needed something that would evoke a sense of randomness, chaos, and even danger. I wanted something fishy, net-like, nautical. At that time I was using a mouse pad from the Apple Library in Cupertino, California, famous for inventing pithy sayings and printing them on sportswear and mouse pads (e.g., ‘A month in the Lab can save you an hour in the Library’). The one I had pictured a surfer on a big wave. ‘Information Surfer’ it said. ‘Eureka,’ I said, and had my metaphor.

Whenever I think about the perfect analogy to describe resilience and growth in the ever challenging world, I am often reminded of what Bruce Lee said:

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.

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