On metaphors & utility fallacy

There’s a piece by Cal Newport I read today where he speaks about utility fallacy — which is the tendency to narrow your analysis for a particular piece of technology by comparing it with the features of the technology of what it had replaced. The context in the article was email, where some Redditors were replying to Newport’s call to eliminate email and were saying that it had worked for them, in many ways. I am one of those who would say email is still useful to me — not only as a way to communicate with people — but also, it serves as somewhat a key for the lack of a better term, as in, you need email addresses to sign up to a lot of things now. But the point Newport was making is, with the rise of other similar platforms to “replace” email, in a way it still works around the same set of features: reply, reply all, folders, tagging, some may come with schedule email options, or enable you to see whether people have opened your emails. But then again, “the more important story is almost always how they end up mutating our socio-cultural dynamics”, as in one of the examples in the comment section where corporate email has evolved as a social media feed where one would sit at the desk and monitor it in real time, and another commenter remarked about how in the Asian culture, one often turns to messaging apps such as Whatsapp, and intrusive clients who lack the idea of boundaries would get agitated if the messages are not replied instantly. My biggest pet peeve.

The point is, almost all messaging platforms, emails or others, work around the same features. But we must remember to reshape our own ways of using it so they don’t end up consuming us:

The point too often missed in a cooly instrumentalist understanding of technology is that we don’t use these tools in a vacuum; we instead participate in complicated social systems that can careen in unforeseen directions when powerful new technological forces are introduced. Features are important, but they’re not the whole story.

I am also enjoying this piece on the significance of metaphors in our image-saturated world. Psychologist Kyung Hee Kim believed that creative thinking is “declining over all Americans of all ages”, despite the abundance of opportunities and resources for knowledge-gathering and study. However, in order “to be creative, they also need opportunities to engage in the mental process of building knowledge through mental actions”. Schools kept focusing on problem-solving skills in education, while discarding the more imaginative problem-finding ones. “Standardisation,” Kim concludes, “should be resisted”.

And this is where the link to metaphors and creative thinking happens:

‘Metaphor requires a perceptual power and ability, a re-seeing, a re-analogising’ that is not inborn, but instead fostered through a ‘depth of attention’ that, in turn, breeds imagination. ‘You know, you can’t just wake up after a steady diet of social media and harness the deeper power of language and connection.’

This is also attributed to how our daily practices are often dominated by screen-based activities, leaving us to “engage less frequently in primary experiences involving our non-visual senses. Instead, we navigate the world as we see it, confined in its screen”. Furthermore, in our image-saturated world where a lot of them have been curated for us — by ourselves, others, or the work of algorithm — we often see things as how they are presented to us, as predicted by Walter Benjamin in the essay ‘A Short History of Photography’ (1931):

… a photography which is able to relate a tin of canned food to the universe, yet cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which that tin exists; a photography which even in its most dreamlike compositions is more concerned with eventual salability than with understanding … the true facts of this photographic creativity is the advertisement.

I’m not quite sure I agree with how photography does not encourage metaphoric thinking, but it might be also because as I enter academics, I am trained to do critical analysis on almost every piece of work. But this is a good finding and read nevertheless.

Comment 1

  1. Pingback: An act of defiant grace – Two Kinds of Intelligence

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