Linguistics

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I wrote this more than a quarter century ago when Linux Journal was the only publication that would have me, and I posted unsold essays and wannabe columns at searls.com. These postings accumulated in this subdirectory for several years before Dave Winer got me to blog for real, starting here.

Interesting how much has changed since I wrote this, and how much hasn’t. Everything I said about metaphor applies no less than ever, even as all the warring parties mentioned have died or moved on to other activities, if not battles. (Note that there was no Google at this time, and the search engines mentioned exist only as fossils in posts such as this one.)

Perhaps most interesting is the paragraph about MARKETS ARE CONVERSATIONS. While that one-liner had no effect at the time, it became a genie that would not return to its bottle after Chris Locke, David Weinberger, Rick Levine and I put it in The Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999. In fact, I had been saying “markets are conversations” to no effect at least since the 1980s. Now join the conversation” is bullshit almost everywhere it’s uttered, but you can’t stop hearing it. Strange how that goes.

MAKE MONEY, NOT WAR
TIME TO MOVE PAST THE WAR METAPHORS OF THE INDUSTRIAL AGE

By Doc Searls
19 March 1997

“War isn’t an instinct. It’s an invention.”

“The metaphor is probably the most fertile power possessed by man.”

“Conversation is the socializing instrument par excellence.”

-José Ortega y Gasset


Patton lives

In the movie “Patton,” the general says, “Compared to war, all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.” In a moment of self-admonition, he adds, “God help me, I love it so.”

And so do we. For proof, all we have to do is pick up a trade magazine. Or better yet, fire up a search engine.

Altavista says more than one million documents on the Web contain the words MicrosoftNetscape, and war. Hotbot lists hundreds of documents titled “Microsoft vs. Netscape,” and twice as many titled “Netscape vs. Microsoft.”

It’s hard to find an article about the two companies that does not cast them as opponents battling over “turf,” “territory,” “sectors” and other geographies.

It’s also hard to start a conversation without using the same metaphorical premise. Intranet Design Magazine recently hosted a thread titled “Who’s winning?? Netscape vs. Microsoft.” Dave Shafer starts the thread with “Wondering what your informed opinion is on who is winning the internet war and what affects this will have on inter/intranet development.” The first respondent says, “sorry, i’m from a french country,” and “I’m searching for economical informations about the war between Microsoft and Netscape for the control of the WEB industrie.” Just as telling is a post by a guy named Michael, who says “Personaly I have both on my PC.”

So do I. Hey, I’ve got 80 megs of RAM and a 2 gig hard drive, so why not? I also have five ISPs, four word processors, three drawing programs, and two presentation packages. I own competing products from Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape, Adobe, Yamaha, Sony, Panasonic, Aiwa, Subaru, Fisher Price and the University of Chicago — to name just a few I can see from where I sit. I don’t sense that buying and using any of these is a territorial act, a victory for one company, or a defeat for another.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have those perceptions when we write and talk about companies and the markets where they compete. Clearly, we do, because we understand business — as we understand just about everything — in metaphorical terms. As it happens, our understanding of companies and markets is largely structured by the metaphors BUSINESS IS WAR and MARKETS ARE BATTLEFIELDS.

By those metaphors we share an understanding that companies fight battles over market territories that they attack, defend, dominate, yield or abandon. Their battlefields contain beachheads, bunkers, foxholes, sectors, streams, hills, mountains, swamps, streams, rivers, landslides, quagmires, mud, passages, roadblocks, and high ground. In fact, the metaphor BUSINESS IS WAR is such a functional conceptual system that it unconsciously pumps out clichés like a machine. And since sports is a sublimated and formalized kind of war, the distances between sports and war metaphors in business are so small that the vocabularies mix without clashing.

Here, I’ll pick up the nearest Business Week… it’s the January 13 issue. Let’s look at the High Technology section that starts on page 104. The topic is Software and the headline reads, “Battle stations! This industry is up for grabs as never before…” Here’s the first paragraph, with war and sports references capitalized: “Software was once an orderly affair in which a few PLAYERS called most of the shots. The industry had almost gotten used to letting Microsoft Corp. set the agenda in personal computing. But as the Internet ballooned into a $1 billion software business in 1996, HUGE NEW TERRITORIES came up for grabs. Microsoft enters the new year in a STRONG POSITION TO REASSERT CONTROL. But it will have to FIGHT OFF Netscape, IBM, Oracle and dozens of startups that are DESPERATELY STAKING OUT TURF on the Net. ‘Everyone is RACING TO FIND MARKET SPACE and get established…'”

Is this a good thing? Does it matter? The vocabularies of war and sports may be the most commonly used sources of metaphors, for everything from academic essays to fashion stories. Everybody knows war involves death and destruction, yet we experience little if any of that in the ordinary conduct of business, or even of violent activities such as sports.

So why should we concern ourselves with war metaphors, when we all know we don’t take them literally?

Two reasons. First, we do take them literally. Maybe we don’t kill each other, but the sentiments are there, and they do have influences. Second, war rarely yields positive sums, except for one side or another. The economy the Internet induces is an explosion of positive sums that accrue to many if not all participants. Doesn’t it deserve a more accurate metaphor?

For answers, let’s turn to George Lakoff.

The matter of Metaphor

“Answer true or false,” Firesign Theater says. “Dogs flew spaceships. The Aztecs invented the vacation… If you answered ‘false’ to any of these questions, then everything you know is wrong.”

This is the feeling you begin to get when you read George Lakoff, the foremost authority on the matter of metaphor. Lakoff is Professor of Linguistics and Cognitive Science at UC-Berkeley, the author of Women, Fire and Dangerous Things and Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. He is also co-author of Metaphors We Live By and More than Cool Reason. All are published by the University of Chicago Press.


Maybe that’s why they didn’t give us the real story in school. It would have been like pulling the pins out of a bunch of little hand grenades.

If Lakoff is right, the most important class you ignored in school was English — not because you need to know all those rules you forgot or books you never read, but because there’s something else behind everything you know (or think you know) and talk about. That something is a metaphor. (And if you think otherwise, you’re wrong.)

In English class — usually when the subject was poetry — they told us that meaning often arises out of comparison, and that three comparative devices are metaphorsimile, and analogy. Each compares one thing to another thing that is similar in some way:

  • Metaphors say one thing is another thing, such as “time is money,” “a computer screen is a desktop,” or (my favorite Burt Lancaster line) “your mind is a cookie of arsenic.”
  • Similes say one thing is like another thing, such as “gone like snow on the water” or “dumb as a bucket of rocks.”
  • Analogies suggest partial similarities between unalike things, as with “licorice is the liver of candy.”

But metaphor is the device that matters, because, as Lakoff says, “We may not always know it, but we think in metaphor.” And, more to the point, “Metaphors can kill.” Maybe that’s why they didn’t give us the real story in school. It would have been like pulling the pins out of a bunch of little hand grenades.

But now we’re adults, and you’d think we should know how safely to arm and operate a language device. But it’s not easy. Cognitive science is relatively new and only beginning to make sense of the metaphorical structures that give shape and meaning to our world. Some of these metaphors are obvious but many others are hidden. In fact, some are hidden so well that even a guru like Lakoff can overlook them for years.

Lakoff’s latest book, “Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know and Liberals Don’t,” was inspired by his realization that the reason he didn’t know what many conservatives were talking about was that, as a Liberal, he didn’t comprehend conservative metaphors. Dan Quayle’s applause lines went right past him.

After much investigation, Lakoff found that central to the conservative worldview was a metaphor of the state as a strict father and that the “family values” conservatives espouse are those of a strict father’s household: self-reliance, rewards and punishments, responsibility, respect for authority — and finally, independence. Conservatives under Ronald Reagan began to understand the deep connection between family and politics, while Liberals remained clueless about their own family metaphor — the “nurturant parent” model. Under Reagan, Lakoff says, conservatives drove the language of strict father morality into the media and the body politic. It won hearts and minds, and it won elections.

So metaphors matter, big time. They structure our perceptions, the way we make sense of the world, and the language we use to talk about things that happen in the world. They are also far more literal than poetry class would lead us to believe. Take the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR —

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attach kis decisions and defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies… Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war.” (From Metaphors We Live By)

In our culture argument is understood and structured by the war metaphor. But in other cultures it is not. Lakoff invites us to imagine a culture where argument is viewed as dance, participants as performers and the goal to create an aesthetically pleasing performance.

Right now we understand that “Netscape is losing ground in the browser battle,” because we see the browser business a territory over which Netscape and Microsoft are fighting a war. In fact, we are so deeply committed to this metaphor that the vocabularies of business and war reporting are nearly indistinguishable.

Yet the Internet “battlefield” didn’t exist a decade ago, and the software battlefield didn’t exist a decade before that. These territories were created out of nothingness. Countless achievements have been made on them. Victories have been won over absent or equally victorious opponents.

In fact, Netscape and Microsoft are creating whole new markets together, and both succeed mostly at nobody’s expense. Netscape’s success also owes much to the robust nature of the Windows NT Server platform.


The war stories we’re telling about the Internet are turning into epic lies.

At the same time Microsoft has moved forward in browsers, directory services, languages, object models and other product categories — mostly because it’s chasing Netscape in each of them.

Growing markets are positive-sum creations, while wars are zero-sum at best. But BUSINESS IS WAR is an massive metaphorical machine that works so well that business war stories almost write themselves. This wouldn’t be a problem if business was the same now as it was twenty or fifty years ago. But business is changing fast, especially where the Internet is involved. The old war metaphor just isn’t doing the job.

Throughout the Industrial Age, both BUSINESS IS WAR and MARKETS ARE BATTLEFIELDS made good structure, because most industries and markets were grounded in physical reality. Railroads, shipping, construction, automobiles, apparel and retail were all located in physical reality. Even the phone system was easily understood in terms of phones, wires and switches. And every industrial market contained finite labor pools, capital, real estate, opportunities and natural resources. Business really was war, and markets really were battlefields.

But the Internet is hardly physical and most of its businesses have few physical limitations. The Web doesn’t look, feel or behave like anything in the analog world, even though we are eager to describe it as a “highway” or as a kind of “space.” Internet-related businesses appear and grow at phenomenal rates. The year 1995 saw more than $100 billion in new wealth created by the Internet, most of it invested in companies that were new to the world, or close to it. Now new markets emerge almost every day, while existing markets fragment, divide and expand faster than any media can track them.

For these reasons, describing Internet business in physical terms is like standing at the Dawn of Life and describing new species in terms of geology. But that’s what we’re doing, and every day the facts of business and technology life drift farther away from the metaphors we employ to support them. We arrive at pure myth, and the old metaphors stand out like bones from a dry corpse.

Of course myths are often full of truth. Fr. Seán Olaoire says “there are some truths so profound only a story can tell them.” But the war stories we’re telling about the Internet are turning into epic lies.


Describing Internet business in physical terms is like standing at the Dawn of Life and describing new species in terms of geology.

What can we do about it?

First, there’s nothing we can do to break the war metaphor machine. It’s just too damn big and old and good at what it does. But we can introduce some new metaphors that make equally good story-telling machines, and tell more accurately what’s going on in this new business world.

One possibility is MARKETS ARE CONVERSATIONS. These days we often hear conversations used as synonyms for markets. We hear about “the privacy conversation” or “the network conversation.” We “talk up” a subject and say it has a lot of “street cred.” This may not be much, but it does accurately structure an understanding of what business is and how markets work in the world we are creating with the Internet.

Another is the CONDUIT metaphor. Lakoff credits Michael Reddy with discovering hidden in our discussions of language the implication of conduit structure:

Your thinking comes through loud and clear.
It’s hard to put my ideas into words
You can’t stuff ideas into a sentence
His words carry little meaning

The Net facilitates communication, and our language about communication implies contuits through which what we say is conveyed. The language of push media suggests the Net is less a centerless network — a Web — than a set of channels through which stuff is sent. Note the preposition. I suggest that we might look more closely at how much the conduit metaphor is implicit in what we say about push, channels and related subjects. There’s something to it, I think.

My problem with both CONDUIT and CHANNEL is that they don’t clearly imply positive sums, and don’t suggest the living nature of the Net. Businesses have always been like living beings, but in the Net environment they enjoy unprecedented fecundity. What’s a good metaphor for that? A jungle?

Whatever, it’s clearly not just a battlefield, regardless of the hostilities involved. It’s time to lay down our arms and and start building new conceptual machines. George Lakoff will speak at PC Forum next week. I hope he helps impart some mass to one or more new metaphorical flywheels. Because we need to start telling sane and accurate stories about our businesses and our markets.

If we don’t, we’ll go on shooting at each other for no good reason.


Links

Here are a few links into the worlds of metaphor and cognitive science. Some of this stuff is dense and heavy; but hey, it’s not an easy subject. Just an important one..

I also explored the issue of push media in Shoveling Push and When Push Becomes Shove. And I visited the Microsoft vs. Netscape “war” in Microsoft + Netscape: The Real Story. All three are in Reality 2.0.


In July 2008, when I posted the photo above on this blog, some readers thought Santa Barbara Mission was on fire. It didn’t matter that I explained in that post how I got the shot, or that news reports made clear that the Gap Fire was miles away. The photo was a good one, but it also collapsed three dimensions into just two. Hence the confusion. If you didn’t know better, it looked like the building was on fire. The photo removed distance.

So does the Internet, at least when we are there. Let’s look at what there means.

Pre-digital media were limited by distance, and to a high degree defined by it. Radio and television signals degrade across distances from transmitters, and are limited as well by buildings, terrain, weather, and (on some frequency bands), ionospheric conditions. Even a good radio won’t get an absent signal. Nor will a good TV. Worse, if you live more than a few dozen miles from a TV station’s transmitter, you need a good antenna mounted on your roof, a chimney, or a tall pole. For signals coming from different locations, you need a rotator as well. Even on cable, there is still a distinction between local channels and cable-only ones. You pay more to get “bundles” of the latter, so there is a distance in cost between local and distant channel sources. If you get your TV by satellite, your there needs to be in the satellite’s coverage footprint.

But with the Internet, here and there are the same. Distance is gone, on purpose. Its design presumes that all physical and wireless connections are one, no matter who owns them or how they get paid to move chunks of Internet data. It is a world of ends meant to show nothing of its middles, which are countless paths the ends ignore. (Let’s also ignore, for the moment, that some countries and providers censor or filter the Internet, in some cases blocking access from the physical locations their systems detect. Those all essentially violate the Internet’s simple assumption of openness and connectivity for everybody and everything at every end.)

For people on the Internet, distance is collapsed to the height and width of a window. There is also no gravity because space implies three dimensions and your screen has only two, and the picture is always upright. When persons in Scotland and Australia talk, neither is upside down to the other. But they are present with each other and that’s what matters. (This may change in the metaverse, whatever that becomes, but will likely require headgear not everyone will wear. And it will still happen over the Internet.)

Digital life, almost all of which now happens on the Internet, is new to human experience, and our means of coping are limited. For example, by language. And I don’t mean different ones. I mean all of them, because they are made for making sense of a three-dimensional physical world, which the Internet is not.

Take prepositions. English, like most languages, has a few dozen prepositions, most of which describe placement in three-dimensional space. Over, around, under, through, beside, within, off, on, over, aboard… all presume three dimensions. That’s also where our bodies are, and it is through our bodies that we make sense of the world. We say good is light and bad is dark because we are diurnal hunters and gatherers, with eyes optimized for daylight. We say good is up and bad is down because we walk and run upright. We “grasp” or “hold on” to an idea because we have opposable thumbs on hands built to grab. We say birth is “arrival,” death is “departure” and careers are “paths,” because we experience life as travel.

But there are no prepositions yet that do justice to the Internet’s absence of distance. Of course, we say we are “on” the Internet like we say we are “on” the phone. And it works well enough, as does saying we are on” fire or drugs. We just frame our understanding of the Internet in metaphorical terms that require a preposition, and “on” makes the most sense. But can we do better than that? Not sure.

Have you noticed that how we present ourselves in the digital world also differs from how we do the same in the physical one? On social media, for example, we perform roles, as if on a stage. We talk to an audience straight through a kind of fourth wall, like an actor, a lecturer, a comedian, musician, or politician. My point here is that the arts and methods of performing in the physical world are old, familiar, and reliant on physical surroundings. How we behave with others in our offices, our bedrooms, our kitchens, our clubs, and our cars are all well-practiced and understood. In social media, the sense of setting is much different and more limited.

In the physical world, much of our knowledge is tacit rather than explicit, yet digital technology is entirely explicit: ones and zeroes, packets and pixels. The tacit is there, but living in an on/off present/absent two-dimensional world is still new and lacking much of what makes life in the three-dimensional natural world so rich and subtle.

Marshall McLuhan says all media, all technologies, extend us. When we drive a car we wear it like a carapace or a suit of armor. We also speak of it in the first person possessive: my engine, my fenders, my wheels, much as we would say my fingers and my hair. There is distance here too, and it involves performance. A person who would never yell at another person standing in line at a theater might do exactly that at another car. That kind of distance is gone, or very different, in the digital world.

In a way we are naked in the digital world, and vulnerable. By that I mean we lack the rudimentary privacy tech we call clothing and shelter, which protect our private parts and spaces from observation and intrusion while also signaling the forms of observation and contact that we permit or welcome. The absence of this kind of privacy tech is why it is so easy for websites and apps to fill our browsers with cookies and other forms of tracking tech. In this early stage of life on the Internet, what’s called privacy is just the “choices” sites and services give us, none of which are recorded where we can easily find, audit or dispute them.

Can we get new forms of personal tech that truly extend and project our agency in the digital world? I think so, but it’s a good question because we don’t yet have an answer.

 

I spent 17 minutes while exercising the other day, thinking out loud about what @GeorgeLakoff says in his 1996 book Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know That Liberals Don’t, (also in his expanded 2016 edition, re-subtitled How Liberals and Conservatives Think). I also tweeted about the book this morning here. In it I explain what pretty much nobody else is saying about Trump, Biden, and how each actually appeals to their voters (and those in between).

Here’s the audio file:

This blog no longer takes comments, alas, so post a response elsewhere, if you like, or write me. I’m doc @ my surname dot com.