The Metaphors that We Are

I was driving to the next town over on Saturday to get gas for the wood splitter, and had NPR’s “TED Radio Hour” on in the car. And they were going on about “big data,” and all of the ways in which massive data analysis will bring us all to a sort of lab-coat perfection, a constant project of optimization.

Yeah, fine. What it really got me thinking about was the ways in which we get so impressed with our technological creations that we imagine that they explain everything, that in fact we start to use those creations as metaphors for human life itself.

For a long time, we were thought to be ideal machines, understood as levers and hinges and straps, conduits and pumps and bellows. Much of how medicine is understood is still based on that model, a sort of linear causality, a really complex game of Mousetrap.

Once we invented computers, we were thought to be RAM and ROM, to be information processors, to be storage and sensors and outputs. Much of how psychology is understood is still based on that model, and if you press most teachers to talk about learning, you’ll hear stuff kind of like this.

So the guy on TED (Kenneth Cukier, author of the new book Big Data and an editor for The Economist in London) was saying that essentially, you and I are best seen as massive streams of data. We are locations and browsing histories, FitBit streams and Pandora preferences, purchase patterns and Facebook updates, likes and +1s. He imagines a world in which we all have smart toilets, measuring our nutritional chemistry a few times a day and sending us updated dietary recommendations. We generate data all the time; it may fairly be said that we are data.

Metaphors really matter. Think about how we think of our students: as explorers, as recipients, as workload, as apprentices. Those words frame the work that we do and the relationships we create. Think about how we frame our own scholarship: as production, as contribution, as positioning, as authorship credit. Those words also frame the work that we do and the relationships we create.

All metaphors are imperfect. Humans are humans, neither machine nor computer nor data cloud; each of those metaphors privileges some of what it means to be human even as it takes others out of consideration altogether. And because of that, they’re vitally important. Choose them carefully, and re-examine them often.

And sometime when we’re hanging out together, I’ll tell you the joke about the engineers arguing about what kind of an engineer God was…