I’m reading a book by engineer and internet pioneer Philip Agre. Agre studied at MIT and worked on a collection of ideas about reality and how computers should perceive it, dubbed New AI. He taught at the University of California in San Diego, at the University of Chicago, at UC again in Los Angeles, and started a popular e-mailing list in the 1990s about AI and computer science. At some point he wrote the book I’m currently reading — called Computation and Human Experience. Then he disappeared off the face of the Internet. Agre went literally missing in 2009. He was ‘found’ in 2010. NPR, who did a story about it, wrote that the LA County Sheriff’s Department reported Agre to be “in good health and self-sufficient”. He had chosen to disappear. He may well no longer be alive. Or he might be; he could be living, laughing, maybe raising goats and doing cryptic crosswords in a physical body somewhere in physical space, with people to talk and commune with, to whom his continuing reality is undisputed and unremarkable. It is a noticeable bias in my own access to reality that the end of easily-available information about a person equates to the termination of their present-day existence. Google should not have such pride of place as a reality-generating force.
‘Generative metaphors’ were one of the techniques that Agre used to de-naturalise the discourse and practices of the field of AI. Generative metaphors are images, stories, or models that give structure and logic to congeries of words and ideas, arranging them into tidy disciplines that can be taught, practices that can be ritualised, and assumptions that save valuable thinking time if you’re trying to make a machine understand human speech, or work out how you feel about a new Danish cartoon starring a claymation man with an extremely long penis [real thing, look it up]. If you draw up a mental box and fill it with ideas that intuitively seem to go together, you’re likely to find some shared image or idea from which they all seem to spring from and take form. That is a generative metaphor, as far as I understand.
Of course as I read Agre’s explanation, my mind wandered from the generative metaphors that stick out, fractured and bloody from dominant narratives of human history — the feudal system as a way of organising animal ‘kingdoms’ and human ‘races’, the British Empire as a grand extended family — and I started to wonder at the generative metaphors lying around unnoticed in my own mind.
That, already, is evidence of one. The notion that the mind has an ‘inside’ as opposed to the ‘outside’ of the rest of the world, is itself a generative metaphor for theories of mind, both human and machine, spurring centuries of philosophical musings and decades of computer engineering.
Where there is one metaphor, there must be more!
What are the images and stories that exist in unremarkable corners of everyday life?
I thought I’d start a list.
Women as fruit. In the ‘spring’ of life, women ‘bloom’ with the first flushes of youth. They ‘flower’ around the time they could, in biological responsibility, give birth to another human being and they start to ‘fade’ and then ‘wither’ as that becomes an increasingly remote possibility. Women’s bodies are ‘pear-shaped’ or ‘apple-shaped’, although never ‘cumquat’ or ‘star-fruit’ shaped, or they have an ‘hour-glass figure’ which is not a fruit but taps into the broader metaphor of time and its finite nature. That might be stretching the metaphor. I’m sure there are motivational fridge magnets about women as fine wines or oil paintings, but the metaphor of womanhood that I have internalised is a fruiting tree planted by a patriarchal society concerned with population growth. I possibly wouldn’t have little quivers of existential horror at the impending event of my 30th birthday if I’d internalised the metaphor of ‘woman-as-a-cactus’. I actually have no idea what the implications of that would be. My pet cacti grow tall in an effort to eat sunlight and appreciate being misted in the mornings.
Love as a landscape. People ‘fall into love’. They ‘fall out of love’. You can get caught up in a ‘whirlwind of passion’ or wander inadvertently into a ‘sexual desert’. Love is a metaphorical place with its very own weather system. When we’re drowning in an ‘ocean of tears’ or licking our wounds from ‘the fires of passion’, it’s easy to see love as one big act of God. We, collectively, are in the role of Dorothy, recoiling from the magician who turns out to be a charlatan and then clicking our heels and wishing with all our hearts to be back in a (recently plowed) field and doing the dishes for our aunt.
Progress. A much critiqued term, including by me. I have a BA honors thesis on a hard-drive about the unfortunate imposition of the concept in discourses of international development proliferating across sub-saharan Africa. Yet the linear concept of progress as an organising principles is very much present in my own life. I am still coming to terms with the reality that at the end of my life, no one is going to give me a certificate and shake my hand. Why am I even putting in all this effort? Because it means I can have nice things. That is the secret. Weber wrote about the protestant ethic of capitalism — that those who work hard will receive their just rewards. So I do my own version of hard work so I can justify drinking red wine, having baths, going for walks and watching ‘Call the Midwife’. Why, says one rebellious part of my brain, why not just have these things whenever you want? Because then they wouldn’t be just rewards. And I probably wouldn’t enjoy them as much.
Children as possessions. Isn’t it a tad incongruous that children are still something that people ‘have?’ Slavery endures but is globally unfashionable, and the few countries that deny women status as independent and equal persons are critiqued (if inadequately sanctioned) for their practice of doing so. Yet everyday language still assumes possession of small human beings. I understand that this language reflects historical patriarchy and a present day reality of parental rights — but should it?
With these four thematics, I find I have a new game. An alphabet of metaphors. An idea or symbol, easily enough to substantiate, which supports it its own unquestioned way the everyday business of being alive. W, L, P, and C have already received submissions. There’s just all the other letters to go.
What are the generative metaphors that generate you?
Submissions are open.