We need to change our Metaphors

We need to update our metaphors (and our thinking) from the physical metaphors of the Industrial age to nature based metaphors, which better reflect the Internet age.

Late Stage Institutionalism Part 3

One of my most tightly held beliefs is that our society is stuck in the thinking of the previous Industrial age and that we need to create new metaphors and language that reflect the new Internet age that we live in. I’ve written previously about the differences between the Industrial and the Internet age. In this post, I’l expand on why we need to update our metaphors. I’ll also explore some examples of outdated metaphors and ways of thinking and suggest better alternatives for the Internet age.

The Metaphors that Surround Us

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?

David Foster Wallace

The dominant metaphors and language in society reflect thinking from the Industrial Revolution. This Industrial style thinking is focused on manufacturing physical and mechanical objects and prizes static and quantifiable things.

Humans as Machines

The most damaging metaphor that we have currently is where we treat humans like physical machines.

We can take this idea in so many directions:

  • We treat human work as if they produce in a constant (work 8 hour days)
  • We still organise our companies as if we are building physical products and that hu
  • We treat humans as essentially upgradeable as if you can just bolt on a new module (MBA, self development, career pivots )

fungible and replaceable similar to a machine part

I regularly encounter this type of thinking at work. The concept of a man hour or resourcing for a project is based on man hours. This is true in almost all bureaucracies. For example, let’s say that there’s a project with 2 coders on it. The project is running behind. The product manager asks what extra help or resourcing can be put on the project. Great the project manager says – let’s just put 2 more coders on it. That way the resourcing is doubled and they should finish in half the time. But the real world isn’t some simplistic math question designed to teach you fractions.

In fact all project managers know that the fastest way to slow down a project is to put more people on it. You have to spend more time onboarding the new people. That means the 2 coders who can push the project forward.

As more and more of our work is moving to knowledge work we need to move away from the metaphors and management practices that have been developed for the industrial age.

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