The metaphor I left behind
When Steve Jobs stepped on stage during Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, I couldn’t look away. As a kid, I loved to plop myself down in front of a computer screen and watch Jobs’ keynote addresses. There’s one line of his in particular that has stuck with me:
Apple stands at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts.
In middle school and high school, academic subjects lived in their own little silos—separated by the bells that rang between class periods. The idea that liberal arts and technology could intersect seemed both foreign and exciting to me at the time. I adopted the phrase for my own use and began describing myself as someone who stood at the “intersection” of technology, design, music, and writing. I didn’t want to have to choose just one. It wasn’t until recently that I started to second guess my decision to co-opt the “interests as intersection” metaphor.
Metaphors we live by
To most people, metaphor is a literary device—a rhetorical flourish or linguistic tool used by creative writers. But metaphors are more than just words. They form the very basis of how we think about the world, and they govern our functioning “down to the most mundane details.” 1
In Western culture, for example, most people subscribe to the metaphor “argument as war” without even realizing it. Arguments get “shot down,” criticisms are “right on target,” weak points in arguments are “abandoned” for “new lines of attack.” Argument as war is a metaphor we live by in this culture. The metaphor is not merely a matter of language; it structures our actions. We want to “win” arguments, “defend” ourselves, and avoid “losing ground” to our “opponents.”
Imagine instead a culture that viewed arguments as dances rather than wars. Arguments would be beautiful exchanges of ideas rather than battles to be won. In the “argument as dance” metaphor, opponents become partners who are working toward the common goal of bettering each other. People “would view arguments differently, experience them differently, carry them out differently.”2
The intersection of limiting and uncreative
As my interests evolved over time, so too did the “intersection” I (metaphorically) stood at. That is, until I realized that this metaphor was actually more limiting than it was useful.
All metaphors have entailments—a collection of ideas and assumptions that they connote. Though these assumptions can be hard to uncover, they often control our thoughts and actions (see: “argument as war” metaphor). The “interests as intersection” metaphor has a lot of entailments that don’t make much sense when held up to the light.
An intersection rarely has more than four roads. The “interests as intersection” metaphor implies you can never be standing at the intersection of more than four topics at a time—a fairly limiting prospect.
Intersections have stop signs and stop lights. As a result, people describe their interests as “standing at the intersection” or “lying at the intersection” of X, Y, and Z. No one is ever moving through the intersection, which makes the “interests as intersection” metaphor feel awfully static.
If we stand at the intersection of different ideas, then the ideas must be roads, paths, or lines of some sort. The metaphor of “idea as road” also has a lot of entailments. Roads are flat, two-dimensional, linear, finite, and narrow. They have edges. There are “rules of the road.” Starting points. Destinations. The properties of ideas seem very out of step with the properties of paths and roads. Ideas can be amorphous, rule-breaking, non-linear, multi-dimensional. They overlap with each other in strange and irregular ways.
The “interests as intersection” metaphor is binary. You cannot be sort-of standing there or halfway there. You are either standing at a particular intersection, or not. This rules out gradual progress and incremental change.
Judging by a quick search on Google and Twitter, most people who use this metaphor say they are interested in “the intersection” of X, Y, and Z rather than “intersections” (plural) or “an intersection.” This implies that there is one (and only one) very specific connection between the things that are doing the intersecting. When you’re set on finding the “intersection” of X, Y, and Z, it’s harder to think in terms of different metaphors like “marriage” or “cross-pollination.” Why? Because you’re simply not looking. A powerful metaphor can be blinding.
It may seem like I’m mincing words here, but the metaphors we live by affect how we perceive the world around us. If you’re trying to figure out how ideas “intersect,” you’re probably never going to imagine them getting “married” (even if the marriage metaphor would lead to more interesting thoughts than the intersection one). My point is that the metaphors we choose define the boundaries of the box we think inside of. They have “the power to create a new reality.”3 And if we’re not careful, they can end up doing a lot of our thinking for us.
When we’re aware of the metaphors that enter into our every day lives, we can decide which to trash and which to keep. Best of all, we can engineer new ones that enhance our thoughts and behaviors. And with that, I’ll say goodbye to my little intersection that Steve Jobs inspired so many years ago. Maybe now my interests will live in a roundabout instead.