in Metaphor

What I Talk About When I Talk About ‘User Outcomes’: #1 – Douglas Adams, Feng Shui & controlling behaviours.

This is the first in the series of a series of occasional posts in which I attempt to explain, either through my own words or those of others, what I mean by my ongoing project of ‘improving user outcomes’. The title of this series is inspired by Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, itself inspired by Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

In September 1998 the late, great, Douglas Adams gave an off-the-cuff speech at Digital Biota 2, held at Magdelene College Cambridge. Whilst I’d recommend reading the whole thing, what I find fascinating about the following extract is the nuance in his approach. It’s a fantastic example of why our relationship with others and our environment is so complex – and why we often require metaphor as a lens:

I want to talk about Feng Shui, which is something I know very little about, but there’s been a lot of talk about it recently in terms of figuring out how a building should be designed, built, situated, decorated and so on. Apparently, we need to think about the building being inhabited by dragons and look at it in terms of how a dragon would move around it. So, if a dragon wouldn’t be happy in the house, you have to put a red fish bowl here or a window there. This sounds like complete and utter nonsense, because anything involving dragons must be nonsense – there aren’t any dragons, so any theory based on how dragons behave is nonsense. What are these silly people doing, imagining that dragons can tell you how to build your house? Nevertheless, it occurs to me if you disregard for a moment the explanation that’s actually offered for it, it may be there is something interesting going on that goes like this: we all know from buildings that we’ve lived in, worked in, been in or stayed in, that some are more comfortable, more pleasant and more agreeable to live in than others. We haven’t had a real way of quantifying this, but in this century we’ve had an awful lot of architects who think they know how to do it, so we’ve had the horrible idea of the house as a machine for living in, we’ve had Mies van der Roe and others putting up glass stumps and strangely shaped things that are supposed to form some theory or other. It’s all carefully engineered, but nonetheless, their buildings are not actually very nice to live in. An awful lot of theory has been poured into this, but if you sit and work with an architect (and I’ve been through that stressful time, as I’m sure a lot of people have) then when you are trying to figure out how a room should work you’re trying to integrate all kinds of things about lighting, about angles, about how people move and how people live – and an awful lot of other things you don’t know about that get left out. You don’t know what importance to attach to one thing or another; you’re trying to, very consciously, figure out something when you haven’t really got much of a clue, but there’s this theory and that theory, this bit of engineering practice and that bit of architectural practice; you don’t really know what to make of them. Compare that to somebody who tosses a cricket ball at you. You can sit and watch it and say, ‘It’s going at 17 degrees’; start to work it out on paper, do some calculus, etc. and about a week after the ball’s whizzed past you, you may have figured out where it’s going to be and how to catch it. On the other hand, you can simply put your hand out and let the ball drop into it, because we have all kinds of faculties built into us, just below the conscious level, able to do all kinds of complex integrations of all kinds of complex phenomena which therefore enables us to say, ‘Oh look, there’s a ball coming; catch it!’

What I’m suggesting is that Feng Shui and an awful lot of other things are precisely of that kind of problem. There are all sorts of things we know how to do, but don’t necessarily know what we do, we just do them. Go back to the issue of how you figure out how a room or a house should be designed and instead of going through all the business of trying to work out the angles and trying to digest which genuine architectural principles you may want to take out of what may be a passing architectural fad, just ask yourself, ‘how would a dragon live here?’ We are used to thinking in terms of organic creatures; an organic creature may consist of an enormous complexity of all sorts of different variables that are beyond our ability to resolve but we know how organic creatures live. We’ve never seen a dragon but we’ve all got an idea of what a dragon is like, so we can say, ‘Well if a dragon went through here, he’d get stuck just here and a little bit cross over there because he couldn’t see that and he’d wave his tail and knock that vase over’. You figure out how the dragon’s going to be happy here and lo and behold! you’ve suddenly got a place that makes sense for other organic creatures, such as ourselves, to live in.

So, my argument is that as we become more and more scientifically literate, it’s worth remembering that the fictions with which we previously populated our world may have some function that it’s worth trying to understand and preserve the essential components of, rather than throwing out the baby with the bath water; because even though we may not accept the reasons given for them being here in the first place, it may well be that there are good practical reasons for them, or something like them, to be there.

I’d argue that there’s many such metaphors at work in our everyday life and that, in fact, almost everything we do is predicated upon cultural norms that colour our perception. This is known as the ‘theory-ladeness’ of observation and, taken to one extreme, would mean that we do, in fact, encounter the world entirely through metaphor.

What does this mean for user outcomes? Controlling metaphors means controlling behaviours.

Image CC-BY-SA Aditya Grandhi

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  1. In the 31 years I have led a school, I have learned many things about education , and probably forgotten more than most will learn. Spare me decision makers, but be incisive when making same. Understand that DNA gets spilt all around schools, and Matrons and kitchen staff can tell you more about your school than most teaching staff. I am a great believer in luck, but to be lucky you have to work at it loads, look for the openings, put labelled long irons in the fire and leave them there for others to find and seek you out, listen twice as much as you talk and above all be smart in how you work. I like the idea of the Limbic system, because stuff can be felt in your water, but also because it reminds us that you need to know all of your school’s data, nuanced as well, and not just the data a government from time to time will make demands of.
    And that’s where Adams is right about Feng and stuff – it may be complete nonsense but it works so much better if you use it than if not!