The Power of Metaphor - Part 1: Limitations

THE HIDDEN BRAIN
    I listen to a podcast about the application of psychology to modern society called The Hidden Brain. This podcast is amazing and unless they really screw it up, I’ll be listening every week for quite a while. I bring it up because of a particular episode called “When It Comes to Politics, Family Matters” that changed the way I think about a lot of things.
    The episode is about U.S. politics. It starts out by getting into how the Democratic and Republican party members don’t seem to be able to communicate with each other. The moment they said that, I was intrigued. 
    The explanation Shankar Vedantam (the host) came up with is that, in order to understand the complexities of the U.S. government, it’s been cased in a family metaphor. Democrats see themselves as feminine and nurturing, while republicans are masculine and orderly.

AND MY MIND EXPANDED
    While listening to that episode, I had an idea: Metaphor is a lossy form of data compression. The problem is, everything in this world is really complex and understanding the U.S. government requires knowing a lot about a lot of different fields, many of which have only the government relating them. Think, N.A.S.A. and the F.D.A. or the F.C.C. and the Department of Agriculture. Just those four fields require mastery of many, many different domains of knowledg.
    For example, the former Director of NASA, Michael D. Griffin has seven academic degrees, including one Ph.D and five Master’s degrees.
    Most people aren’t intellectually capable of getting that many degrees in their lifetimes, let alone getting them soon enough to actually still get a career in a in a field that will make use of them during their lifetimes.
    But, I digress.
    The thing I’m getting at here is that everything in life is really complex. (I’m going to keep returning to that theme in many posts because it has really far-reaching implications.) In order to understand these really complex things in a way that allows almost all of society to participate in them requires making them simpler. This is done through metaphor.
    But, as I mentioned, the form of data compression often used in the creation metaphor is that the compression is lossy.

A PRIMER ON COMPRESSION
    Ideally, compression is taking a set of information and using statistical analysis to see if there’s a way of storing the information using less space.
    One of the most common forms of compression used by most people is music. A vinyl album is a piece of plastic that has bumps pressed into its surface. Those bumps match the waveform of the audio it is a record of.
    Let me back up a bit.
    When we hear a sound, it’s because a thing vibrated and those vibrations traveled through the air and vibrated our eardrums. That vibration reaches us in the same order in which the thing created them, in other words, linearly. That linear vibration can be mapped and we call that map a waveform.
    With music, there are things called harmonic overtones. If I were to pluck a guitar string, say the E string, that string is going to vibrate. What’s actually happing to the metal of the string is that it’s got a wave traveling up and down it’s length. That wave bounces off itself naturally in mathematically predictable ways–for instance, exactly halfway up the string.
    At that halfway point, if I were to press the string down, I would also be playing an E note. But, it’s one octave up. That’s how music works.
    What’s amazing and may not be immediately apparent is that that the open E actually has that half-way E inside it. (Here’s a great animation Disney made in 1957 that might make things a bit more clear.)
    And this is where compression comes back in.
    The vinyl record will be an as perfect copy of the original waveform as the recording equipment and the molecular structure of the vinyl allow. It’s not exact, but most people can’t hear the difference. So, when a song is run through the MPEG compression algorithm, the harmonic overtones can be digitally removed and stored in a smaller size. The missing overtone can then be returned upon playback.
    However, there are ways to compress the data in such a way as to lose some of the original information. Some early music compression algorithms would assume the kind of speaker being used and eliminate anything the speaker couldn’t replicate. That worked well enough until our speakers got better. Now, those files sound really bad.
    There are a bunch of different ways to compress music, some of which lose absolutely no data, like Apple’s MPEG-4 codec.

BACK TO MY MIND BEING BLOWN
    When I use the term lossy in talking about the family metaphor for the U.S., you now understand that it’s possible to compress data in such a way that the full breadth of original data is lost and cannot be brought back post-compression. There’s still the original copy of the data, the massive amount of information stored in the Library of Congress or the U.S.’s various classified files, for example. But, no single human being could ever read and understand everything in either of those.
    Since the family metaphor isn’t a perfect copy but a lossy compression, people may not be aware of exactly how far they’ve assumed the metaphor is the original and made assumptions on how things work or could be optimized based on false or inaccurate information.

THE NUCLEAR FAMILY BOMB
    Here’s a major bit that’s lost with the family metaphor. The idea of family is, according to something like the Nuclear Family, expressed in shows such as Leave It To Beaver, or Father Knows Best. It has at its core, the idea of the father (itself a deeply flawed and limited stereotype of masculinity) as the head of the household, regardless of Democratic or Republican tendencies. That creates the appearance of a single choice made by a single decision-maker. 
    The truth is, the United States isn’t made up of a single group of people, but many groups. In fact, the only thing that unites many of us is that we live in the same politically geographic region, and even that’s vague since the land the U.S. takes up is actually really big.

HOW THE HOUSEHOLD ECONOMIC MODEL FALLS SHORT
    Another major flaw in the family metaphor for the U.S. is the idea that of the economy. The idea that congress has to make more than it spends relies on a familial understanding of money and ignores the true nature of what money is, how it’s created, and what it’s intended function.
    In his book An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argues that money came about because bartering breaks down when someone makes something rare and highly desired, such as Jane the Blacksmith. Jane will quickly get everything she needs to maintain her lifestyle. Then, she won’t want to trade anything because she has everything she needs and wants.
    Money is a way to store the things Jane needs in an abstraction. She can barter her metal wares for money, which she can then reconvert back into something useable at a time she sees fit. Then, the Bob the Baker and buy as much horse shoes from Jane as he needs, and Jane is happy because she knows she can now buy as much bread as she’ll ever need, either now or in the future, long after her current stock of metal products would have rusted.
    But, money’s bigger than that. 
    Even Smith’s argument is based on the currency having a concrete backing, like it used to. However, starting in 1993 and ending in 1971, the United States abandon the gold standard, meaning a currency’s value is backed only by the belief in the structural integrity of the country offering the currency, in the case of the dollar, the United States government.
    There are a bunch of reasons why the U.S. abandon the gold standard, but one is that the U.S. didn’t have complete control of the world’s gold supply. That meant that another group could decide to devalue the buying power of the dollar by flooding the market with gold.
    Another reason is that the supply of the dollar would be directly tied to the amount of gold available at any given time. 
    This is really where the government economy and a household economy diverge.
    The government creates money and can make more or less of it as the need arises. The economy doesn’t dictate what the government does, quite the opposite. Again, the value of the dollar is directly tied to the belief that the United States will continue in largely the same form as the present. The economy is determined by the government.
    Of course, this is itself a form of data compression, since there are many more factors as the economies of various countries interact, but at the heart of it, the above is largely true.