All communication is via analogy

TJL #132

Douglas Hofstadter believes that all communication is via analogy and I agree:

I believe that all communication is via analogy. Indeed, I would describe communication this way: taking an intricate dance that can be danced in one and only one medium, and then, despite the intimacy of the marriage of that dance to that medium, making a radically new dance that is intimately married to a radically different medium, and in just the same way as the first dance was to its medium...

Imagine taking the most enthralling basketball game you ever watched... and giving a videotape of that game to a “soccer choreographer,” who will now stage all the details of an artificial soccer game that is in some sense analogous to your basketball game.

Here are three analogies that I really like:

The inner workings of the mind are like a flashlight. Current research shows that the brain has two modes: the focused mode and the diffuse mode. The focused mode activates when you think deeply about a single problem, like solving a mathematics problem. The diffuse mode activates when you are not thinking about any problem in particular, letting the mind roam freely, like when you are taking a shower. The analogy is this: in modern flashlights you can twist the top of the flashlight to change the scattering of the beams. By twisting the top to one end you can bundle the beams into a bright and focused beam of light (focused mode). And by twisting the top to the other end you can scatter the rays into a broad cone of light focusing on many things (diffuse mode). The way your brain shifts between these two modes is like twisting the top of the flashlight.

Not understanding tacit knowledge is like trying to learn how to ride a bike by reading books about it. Tacit knowledge is knowledge that can not be transferred by words. No matter how many books on riding bicycles you read, the first time you step on a bike you will topple over. No amount of books can properly prepare you for riding a bike. Once you understand the concept of tacit knowledge, knowledge that can not be explained through words, you see why it is difficult (impossible) to learn how to ride a bike reading books about it.

Being overwhelmed is like a surfer wanting to surf every wave. In today’s hyperconnected information society it is impossible to stay on top of everything. If you try, you will get overwhelmed. There is simply too much to keep up on. No good surfer tries to surf every wave, he simply knows it is impossible. Like a surfer we should let most waves pass under us and ride those that we choose to ride.

Analogies don’t have to be perfect, but they must be right enough to serve their purpose.