Making the unfamiliar familiar

How do we grasp new ideas? How do we bring into the realm of understanding what is hitherto unknown? The Internet, for instance is a completely new kind of experience of us. Nothing in the past prepared us for this boundless and user-generated resource teeming with knowledge, entertainment content and opportunities to connect with each other. How have we made sense of something whose scale and function is so vastly beyond our previous modes of knowledge and experience?

Language plays a key role. More precisely, metaphors help us make sense of the new by connecting with the old. The Internet is brought alive to us through a host of metaphors from the natural and physical world. The Internet is imagined variously as a new world (cyberspace), as a highway (information superhighway), a web, a library, a village square among many others. In each case, we are using a familiar template to shed light on aspects of the new. No one metaphor captures the entirety of the idea, but they also help us make sense of this new beast. The list of nature-inspired metaphors is much larger- we surf the net, we navigate using GPS, we talk of the cloud as a form of storage, we stream content, dip into data lakes, we fear viruses, worry about piracy, phishing and worms, we bookmark pages. The iconography uses familiar symbols like files, the trashcan and the hourglass.

Metaphors are to use Kenneth Burke’s memorable description ‘the thisness of a that and the thatness of a this’. They help render concepts of a new kind intelligible by relating them to things we already know. Almost invisibly, language shepherds us towards the new by inserting references that are familiar. We learn to see things and concepts that are unfamiliar in terms that make us feel that we understand them better.

The ability to bring alive abstract ideas by rendering them in terms that are familiar is a great advantage in many areas. Technical disciplines use metaphors all the time to render intelligible what is otherwise too obscure for lay audiences to grasp. Metaphors do not confine themselves to new ideas alone. In a more general sense, they express one idea in terms of another. While it enriches our understanding of concepts in general, when we are able to see the interconnections between seemingly disparate ideas, it also pushes us towards a certain interpretation of a concept by almost invisibly slanting meaning in a particular direction.

In their seminal book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explore the way in which our communication is dependent on metaphors. We use these so unconsciously that they appear invisible. Among the several examples they use to illustrate our use of metaphors, a particularly striking one is about how we understand the argument as a concept.

The dominant metaphors used to describe arguments tend to imagine arguments-as-war. We attack the opponent’s position, defend our own, try and find chinks in their armour, win or lose ground, prepare ammunition to bolster our case. All of these implicitly locate the idea of an argument in the landscape of war. Lakoff & Johnson use this example and contrast it with the possibility as imagining ‘argument-as-dance’ instead. What if we used metaphors that spoke of tuning and balance, searching to find resonance, adjusting our positions constantly to find a common rhythm, being graceful, valuing the aesthetics of the process? Would the manner in which we argue change if the metaphors that described it were different?

The difficulty of communicating to a context that shares no common reference points is brought out in a very unusual way by Robert Macfarlane in his fascinating book Underland, where he takes us through a journey across many different kinds of underground landscapes- cave systems, underground sewage networks in cities, precipitous gorges and the like. But his most eerie experience is of travelling 1500 feet underground to a place erected for disposing of nuclear waste. Built in a remote area in Finland with a staggering amount of reinforcement in construction so as to guard against all conceivable forms of natural disasters, the job of this site is to ensure that the toxic nuclear waste lies undisturbed for the next 100,000 years. This

is a time frame that is impossible to conceive, given that most continuous civilisations have not lasted beyond a few thousand years. The vexing question is as to how does one communicate to such distant generations about the dangers associated with the toxic waste inside?

It is a problem with no easy solutions. There is no knowing what form of communication will be prevalent that far ahead in the future. No existing language will survive in any form that is recognisable. If we go back a mere 1000 years, then English becomes an utterly incomprehensible language, so different it is from the version we know today. Visual symbols may not mean the same, and physical obstacles to entry might just heighten the thrill of discovery. The pharaohs tried their best to protect their resting places from future generations but their very inaccessibility was a magnet to explorers and adventurers.

This problem underlines the difficulty we have when faced with an utterly unfamiliar context. Without some kind of conceptual bridge to the new, some rooting of the unfamiliar in the familiar, sense making becomes impossible. Which is probably why our language is so full of analogies and metaphors.

Perhaps there can be nothing really new. Any act of birth originates with an existing source. The new is then the old dislocated, transformed, distorted, magnified, displaced, reconstituted, reconceived. The new is contextual, the wrong thing in the right place, or a strange phenomenon in a familiar setting. Even if something were entirely new, we can comprehend it only in terms that are familiar to us. in that sense, we are constrained by the old and transfer this limitation to our grasp of the new. Meaning can only be built incrementally.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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