The future speeds towards us like a legion of Formula One cars down a straight.
Our minds can’t keep up.
The only way to keep pace with the exponential growth of technologies and trends—to not fall off the treadmill—is through the power of metaphors.
Metaphors help us make sense of novelty by bridging the present with the past.
We use the term horsepower as a unit of power for vehicles, even electric ones. The computations to create additional Bitcoin are called mining. Open your phone, and you’ll see email inboxes, digital wallets, and pinboards. So much of our digital world is mirrored by real-world counterparts.
It’s easy to think about metaphors solely as literary devices. However, after reading this piece by Shelby Smith and User Friendly, by Cliff Kuang, I learned how metaphors play a fundamental role in shaping culture, thoughts, and behavior.
Ever think of your body as a machine? Machines are objects that need maintenance, fuel, and repair in order to function. This metaphor helps us understand the importance of nutrition “to refuel,” and rest “to recover energy.” Modern medicine makes sense of the human body by defining it as a series of “systems” (skeletal, nervous, digestive, etc). On the other hand, this metaphor has set the false expectation that humans can be “repaired,” minimizing our complexity relative to machines. This metaphor started in the Industrial Age, and yet nearly 300 years later, it shapes the way we understand our own bodies.
Metaphors are everywhere if you pay attention: Arguments are battles, time is money, love is a spell. These ideas have heavily influenced our relationships to discourse, time, and love for centuries.
This means writers can do more than describe culture–they can shape it.
A few months back, I wrote an essay about a phenomenon I’ve been seeing on the Internet. People feel compelled to read as many books as fast as possible to brag about it on Twitter and Goodreads.
I called it Book Chugging, and described it as being “held upside down by two guys with biceps the size of my head, with a copy of Sapiens in my hands, while a crowd of inebriated teens demands that I read non-stop, fast and furious, until I’m done.”
People that heard the term and read my essay told me how much it resonated. They now think about Book Chugging when they are about to fall into the ego trap of reading just to say they’ve read 100 books this year. I got the sense of how metaphors can spread when a friend used the phrase “book chugging” to me. He didn’t read my essay, and didn’t know I coined the phrase.
As creatives, we have the skills to form metaphors and use them to craft thought. Neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen conducted research in 2014 that showed how “creative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations, and connections.”
When these creative powers are harnessed, they can lead to powerful metaphors that name the ineffable.
Writers have the mission to make sense of the world and shape the future through metaphors. Those who accept this mission and hone this craft can become keepers of culture, masters of communication, and ground-breaking visionaries.
So how do you, as a writer, develop this superpower?
In the book, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson conclude that “the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”
The root of all metaphors is association. In order to make sense of something unfamiliar, you relate it to something familiar.
We can associate a “hot summer day” with objects like BBQs, saunas, stoves. These objects can be linked through a common trait (heat). This common trait is what allows a phrase like “It’s a sauna outside!” to be understood.
A great metaphor is more than an association though–it elicits comprehension, affirmation, and sensation.
Here is one of my favorite metaphors by Geraldine DeRuiter, describing a terrible dining experience.
“Maybe the staff just ran out of food that night. Maybe they confused our table with that of their ex-lover’s. Maybe they were drunk. But we got twelve kinds of foam, something that I can only describe as an oyster loaf that tasted like Newark airport.”
If you’ve ever seen an oyster loaf or stepped foot inside Newark airport, that last sentence made you wince. And now that feeling will stick. That’s the aftertaste.
That’s a powerful metaphor.
To write great metaphors, we can use the following three-step framework: Choose, Curate, Context.
The framework is based on Convergent and Divergent thinking (H/T David Perell). In this case, we want to converge around a specific trait, use that constraint to diverge and explore powerful associations, and converge again by providing just enough context to make the metaphor shine. Let’s look at each element more closely:
- Choose: What is the object/idea I want to focus on and what is the characteristic of that object/idea which needs association? If you are trying to develop metaphors for big ideas, narrow your focus on one specific characteristic.
- Curate: Find possible associations to pair with the selected characteristic. You can brainstorm by looking at categories like animals, people, places, objects, events, etc.; you can also draw from your own personal experience and memories. Then, select the best association based on your intended audience (e.g. will they understand an anime reference if they’ve never seen one?), and how obvious the association is to the trait (e.g. “Summer day as hot as a stove” vs. “Summer day as hot as an elephant’s armpit”).
- Context: What additional information is needed to present the metaphor? How can you guide the audience towards the association you are asking them to make?
Putting it in Practice
To see this framework in action, I’ll develop a metaphor to describe the current era we live in.
There isn’t really a good name for it. The “Information Age” isn’t comprehensive enough and a bit outdated. We generally use decades as names for eras (e.g. The 80s, 90s, etc), but it’s not descriptive enough, and works best in hindsight. And the “Internet Era” is far too narrow to appropriately capture all that’s going on.
So what is *this* moment we are living in?
I believe our time is characterized by a dissonance between optimism and pessimism.
Optimists see that life expectancy has nearly doubled in the last 100 years, renewable energy sources have become cheaper than coal, and believe we are on a path to becoming an interplanetary species.
Pessimists see that the increase in deaths by suicide, drug overdoes, and mass shooting in countries like the United States. They also argue we are in the beginning of an inescapable Sixth Mass Extinction, and they argue that there is no point to be interplanetary if we make life on earth unsuitable for most species (including humans).
These two realities create a tension that is hard to reconcile. Pick a side and you may be branded as naive or a cynic. We don’t have a phrase to capture the bi-polar nature of our times.
How might we come up with a metaphor that captures this dissonance?
What is the characteristic I want to build a metaphor around?
I can’t build a metaphor unless I’m specific around what I want to capture. This is an act of convergence and reduction. It’s like picking that badass looking Superman action figure from the claw machine (Top 10 in the list of “Camilo accomplishments”). I’m deliberately not going to focus on:
- The speed of change
- The magnitude of change
- One perception being better than the other
The trait I want to focus on is the tension and duality between these two competing realities.
What are possible associations I can use? Which one will be understood and memorable?
Here is where we diverge again and explore other ideas that embody tension and duality. This step is like choosing a baby name–you’ve got to riff a bit and see how it feels. We can use categories or our own life experiences. These are some of the associations I explored:
- Natural elements: Based on associations of time periods with natural elements (e.g. Stone, Bronze, Iron), I explored possible elements that paired well with the tension and duality I wanted to focus on. However, this association was too broad and I couldn’t think of an element that had this dual nature.
- Animals: I thought about chameleons (they change color depending on circumstances), pandas (ferocious nature, cuddly perception), and even two-headed snakes (to symbolize duality). These all reference the right source characteristic, but they felt too contrived and tangential.
- Pop culture: There is a phrase I love, “Future Nostalgia,” a lovely oxymoron between the future and the past, and the name of Dua Lipa’s second album. This phrase captures a duality, but not the duality and emotional tension I wanted to focus on.However, going down that rabbit hole led me to thinking about days and time. That’s how I arrived at describing this moment in time as “The Twilight Age.”
Duality: Twilight is “the period of time before sunrise and after sunset, in which the atmosphere is partially illuminated by the sun, being neither totally dark nor completely lit,” according to the National Weather Service of the United States.
Tension: The word Twilight also alludes to the iconic sci-fi show The Twilight Zone. It evokes associations to the mysterious, inexplicable, and dystopia. In the show, paranormal events bring people into strange alternate dimensions. It feels like no one sees eye to eye on anything—just like modern times (see: political polarization, social inequities, generational changes, etc).
How can you use context clues to guide the audience towards the association you are asking them to make?
This is where you give your audience 3D glasses–enough clues to augment a mere association into a powerful metaphor. To give context to this new term, I would write something like:
For some, this is the moment right before sunrise—the confidence that better times are coming for humanity. For others, this is the moment right before nightfall—a darkness that marks a period of conflict and possible extinction. Two people may glance upwards at the same sky, yet believe we are in completely separate times.
We are in the Twilight Age.
My hope is that by naming our current era The Twilight Age, we recognize that multiple realities do exist and through curiosity, empathy, and compassion, we engage with those that have different opinions and accept this tension.
We need to get more comfortable with embracing dualities—the idea of yes/and over either/or. This simple mindset shift has huge stakes for the future of our society, regardless of where you think we are today.
This is the writer’s opportunity; to create powerful metaphors that drive an improved understanding of the world. With new language comes new behaviors that change the course of history.
New technologies, new ways of forming communities, and new societal behaviors will continue to emerge–all of them begging for an explanation, a way for people to understand so they don’t drown in the sea of confusion.
Could we define the future of VR using concepts like wizardry? (Meta, if you name your next VR headset Floo Powder, you owe me royalties). If the Internet does become decentralized, what metaphors will help bring in billions of users onto this next phase?
Metaphors will always be fundamental to our world. It’s in our nature to crave and develop them. Just look at children—they are exceptionally good at developing metaphors. This makes sense because they are making sense of the world multiple times a day. Just scroll through some of the examples in this site to get a taste. My favorite is a girl referring to dreams as “the stories in my eyes.”
It is time to use our gifts as writers in service of helping others understand themselves and the world around them better.
Use your gift.
^That’s also a metaphor.
This essay would not exist without the guidance and skill of Michael Dean. I’ve met very few people with his uncanny ability to deconstruct ideas and rearrange them. The world looks like Lego blocks to him—what an incredible skill.
Also, thank you to the Write of Passage team for letting me nerd out on metaphors and believing in their power as much as I do. Oh, and for believing in me and all that.
Finally, thank you Shelby Smith. Reading your piece on metaphors was the proverbial “Eureka!” moment, and your wise editing eyes made this essay stronger.
Books that influenced this essay include:
Metaphors We Live By (George Lakoff, Mark Johnson)
User Friendly: How the hidden rules of design are changing the way we live, work, and play (Cliff Kuang, Robert Fabricant)
Building a Second Brain (Tiago Forte)
Loonshots (Safi Bahcall)