awing of blonde girl wearing goggles cartoon. Frank Miller Martha Washington Give Me Liberty homage. Metaphors The Lenses We Use to Interpret and Understand Our World. Nick Barter. Stuart McMillen.
Drawing of blonde girl wearing goggles. Dark alleyway cartoon. Metaphors are the lenses we use to interpret and understand our reality. A heart of gold. Being kept in the dark. Turning the corner.
Cartoon brain electrodes cross-section. Drawing of brain with alligator clips attached. Girl wearing goggles.Metaphors allow us to grasp unfamiliar concepts… …by imagining them in terms of concepts already understood. Each metaphor is a mental shortcut.
Drawing of brain with electrodes. Cartoon brain cross-section. But the shortcuts pose hidden dangers. Metaphors obscure or distort our understanding, because the new is not the old.A pitfall which can cause us to think and act in bizarre ways.
But the shortcuts pose hidden dangers. Metaphors obscure or distort our understanding, because the new is not the old.A pitfall which can cause us to think and act in bizarre ways. Like eyeglass lenses we wear, the metaphor lenses of our minds are not with us from birth. We take our metaphors from the society and culture around us and, without realising we are looking through them we use them to interpret and act in our world.
Boy and girl cartoon goggles. X-ray glasses robot and cell. To what extent do metaphors shape the way we conceive our world? To what extent do metaphors mask our surroundings, and alter our perception of the world? How much of our understanding is constructed purely from imagination through metaphors?
Birds eye view city drawing. Cartoon high-angle city street buildings. Our society is heavily influenced by organisations. Corporations. Government institutions. Religions. Yet much of their influence comes purely from the metaphors we use to conceive them.
Low angle towering factory dwarfing cartoon figure. Smokestacks drawing robot machine. A common metaphor for imagining organisations is as self-contained entities: ‘machines’ which exist in their own right. The ‘machine’ metaphor helps us imagine and grasp the abstract concept of an organisation. But what implications does the metaphor conjure in our minds?
Organisation machine drawing. Employees as cogs in the machine. Black and white comic art. If organisations are ‘machines’, are the people inside an organisation merely ‘parts’? Should the human dimensions, human needs beyond the parts’ requirements be ignored? Hammered out? Is the machine an entity in its own right?
Organization machine cartoon. Workers as cogs and gears in the machine. Black and white drawing assembly line. Should defective parts of the machine be replaced? How does this happen? What happens to defective parts? Does anyone truly work ‘in’ an organisation, or do they all work ‘for’ the master machine? Should the machine continue operating no matter what?
Isometric drawing office workers desks. Employees as cogs in the machine cartoon. This ‘machine’ metaphor is a dehumanising way of viewing organisations. It is a dehumanising way of viewing ourselves. By looking through this lens, everyone that constitutes an organisation is de-prioritised to slave-like ‘parts’...
Cross-section factory drawing. Workers as cogs in a machine high angle view. ...wired into a master machine that supersedes all workers. An imaginary entity that controls... ...yet exists only in the minds of the metaphor’s users. An alternative to the ‘machine’ perspective describes organisations as living organisms. This metaphor raises questions of its own:
Organisation as living organism cartoon. Workers as parts of cell drawing. Should we think of organisations as being ‘alive’? How was the organism born? What created it? What does the organisation think about? Does it have goals? Does the organism speak for itself? How?
Organization as living organism cell drawing. Employees as parts of cell cartoon. What roles do employees play within this ‘living’ organism? Would it live without us? Should we care about organisations in the same way we care for living things? Is it a ‘being’?
Save the organisations protester. Biology cell cross section magnifying glass cartoon. On the surface, biological imagery seems warmer and more suitable than that of machinery… …but the metaphor still paints human employees as subservient to a master entity. Also, by borrowing words associated with organisms… …organisations are unwittingly raised to the status of living creatures worthy of concern.
Biology cell cross section drawing. Magnifying glass workers cartoon. Though we may ‘know’ that organisations are not living creatures...loosely using expressions about a company’s ‘survival’ and ‘death’ takes our minds into the zone of the organism metaphor. With our minds we visualise a single shell wrapping around...what is really a group of people.
Girl as cog in a machine drawing. Cartoon factory face. The way we conceive organisations reflects the way we conceive ourselves. By unwittingly using these metaphors to describe our reality...we pave the road for our actions.
Girl as cog in a machine drawing. Morphed into engine part. A pattern emerges where we act in ways consistent with our distorted view of reality...and then look at our self-created world as ‘evidence’ that our perceptions must be true.
Unhappy workers seeing themselves as cogs in a machine drawing. Cartoon work zombies. City square. Both of these metaphor lenses skew the ways in which we think and act. As workers, as voters, and as humans.
Cartoon crowd of protesters. Creatures in city background. Cartoon crowd of protesters. Creatures in city background.
Girl and boy in busy crowd cartoon. Taking off goggles drawing. Finger pointing at dictionary definition. A solution which involves removing the distorting lenses we use to conceive organisations… …and replacing them with helpful metaphors which do not marginalise or de-prioritise us. A solution which involves returning to the root definition of the word ‘organisation’. Organon.
Boy and girl reading book low angle. Dramatic angle book reading. Low angle goggles on ground. What if we we built upon the root meaning behind the word and viewed organisations as tools to help humanity. A platform which acknowledges that organisations do not, can not exist without the people that constitute them. By seeing organisations as tools we use to help each other...a cascade of possibilities is revealed to our eyes.
From a view which imagines organisations as entities in themselves...to an understanding that organisations are the product of the people that constitute them. From a world populated with organisations chartered to serve their own purposes...to a world of people using organisations as tools to serve the goals of humanity.
From a mindset concerned with the perpetual operation of organisations...to a world where organisations are established for specific ends and those ends are only pursued for as long as they are helpful and necessary to all humans. From metaphors which point us toward dehumanisation, suppression and an unravelling of moral concern...to metaphors which can help us pursue the full potential of humans.
With a change to the lens through which we view the world...the things we thought were there vanish like desert mirages. And the things that remain, the people that remain, become the things that matter.


Metaphors comic PDF download button Stuart McMillen Nick Barter

This comic was a collaboration between Dr Nick Barter (Griffith Business School) and Stuart McMillen (stuartmcmillen.com). Metaphors is based on Nick’s 2011 conference paper Metaphors that facilitate Organisational Understanding (mirrored copy).

A full support note is included in the PDF version of the comic, available for US $0.50.

  1. Patrick says:

    I think this critique of the “organism” metaphor also applies to the concept of a species. Though cruelty towards animals is widely abominated, people seldom have compassion for animals in the wild. If a zebra is mauled to death by a lion, then that’s too bad for the zebra–the species as a whole “benefits” from having its weaker members weeded out. This leads to the mistake of thinking that a species has inherent value apart from the members which comprise it–a zebra has no right to life, but God forbid zebras should go extinct!

  2. Nick says:

    Very very interesting, you inadvertently (or maybe not) stumble on the concept of semiotics and the immense power of the existing linguistic structures into which we are born.

    In fact, one could argue that the rigidly dictated systematic modes of perception which language encourages, naturally leads to a de-humanisation. As even though language is a social construct, below artifice of sociability, there is a rigid ‘proper’ way of understanding that lacks the volatility and dynamism of a true, natural ecosystem (as you highlighted in your other comic, the master-plan).

    Furthermore, our linguistic systems lack a status-quo, or natural cycle, instead being overall a linear system. This shifting yet unquestionable foundation to our perception, will, in my opinion, make us dehumanise ourselves, seeing ourselves as being within an ‘organism’ of language (I think the metaphor is relevant here and only here).

  3. nisha says:

    this is amazing it made me look at things in such a different way love it will definitely share this link

  4. inger says:

    Excellent thinking and display! Thanks, I will be sharing this with a joyful smile.

  5. Jack says:

    Wow

  6. Pingback: http://www.stuartmcmillen.com/comics_en/metaphors/ | Eric Gerlach

  7. Tariq says:

    To quibble with how you’ve presented the first two panels of page 21: while your text talks about replacing destructive metaphors with empowering, liberating ones, and yet you represent it by… showing the protagonists taking off their metaphor goggles.

    Would be more accurate to say that they replace their harmful goggles with different lenses or goggles, because that’s what it is, right? Replacing one metaphor with another. I mean, yes, the reader is supposed to “know” that that’s what you *meant*, but as you imply in page 16, you may *know* this to be a metaphor, but metaphors skew how you think and act.

    And that’s a point that you really don’t dwell on in this comic — that while metaphors skew how we think and act, we cannot truly think and act without metaphors, and that the price we pay for metaphors skewing our thinking and actions is that… we cannot envision a world without metaphor.

    • Stuart says:

      Hi Tariq, you are quite right. We cannot truly think without metaphors, and would need to replace our lenses with ‘something else’.

      Nick and I considered alternative metaphors which the characters could use to conceive organisations. Something which was much smaller and human-controlled than the super-sized ‘machines’ and ‘organisms’ which were shown in the earlier panels.

      We were considering representing organisation as a ‘keycard’-type device, or other type of ‘tool’ which the people could use for human-centric ends. Yet also step away from, and retain their humanity and identity.

      However, we couldn’t settle on a suitable alternative metaphor, so just went with an ending which involved the characters taking off their unhelpful lenses.

      Valid comments – well spotted.

      • Tariq says:

        I actually thought that the panels in page #5 might have offered a solution, what with the progression of “heavier”, “more distorting” metaphors being represented by bulkier, more cumbersome eyewear — from glasses to goggles. So instead of taking off those mega goggles and seeing the world “as it is”, it would be taking off those mega goggles and replacing them with something lighter or more flexible — perhaps geek glasses or (heh heh) pince-nezzes, like the one Morpheus uses.

        But I get your issues on how to frame the metaphor itself, without dehumanizing the people using those metaphors — an aspect of metaphors is that at some point, they start to break, and it becomes a struggle to make them fit perfectly. The usage of metaphor is fraught with choices, compromises and opportunity costs, and it’s rare and possibly impossible to get a metaphor that is analogous to the situation at hand.

  8. Yohan says:

    Very cool post! I do think that choosing to change our metaphors is very difficult though. And I doubt that a truly non-metaphorical language can exist — or if it did it would be so clunky and abstract that it would be of little use for sociopolitical ends such as these.

    I wrote a (largely positive) post about the connection between science and metaphor that you might like: http://wp.me/p1l9S2-2h

  9. Pingback: Metaphors: Stuart McMillen « DCSZ TOK Class Blog

  10. Gentleman Ranker says:

    So if I take off the blinders of outdated metaphor, I’ll get eye contact with a cute girl rather than be plunged into a Matrix-like world of struggle and separation from the blind majority?

    Such a deal. Why didn’t somebody tell me before now?

    GR

    PS: I did write a dissertation about propaganda many years ago, so yes, I actually do get your main point. I just don’t think it’s quite that simple.

  11. Pingback: the road is long, but in the end… | Keep the game, change the rules

  12. Jesper Kristensen says:

    When I read Gareth Morgan’s “Images of Organzation” what I took from it is that different lenses produce different questions and answers and that the real danger was being unaware that one was perhaps using only one metaphor to describe the world. Looking at an organization as a tool helps you push particular points, but that doesn’t mean other metaphors are necessarily inappropriate or even more untrue than the one you seem to push. Using only a metaphor that is about “real people” or “organisms” may for instance ascribe intentionality to some things that are in fact impersonal, and thus it can be appropriate to use a “dehumanizing” metaphor because it is in fact not an intentional being producing the effects we observe.

  13. Samantha says:

    Nice one Stuart – well articulated and drawn… although I would argue that it’s probably impossible to remove all the ‘lenses’ through which we see the world… however we see the world, it is going to be of necessity a simplification of reality. I do agree though at the very least it’s good to be aware of the fact that we do in fact view the world through multiple lenses and to to try to incorporate this understanding into, and with a view to de-warping, our worldview…

  14. Kristen says:

    you might like this:
    http://www.tinyurl.com/trsl-e

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