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I’ve lately been reading The Axis Grand Strategy, a book published in America during World War Two. With only light editorial comments, it presents translated writings from German military theorists and officers about different aspects of warfighting. (The editors are presenting this material, in part, as a demonstration of Nazi perfidy; they highlight passages in which the Germans offhandedly note various breaches of international law—for example, that the invasion of neutral Belgium during WWI was conceived of a decade in advance.) The book is incredibly interesting from many points of view, and even as a historical artifact itself; I did not know, for example, that the Allied powers were calling themselves “The United Nations” even during the war.

One point that the book is reminding me of is the importance of metaphors in structuring thought. Over and over again, the German authors refer to the ideal military enterprise as a well-oiled machine, operating with incredible precision down to the smallest detail. To make such a machine possible took a stupendous level of planning and organization, which had to be carried out years in advance (and which the authors describe in great detail). This was one factor that pushed German doctrine to the conclusion that to have any hope for victory, they needed to decide upon war several years before actually carrying it out, and then to direct all of their government policy and grand strategy to support that decision. That is, once the German decision for war was made, it became largely inevitable that war would result even three or five years later—because German leadership believed that such decisions needed that much lead time for the planning process to be adequate, and victory to be possible.

To be sure, the “well-oiled machine” metaphor was not the only reason that German doctrine came to that conclusion, or even the most important one. But it surely played a role, because it presented an ideal towards which to aspire.

Lewis Mumford, in his Technics and Civilization, presents a similar argument about the development of vast hierarchical bureaucracies. He writes that the age of coal had dramatic impacts not only on our economy, but on the mindset of society’s leaders. Where previously, water-powered manufacture had been relatively decentralized, coal-fired steam power created tremendous economies of scale. The most efficient method would be to tie all of your machines into a massive central boiler; this also meant that they had to be standardized, coordinated, and operated without any sort of individual discretion or initiative.

According to Mumford, the success of centralized manufacture led thinkers to imagine that other centralized projects were ideal as well—massive bureaucracies, mass armies, central planning of the economy, and so on. These people had been conditioned by the guiding metaphor of coal-fired steam boilers, and the resulting hierarchical organization of mass factories. Many would even make the parallel explicit. Individual initiative simply made a mess; better to control everything from the head. The result was the age of totalitarianism.

Economist Richard Bronk, in his The Romantic Economist, makes a similar argument about the development of the idea of equilibrium markets in economics. He says that the guiding metaphor there came from thermodynamics; in an attempt to make economics into a mathematical science akin to physics, champions of quantitative economics proposed simplifying assumptions such as “utility” or “self-interest” that could transform economic behavior into something predictable, something that could be captured in quasi-thermodynamic equations. Bronk argues that such metaphors have been played out, and the further progress in economic thought needs to borrow metaphors from the Romantics—biological processes, or ecosystems, or webs of interdependence.

Today, we netizens are conditioned to think about networks, or crowdfunding, or robots. These new guiding metaphors have in turn produced new ideas of how governments should work, or how organizations should be structured. Some of these new ideas are even useful. But in any event, they are very different from the sorts of ideas that would come from a person accustomed to steam-powered factories.

The concept of a guiding metaphor is important if you are any sort of creative thinker, whether in business or government or the arts. If you write fiction, think about what metaphors influence your characters or even whole societies. If you have a business, think about how new metaphors can suggest new products or services. If you are in government, stop trying to bludgeon your society with models of coercive government that date from nineteenth-century proto-fascism.

If you want to create something new, try applying a different metaphor.

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