Tesugen

Metaphorical abstraction

Here’s a budding idea I have, thanks to a discussion Mattias and I had last week… It is often said that the human mind deals with complexity by abstraction – that is, that complex things are represented by abstractions, or higher-level concepts, so that the whole becomes understandable.

But it is also true that abstractions are metaphorical, and I suspect that this is something that’s important to realize. What I mean is that the mind, or perhaps the culture (the “collective mind”), creates a metaphor for complex things, in order to be able to deal with the things without having to explore that complexity any further.

Our discussion was about, among other things, feng-shui. An example to illustrate what I mean, from a feng-shui website:

To keep negative energy from developing, the house should not have long, narrow corridors, maze-like hallways, dark corners, or steep stairways.

Skeptics probably dismiss talk about “negative energy” as superstition, but a badly-lit house (or too brightly-lit, for that matter) can certainly feel like a place with negative energy. In a way, the metaphoric abstraction “negative energy” hides the complexity of the reaction that happens inside you when you enter a badly-lit house. The “cure” for this negative energy is obvious: “To promote the flow of positive energy, hallways and stairways should be wide and well-lighted.” There’s no “magic” to this at all.

Another example, perhaps a little more controversial, this time from another feng-shui website: “If you wish to improve your existing relationship, place a family photo in your south west corner of your home, make sure it is a happy photo or even a painting of a family.” The act of placing a photo in a particular corner is an act of attention. Every time you see it, you will be reminded of its purpose, which will make you more aware about your desire to improve your relationship.

The whole “network of events”, created by seeing the photo, remembering its purpose and the remembrance affecting your interactions with your partner – this network would be vast and consist of a lot of subtle things, but such acts do make a difference. Relationships often suffer because you don’t think about showing your love, and all things that helps you to remember this are of help.

Anyway, “placing a family photo” would be a metaphor for this complex network of events. It hides the complexity, and the motivation for this is that you don’t want to deal with the complexity – you’re interested in the results. Feng-shui tips like these are actually, I think, equivalent patterns, in that they document “best practices”, giving you a handy name to represent a complex thing.

I don’t know why I began thinking about this, but somehow I think that only talking about “abstractions” neglects the fact that you can use your creativity to invent a metaphor to hide complexity, a metaphoric abstraction, which will be perhaps even more powerful – especially if there’s no obvious mapping in the real world for the complexity that you want to hide. (This is related to the GRASP pattern Pure Fabrication.)

If your team agrees that an “aardvark” is an engine that is fed with data in some format and produces some information, that would be a metaphorical abstraction, and in this case it doesn’t matter that an aardvark is a completely different thing in the real world. If you should require all abstractions to be one-to-one mapped to reality, the abstractions would in some cases be less powerful.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on June 17, 2002. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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