I am used to a certain amount of complexity. I have degrees in Civil Engineering, English Literature and Classical Studies. I’m a chartered professional engineer, which demonstrates a certain mastery of my profession. The most complex thing I encountered in my career as a Civil Engineer was probably Laplace transforms – conceptually these are brilliant. Let’s assume that you have a mathematical problem that you don’t know how to solve: it’s too complex in some way. What you do is essentially integrate the function, then solve the integral of the function, and then un-integrate it.
You could construe this process as being equivalent to metaphor. So for example, I can’t decide what the root cause of Enron’s failures were: it’s a complex legal and financial whirlwind that took years to really untangle. I therefore consider a metaphor of a beaver building a series of dams on a river – lacking material, they begin to strip material from the lower dam to build the newer dam, but still count the demolished dam as part of their dam infrastructure. This is essentially what Enron’s executives were doing with their subsidiary companies. Voila – I understand the problem, albeit in translational terms: the metaphor is never quite exactly what the original was.
Used this way, the metaphor becomes a tool for understanding the world. If you know some particular environment very well, it becomes ready fodder for mental equivalences. So for me, almost everything can be equated in some way to something in a building, or at the very leas in the building industry generally. The beavers above were just very slightly disguised property developers. The idea of a building therefore provides a general model for how I can understand the world around me and guide my interactions with it. Others have different structures of this same basic arrangement – someone else might think about the economical cycle of a dairy farm, or the ecological patterns of migrating sea birds. I leave that up to them.
This use of metaphor is quite powerful, and subtly it begins to encroach on surprising aspects of your life. When I play chess, I tent to visualize potential moves in terms of a tensioned net. If I move this pawn forward I put pressure on this area of the board, either repelling an enemy, or pulling them in. I find the early part of a game very difficult, because the pressure net is very regular, and I find the end of the game hard, because there are only a few strands on the board altogether. But in the middle, I do nicely.
What this means in effect is that when I’m playing Chess, on some level I’m really playing with my force net. The better and more comprehensive your metaphor is, the more you can use that metaphor to engage with situations before having to turn to some other tool. The key concept is that initially you are interacting with your own mental model of a situation and then mapping the outcomes from that model back out into the real world through action.
Perhaps surprisingly, the real life situation/object that most closely matches my general metaphor of the building is… a building. When I look at a building, I don’t see walls, floors, beams, windows. I see a particular construction of my force net. I see a door in a concrete wall as a zone of shear concentration at the top and bottom of the door, and probably a flexural element on each side, depending on the size of the wall. When
making decisions onsite about whether a beam can be lengthened to make a door bigger, I visualize the symbolic relationships between span and deflection, depth and strength. Like in the game of chess, I really don’t interact with the direct object of my interest: I interact with my mental model of the problem.
The very close relationship between my abstraction of the building into mathematical equations means that I very rarely find this gap between myself and the material world to be a problem. The difference between a highly experienced and competent engineer like myself and my firm’s freshest graduate is the level of sublimation of this model into the conscious mind. My graduates still need to undertake the laborious transformation, solve the problem in the transformed space, and then transform it back into the real
world. For me, there is only the model.
A very interesting question is: what if my mental construct were not of a building. What if, instead of likening relationships to portal frames, I took as my model a computer game like The Sims. The Sims was intended to model, in a fun way, the real world. If you want your Sims character to have a successful relationship with his girlfriend, you need to tell him to spend a lot of time with her, and do the things she likes. If you want your Sims character to die a young burnt out wreck… well, the game doesn’t model the darker side of humanity very well. But what if it did? What if, in the computer, there was a fairly complete set of rules you could learn, just as I have learned the language of mathematics?
As I said before, the quality of your model is related to its concurrence with the reality of the model. Learning the “game rules” of The Perfect Sims would be essentially like learning the “game rules” of life itself.
Which leads me on to the most complex thing I have encountered in my time as a Liberal Arts major: Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. It’s a slender tome, my edition is little over 150 pages, most of which is white space. It is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever attempted to tackle. The central argument of the book is, as closely as I can render it, the argument that I float above, dialled up to 11. Baudrillard argues that we have sublimated a model of reality so fully that we are no longer aware
that it is not reality – this model is our modern societal construct, which programs us to follow certain rules which have no correspondence with any element of a concrete reality. We live in a world that through our indoctrination, through our blindness, is no more real than a sophisticated version of The Sims.
Over the next few posts, as many as I can sustain really, I will be looking at the specific bits of Baudrillard’s argument as closely as I can to try and understand his illustrations and arguments and recapitulate them in a way that won’t leave your eyeballs bleeding.
(Yes, this is an approach stolen from Hix. So?)