Metaphors are everywhere (there are three in the previous paragraph). Problem is, they can differ from culture to culture, and are often hard to identify. While it’s relatively simple for a computer to sort nouns from verbs, the nuances of language are slightly more challenging.
To solve this problem, Iarpa, the mad science unit of the intelligence community (or Darpa for spies), is asking universities and businesses to help them build a giant database of metaphors. The goal is to “exploit the use of metaphors by different cultures to gain insight into their cultural norms.”
In an unlikely shout out to Aristotle, Iarpa acknowledges the ancient roots of these poetic devices. Much more recently, scientists have uncovered those roots in our biology. Turns out, metaphors are more than just figurative flourishes or explanatory shortcuts; they shape our thoughts, beliefs and actions.
Take the conceptual metaphor, “affection is warmth.” People who hold hot cups of coffee are more likely to judge strangers as friendly than those who get iced coffee. Or, “morality is purity”; more people will request antiseptic wipes when they’ve been asked to think about adultery or cheating than when they’ve pondered good deeds.
So, it makes sense that, given the deep-seated nature of these metaphors, the government would want to use them for better understanding, communicating and — who are we kidding? — winning hearts and minds.
The first step is to identify and collect all those metaphors — from English, Farsi, Spanish and Russian — into a huge database. That means analyzing loads of textual data, identifying all the metaphors (“his life took a left turn”; “you must find your own way”), mapping them onto a conceptual metaphor (“life is a journey”) and then … well, after that, it’s not completely clear.
Social science may offer a clue into what we could possibly do with this gigantic metaphor repository, however. Besides improving communication and interactions in a globalized world, metaphors might help us bridge cross-cultural gaps.
For example, the topic of morality. Americans are likely to think of morality in terms of rights, or things we “possess” or can be “deprived of” — “rights as IOUs.” In China, on the other hand, morality is usually conceived of as bounded space or concentric circles, so you can “overstep boundaries” or “hit the mark.” These two metaphors aren’t really compatible, but if we started talking about a moral right as a “right-of-way” (a path to move along without interference), we might have found a metaphor that carries weight in both cultures.
This isn’t the government’s first foray into the nuances of language. Darpa has embarked on a series of studies looking at how storytelling and narrative can help make sense of complex information or understand the human terrain.
Project Metaphor kicks off in November. We can’t afford to lose another minute. “Time is money,” after all.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Shakespeare, Intel Geeks, and a Database of Metaphors
According to Wired.com:
at 9:32 AM