You know, from a certain point of view, Bohemian Rhapsody really does a bang-up job of describing the Ineffable.
But never mind that for now. I want to talk about using metaphor to describe things that are hard to describe. One of these things is the behavior of complex networks.
Networks are driven by changing relationships — links from one distant node to another. Attractors, places where relationships begin to experience positive feedback loops, draw more nodes into their local causal web, causing concentrations of activity within local networks.
See? If I lost you, that’s because things you haven’t experienced in some personal context are too far removed from your most traveled neural highways — they’re distant nodes in your own memory’s networks. Like far-removed cousins, they might as well not be related at all. See what I did there? Familiar metaphors, things you’ve probably experienced, engage your subconscious to help your conscious mind understand things you probably haven’t.
Now that you associate the two ideas, you’ll recall a mental picture of a brain or a family reunion each time someone mentions a complex system. That’s the power of story to help us understand and redesign our world.
It’s no wonder new ideas are often rejected by mainstream science. We don’t always have a proper metaphor to describe the phenomena we are experiencing. Complexity’s like that. Network science doesn’t translate easily to everyday life. So we need a stepping stone to understand just how the way networks work affects how we live our lives, do business, make our decisions, and even filters the world that we see. Stories make a great stepping stone.
What can we do about all that? Not much but experiment with new narratives, and that kind of discovery involves some degree of exploratory stumbling. As the late Freddie Mercury said, “Easy come, easy go… Any way the wind blows…”
We go just as far as the prevailing thought of our times can take us. Unless you can think of a better story.
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on the power of metaphor to shape our world and worldviews.
Stacy Hale is Founding Editor of design4emergence and a generally curious person. She believes in teamwork as an evolutionary force.