Distraction Free Reading

The Power of Metaphors

Metaphors are important elements of science and technology practice and pedagogy. They influence how knowledge is produced, interpreted, and represented. Many courses in science and technology studies introduce students to how metaphors inspire and orient investigations into the unknown. Sometimes, metaphors do not introduce new knowledge so much as overlay what we think we know onto interpretations about how the world works. As educators, it is instructive to find and share materials that help our students understand the power of metaphors, and how they influence our very perceptions.

Over the years, I’ve benefitted from educators who have generously shared their teaching materials online. This blog post is an attempt to pay it forward, and share an exercise that I’ve developed for my class on anthropology and technology at California College of the Arts. This exercise is meant to inspire discussion on how metaphors influence our thinking in daily life, as well as how they shape design and use of technological products and systems.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) long ago noted that metaphors are things that help us understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. Words and images from one realm of experience may be used to structure not only action, but our thinking. Metaphors tend to spawn or are accompanied by whole families of associated expressions. Saying that “argument is war” for example, brings to mind other expressions such as “demolishing” or “attacking” a position, or using argumentative “strategies” that are “right on target.”

In addition, metaphors exhibit certain entailments, or assumptions or consequences that result from the use of particular metaphors. For example, saying that “argument is war” entails a winner and a loser. Such entailments structure perceptions of our choices and possible courses of action. Lakoff and Johnson invite the reader to reconsider their metaphors. They ask us to imagine what it might be like to envision a culture where arguing is not equivalent to war. In this alternate universe, “winning” is not the desired outcome of verbal conflict; rather participants strive for empathy and mutual understanding.

The exercise below invites students to consider the entailments and potential impact of metaphors that are used in daily life. Such an exercise might be paired with many classic readings on metaphors in science and technology, such as Cohn’s (1987), “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” or Martin’s (1991), “The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles.” A more recent work by Rene Almeling, winner of the 2012 Diana Forsythe prize, has also discussed how sex cell donations are gendered through metaphorical concepts. Men are encouraged to consider donating sperm as a “job,” while women are invited to see their contribution of eggs as a “gift.”

But use of metaphors is not limited to biology or defense industries. They are part of everyday life. The following exercise, which might be useful as a homework assignment or a classroom exercise, provides a list of metaphors that are used today and exhibit particular entailments that influence our options in terms of understanding complicated processes, solving complex problems, protecting our identities and security, or conducting new quests for knowledge.

In preparing this exercise, I combed the web for contemporary metaphors that might spark productive discussion. Please feel free to share other metaphors that might be useful for similar discussions about science and technology. Students are also encouraged to explore their own technological metaphors that bring new perspective and insight to this conversation. Educators are invited to discuss how this exercise may be adapted to various contexts or subject areas.

Let us know what you think!

Exercise in Exploring Science and Technology Metaphors
For the following metaphors, list as many entailments as you can. How do these metaphors influence thinking on a particular subject? How do they influence choices people might make? How do they privilege certain solutions or worldviews over others? What steps might people take to overcome the limitations of particular metaphors, or of metaphorical representations in general?

#1 Battling cancer

#2 Surgical strike (an attack without warning on a planned target)

#3 War on drugs

#4 Astronaut (star sailor)

#5 Cloud computing (the practice of using a network of remote servers on the Internet to host, store, and process data)

#6 Desktop computing

#7 Information highway

#8 Cyberspace

#9 The universe is a clockwork

#10 The mind is a printing press

#11 [Insert your metaphor here]

If this exercise was interesting or useful, let us know!


Almeling, Rene. 2011. Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cohn, Carol. 1987. Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals.
Signs 12(4): 687-718.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Martin, Emily. 1991. The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs 16(31): 485-501.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *