Information as food

Mon 13 January 2014

Lately I've been noticing a lot of people writing and talking about information consumption by using a food metaphor (example). I was going to write a post about it until I found that someone already did a great job of that over at ribbonfarm:

http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2008/05/26/information-overload-and-the-food-is-thought-metaphor/

The article centers on metaphor theory, particularly as introduced by Lakoff and Johnson in their book Metaphors We Live By. If you haven't read it, you should read it. It will probably change the way you think about thinking significantly. The gist of the book, though, is that basic conceptual metaphors pervade our understandings and descriptions of the world. Some examples:

  • Time as money ("spending time", "saving time")
  • Arguments as war ("attacking a point")
  • Good and bad as up and down ("feeling up", "things are going downhill"). This is an example of an orientational metaphor
  • Love as a journey.

This quote from the ribbonfarm article stood out to me:

Conceptual metaphors are always partial, and highlight some features of a domain while de-emphasizing others.

This quote communicates a point that I think is pretty important, especially in relation to the ongoing, raging debate about whether all this "information overload" is good or bad for us (which I think has some merit, but also tends to contain a little too much generational pessimism). If the stream of information we are exposed to on the internet were actually food, obviously gorging on it the way many do would be quite unhealthy, and I think many people have the concerns they have about excessive information exactly because of this intuitive association of information as food. So, as the article also advises, I think it's important to be aware, when forming opinions about emerging phenomena like the internet, of the conceptual metaphors or frames of reference we bring to those phenomena in order to understand them in a personal way, and how that affects what features of that phenomena we emphasize and de-emphasize.