416. 854. 3446 rbolton@me.com @arowbe facebook LinkedIn Press

The Spy Poets: IARPA’s New Metaphor Program

Re-posting this piece I did for Idea Couture’s blog, Noodleplay:

The Greatest thing by far,” Aristotle declared, “is to be a master of metaphor…. It is a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”

IARPA, the US governmental arm for intelligence research (sometimes described as ‘DARPA for spies’)  announced The Metaphor Program, with an open solicitation to researchers in academic institutions and the private sector. The program, operated under IARPA’s Incisive Analysis Office, aims to examine and extract insights as to what people mean from what they (don’t really) say. Metaphors characterize people’s subjective frames in imperceptible and obvious ways. Whether ‘life’s a playground’ or ‘life’s a bitch’ likely reflects some aggregation of thoughts, feelings and experiences.

IARPA’s investment strategy favors “high-risk/high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide overwhelming intelligence advantage over future adversaries.” No surprise then is IARPA’s venture on the road not taken. The Metaphor Program’s official mandate: “Exploit the use of metaphorical language to gain insights into underlying cultural beliefs by developing and applying a methodology that automates the analysis of metaphorical language.”

Poetic and linguistic metaphors are used to express what cannot be put in plain language. They’re used easily in ordinary speech to express complex or abstract ideas—so it makes sense that analyses of linguistic metaphors would be used to unpack what people can’t (or refuse to) articulate outright.  For IARPA, the metaphors you choose in speech and writing determine and are determined by stated and unstated beliefs. The choice to use different metaphors reflect contrastive stances. For example the Metaphor Program briefing references a study that presented participants with a report on crime in a city. “The report contained statistics, including crime and murder rates, as well as one of two metaphors, CRIME AS A WILD BEAST or CRIME AS A VIRUS. The participants were influenced by the embedded metaphor.” Those that read the beast metaphor were more likely to recommend more police and jails, while those in the virus group typically suggested investigating the root cause and establishing community programs. According to IARPA’s briefing, metaphors are associated with affect. And affect influences behavior.

Literally from Greek, metaphor means transference. We transfer the qualities of one thing to another—something normally not considered related to the first thing. IARPA’s program labels the two parts in terms of the source of the metaphor (the metaphorical expression) and its target (the subject or thing being interpreted). Poets call these the vehicle and tenor, respectively. As you like it:

“All the world’s a stage

All the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances”

The qualities of a stage are transferred to the world. The subject, ‘world’ is the tenor or target, the thing that undergoes the transference. The ‘stage’ is the vehicle or source, which carries the transferred qualities. Making and interpreting metaphors involves an analogical relation which can be mapped out and inferred upon. What do the system of concrete concepts—theatre, actors, stage, etc—say about the abstract concept, life?  Metaphors are a sensemaking tool—using unobvious comparisons to interpret the form, function, motion and feeling of anything and everything.

IARPA’s Metaphor Program intends to devise and deliver methodologies and software prototypes “to automate the handling of data, discovery and semantic definition of metaphors.” As poets have always known—metaphor usage and complex verbal patterns can tell us something profound about how people form images and conceptions of the world. If IARPA is successful in creating a mechanism that deduces biases and unstated beliefs from how people construct everyday language—what will be the implications on how we respond to social issues (like crime in the example above)?

How might poetics and cognitive linguistics studies advance or replace quantitative surveys and focus groups, which reflect conscious knowledge and sample bias?

How can weak signals be identified from conventional metaphors in strategic foresight—revealing hidden cultural tendencies and unmet needs?

What affect do metaphors have on customer and user experience? Would you rather surf or navigate a web or a net? Why do I have files, a desktop and a trash bin instead of interfaces, containers and deletion?

And how far are we from Poetics Thinking as the next big strategic business buzzword?