Thursday, August 04, 2011

Metaphors Are Not Their Own Objects

Vinicius Vacanti (author of “How to Make it as an Entrepreneur”) writes (13 July) in Business Insider (HERE):

“The Invisible Hand of the Internet”

“Adam Smith, in Wealth of Nations, talked about an ”invisible hand“.
Basically, by businesses pursuing their own interests, they end up helping society much more than they had intended, led by an “invisible hand”.

“…he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention… By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

This same “invisible hand” is behind the success of many of the most popular web and mobile services that exist today. And, by understanding how it works, it can dramatically change your initial product decisions.

What is the Invisible Hand of the Internet?

The best way I can explain is to use an example almost all of us are familiar with: Delicious.

The amazing thing about delicious wasn’t that it allowed you to save and tag your bookmarks on a site. I liked that functionality and it was useful. But, ultimately, not everyone really needed that service.
The truly remarkable thing about delicious was that when enough people saved and tagged their bookmarks, you could see what the most popular bookmarks were for a tag like “python“. That collective wisdom was truly amazing.

But, users weren’t really uploading their bookmarks to the site and tagging them so that others could benefit from them. They were uploading their bookmarks out of their own self-interest. People wanted to save a bookmark with tags so that they could easily search for them next time they needed it. If people really didn’t need to tag their bookmarks, most of them wouldn’t have done it just for the benefit of the overall site.

The self-interested actions of delicious users ended up promoting the interests of the delicious community much more than they had intended to, led by the same “invisible hand” Adam Smith talked about in 1776.”

Once again, a clipped quotation from a fairly long 3-page preceding argument embedded with specified qualifications that highlight how the unintended consequences of how some (but decidedly not all!) 18th-century merchant traders arose from this small groups’ special and personal motives that led them from their felt insecurity of their capital, when out of their sight, to prefer to invest it in their local “domestick industry”.

It was their concern for better security that “led them” to invest locally, metaphorically described by Adam Smith as “by an invisible hand” to heighten the impact of his description of their behaviour “in more striking and interesting manner” than the previous 3-pages of technical argument. That is what good metaphors tend to do, and Smith knew this well, because he taught his students about the role of metaphors in his “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Letters” ([1763] 1983, page 29) delivered in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

He never meant – and could not mean – that there was an actual “invisible hand”. It was a metaphor, and all metaphors have a separate object – whatever they describe in a “more striking and interesting manner”. No metaphor is the object of itself. No students were as confused as many modern economists, nor were his 18th-century readers, who learned about metaphors at their universities. (Today, alas, the teaching of English is not what it used to be.) That is why Smith’s contemporaries did not comment on his use of the IH metaphor – it was not exceptional for the fuss made about it today.

Hence, the “same “invisible hand” (an actual entity?) is not “behind the success of many of the most popular web and mobile services that exist today”. The wider benefit to the community of doing so certainly had unintended benefits when aggregated but was not foreseen nor motivated by those separate individuals who entered their bookmark tags. And it was, no doubt, the individual motivations of those who did so that commenced this process. But they were not “led by an invisible hand”, except metaphorically, into doing what they did – their separate motivations “led them”, in much the same way as when separate individuals cast aside their rubbish in a picnic area, out of, say, laziness – even thoughlessness – are not led by “an invisible hand” (er, the same one as Adam Smith’s?) to turn the open space of a few square yards into a disorderly rubbish tip in a day.

If this is what Vinicius Vacanti is really arguing he is both mistaken abut Adam Smith and about the role of metaphors. If he actually believes there really is “an invisible hand” he should specify what it is in each specific case, from the behaviour of some, but not all, 18th-century merchants (what about the others, not so motivated?) through to the users of Delicious (what about all those who do not use Delicious?).



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