Metaphor and cultural ‘truth’

In the week that The Guardian reports that the UK is investing in a programme for cyber-defence, The Atlantic carries an article which says that US intelligence services are attempting to analyse the use of metaphor in order to uncover underlying beliefs or orientations among different cultural groups.

IARPA (Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity) is an organisation mysterious enough to have an X-File of its own… but they seem to have endless resources.  Here’s a synopsis of how it’s supposed to work:

“The Metaphor Program will exploit the fact that metaphors are pervasive in everyday talk and reveal the underlying beliefs and worldviews of members of a culture,” declared an open solicitation for researchers released last week. A spokesperson for IARPA declined to comment at the time.

Diagram illustrating proposed process for harvesting data about metaphor useIARPA wants some computer scientists with experience in processing language in big chunks to come up with methods of pulling out a culture’s relationship with particular concepts.”They really are trying to get at what people think using how they talk,” Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, told me. Bergen is one of a dozen or so lead researchers who are expected to vie for a research grant that could be worth tens of millions of dollars over five years, if the team scan show progress towards automatically tagging and processing metaphors across languages.

The original solicitation is available here.  Metaphor undoubtedly plays a role in shaping our discourses and worldviews, but there’s something about the proposed methodology that seems a problem for me.

The assumption that appears to be made is that metaphor can be reduced to non-metaphor; that one can express the same sentiments with or without the use of metaphor.  I would want to defend the (what I take to be Wittgensteinian) claim that linguistic meaning is both a.) relative to particular forms of life and b.) irreducible in the sense that there are no ‘common denominators’ for forms of life.  Different cultures may simply employ more metaphors – or use the same ones in different ways.

The idea here is no less than peering into the minds of potential terrorists: perhaps those who don’t yet realise they are potential terrorists!  Could this lead to ‘Minority Report‘ style pre-emptive arrests?  Perhaps not, but it does seem likely that this kind of technology might at least be used to ‘justify’ surveillance of particular groups on the spurious grounds that their minds have somehow been read by an algorithm.

I suppose that at this venture it remains to be seen just how useful the results could be –  there’s something exciting about the possibility of using these methods to analyse different forms of discourse – but I’m sceptical about the suggestion that this could be used to somehow uncover ‘the truth of a culture’ as Madrigall puts it.

Aside from these worries, there’s something quite interesting about the ambitions of the project, not least the challenge of finding some way to make this all computable at all

Via Why Are Spy Researchers Building a ‘Metaphor Program’? – Alexis Madrigal – Technology – The Atlantic.

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