Metaphor as Technology, Module 6: Teaching Instructions

The goal of this unit is to get students to see both the creativity stimulated and constriction imposed by thinking about human minds as computers.

Creativity: Vannevar Bush uses other metaphors to describe how human memory works, most notably "the act of remembering=following a path of trails up into a mountain of research"; the Internet, of course, literalizes such a web of trails, but really, all personal computers, insofar as the information that is stored on them is conveyed to us as situated in geographical space, in a sense literalize Bush's metaphors for the operations of human memory. What makes Bush able to predict the World Wide Web and Hypertext, and what made Doug Engelbart able to use Bush's metaphors to design the interface of personal computers, is metaphors, as the reading from Johnson shows.

Constriction: Thinking about ideas in the mind as connected in a [spider] "web" -- be it of trails, synapses, or links -- is a way of imagining mind as computer or, indeed, the Internet (Taylor). The selection from Balkin suggests that there may be some limits to that model. Students should explore on their own some of the possible entailments for the sake of thinking about the extent to which this metaphor is enabling.

It is important to show students as well that there has been a cultural shift. The Sense-datum Theories excerpt shows that we have changed from thinking about memory as "impressions" to memory as "data banks" ("mind=printing press," "mind=digital network"). Just as in the case of bats, humans are being redefined based on the development of new technologies. Do we really want to say that minds operate more like computers than like printing presses, and that technology has helped us to discover that fact (students usually want to say that very thing about bats and radar), OR do we want to see both as viable models for thinking about humans?

LEVEL DESCRIPTORS:

Second- to third-year college students.

LEARNING OUTCOMES:

Seeing that the material models available to us change throughout history; seeing that the way we conceive of ourselves is affected by our material world.

DISCUSSION POSSIBILITIES:

Ask students to describe how they think about their own thinking, what they imagine going on "inside themselves" when they think. Jot down on the board the metaphors they use as they try to talk about the process. Make a list of ideas that are part of each metaphor or model, and then tease out the implications of the metaphor. Your students will be surprised: "No, I really don't think of myself as a salt shaker." Your response, "If not, what metaphor / model for thinking might work better than 'shaking'?"

ASSESSMENT:

By this time students should feel fairly comfortable identifying models as metaphors.Assignment 3 should be used for assessing their ease with this task. To restate it here: ask students to identify the metaphors in the "Current Ideas About How the Mind Works," to list features of each metaphor, and then to explain the implications of the metaphor for the way a person thinks about human beings. If they can do this assignment, the unit has been successful.

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