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It is ALL in the Metaphor

I get what Doc is saying at River’s Edge.

Here’s the key: Doc: “River of news” usefully combines three metaphorial frames: place, transport and publishing. Using all three, it proposes an approach to publishing that respects the fact that more and more people are going to want to get fresh newsy information on handheld Web devices. And later ” Here’s another thing. River of News is one more way that the Live Web is branching off of the Static Web.”

It absolutely is finding the metaphor. I was ironing out a problem with Doc 48 hours ago. I complained about a very well known person who was driving me crazy. Tunnel vision and besides he simply doesn’t see the spider web, I groused. Doc replied and said in passing: “what is the spider web?” When I replied I said to myself I don’t want to take the time to answer because i would have to articulate what i meant. So i skipped the question. And Doc comes back and says: “what’s the spider web?”

At that point I had to answer the question. My answer was the entry he liked today. How do we get from “here” to “there” That’s the spider web.

Something very powerful and very profound is happening. We know that but we don’t know quite what. More than fifty years ago Sir Isaiah Berlin was reading Tolstoy and try to understand the great novelist’s mind. He wrote in 1953 a profoundly important essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox.

I haven’t looked at Berlin’s essay in a year. I just found the first part here.

Here’s the fist paragraph: “There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.”

I have been extolling “foxes” in my writing for the past year. Check out what Sir isaiah says regarding the foxes: “these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality [single central vision] belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.”

The above passage contains the seeds necessary to understand the difference between the fundamentalist Christian and fundamentalist Islamic view of the world. More importantly I contend that it sheds light on why Doc’s getting pushback on Dave Winer’s River of News concept.

Most folks in the tech Internet world, I believe are hedgehogs (vertical silo folk). This sets up a strain because we all know that corporate vertical silos are bad, but because the pace of change is so fast we have to maintain our narrow subject matter expertise. Almost the only way to do this is from the foundation of our own metaphorical silos. Thus when a different metaphor cruises by we tend to reject and push it back.

So where am I headed? I have been developing an innate “feeling” that the job that not being done well enough is to figure out a fox like overview of all the hedgehogs silos. Of course if i begin to succeed am I no longer a fox but rather becoming a meta hedgehog?

Help me. Push back please.

5 Responses to “It is ALL in the Metaphor”

  1. on 25 Aug 2006 at 8:54 pm Danny

    I have to say that it was the reality (a dodgy repackaging of existing tech) rather than the metaphor (which is very snappy) that led me to push back on the River of News hoo-haa. But the more I think about it, the more the idea of value based on novelty seems questionable. Because a piece of information is new, does that mean it’s more interesting or useful? This is without taking into account that the news sources chosen are from traditional media companies - who’s setting the agenda? With the metaphorical mythology about the guy behind the new republisher, perhaps we should start talking about the Styx and it’s ferryman…

    …After all that I’m actually prompted to post here by your other metaphors. For a start the foxes and hedgehogs sound very like they reflect the data isolation/integration issues that Semantic Web efforts are addressing. But what got me was How do we get from “here” to “there”. It reminded me of a quote from the same context I used a while ago:

    Traveller: I’d like to find my way to “Semantic Web”, please.

    Bystander: Well… I wouldn’t start from here.

  2. on 26 Aug 2006 at 12:14 am Stephen Smoliar

    Gordon, I invoked Isaiah Berlin in MY blog today, too:


    My context had more to do with why discourse over the Middle East always seems to get locked in an impasse. See, what Berlin was getting at was that the whole intellectual tradition of Western civilization is basically hedgehog-like;

    Cook: Is it really? Sacred -> hedgehog but secular (renaisance, enlightenment, modern science) surely fox like

    Smoliar: so all the Internet technology geeks are doing is perpetuating the tradition. Berlin, on the other hand, strove to be the fox; and his editor, Henry Hardy, has tried to capture that with titles like THE CROOKED TIMBER OF HUMANITY (which has one of Berlin\’s best essays, whose subtitle is \”The Revolt against the Myth of an Ideal World\”). In my blog I quoted a recent review by John Gray that described Berlin very nicely: \”In opposition to this [hedgehog\’s] view Berlin maintained that conflicts of values are real and inescapable, with some of them having no satisfactory solution. He advanced this view not as a form of skepticism but as a universal truth: conflicts of value go with being human.\” Where I see the real threat is that, if technology is inherently hedgehog-like (and, as you observed, that can even rise to a meta level), then does it ultimately deny the very human nature of those who are supposed to be its beneficiaries?

    Cook: your comment at the end is critical and shows that i was not clear. I disagree that tech is inherently hedgehog like. What turns tech people into hedgehogs is the speed of change and the resuilting necessity of becomeing specialized (hedgehog like - themselves) in order to maintain their expertise. The tech itself needs foxlike strategists in order to figure out what is good for and figure out ways around hedgehog like controllers like the FCC.

    At some level the metaphor runs out of steam. But I do think it is useful because it helps to provide a frame for thinking about complex processes and for getting people to realize that with increased specialization synthesis and intergration (the foxes) is necessary.

  3. on 26 Aug 2006 at 2:29 pm Gordon Cook

    On my mail list where i posted this entry Doc Searls posted the following comment:

    Well, Isaiah Berlin was making a distinction between two ways
    creative minds approach the world. It\\\’s an interesting and important

    What we have here, however, is less hedgehog vs. fox than
    hedgehog-vs-hedgehog — with foxes trying to reconcile the two. Our
    battling hedgehogs the pure-Internet infrastructure visionaries on
    one side, and the incumbents (and those who sympathize with them, to
    some degree) on the other.

    The pure Internet hedgehogs are prophets. They see the end-states
    toward which the world is evolving, whether we like it or not.
    Whether they call those end states Infrastructure or The Stupid
    Network, their attitude is the same: gung-ho about the future and
    dismissive of the past and those who wish to preserve it.

    They are opposed by profits (pun intended) on the incumbent carrier
    side. Those profits (and market valuations, and sunk costs desperate
    for amortization) appear to be threatened by the idea that the
    Internet should be open, free, limitless and pure infrastructure,
    with nearly all the value being created at its countless ends, rather
    than its middle, which the carriers would like reduced to a few giant

    What the profit hedgehogs don\’t see is that there are benefits to
    incumbency other than protecting businesses customers no longer wish
    to support. One challenge for the foxes is helping them find those
    benefits while respecting the prophet hedgehogs\’ insights about the
    Nature of Things.

    What the prophet hedgehogs don\’t see (or do see and dismiss) is that
    real world compromises need to be made, here and there, as everybody
    moves from the old few-in-the-middle-controlled world to the new
    many-at-the-ends-controlled one. But then, compromise is not what
    prophets are good at.

    We need both species to work this out.

    We also need better metaphors, and simple descriptions of what our
    ultimate Stupid or Pure Infrastructure network will be, and how it
    will work. We don\\\\\\\’t have those yet. Both species can help with that


  4. on 27 Aug 2006 at 3:35 pm Stephen Smoliar

    Gordon, Yes, Berlin does, indeed, hold up the whole intellectual tradition of Western civilization to the silo-like thinking of the hedgehog. That essay I cited (whose primary title is “The Apotheosis of the Romantic Will”) in THE CROOKED TIMBER OF HUMANITY is all about this position. He begins by laying out the “three unquestioned dogmas” that constitute the foundation of that tradition: (a) to all genuine questions there is one and only one true answer; (b) the true answers to such questions are knowable; (c) these true answers cannot clash with one another. As the title of the essay implies, Berlin sees the Romantic movement as the first extensive intellectual break from this tradition; but a lot of his essays deal with isolated predecessors, such as Giambattista Vico, the first of his THREE CRITICS OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT (another title Hardy assigned to a collection of Berlin essays).

    Having clarified Berlin’s position, I agree with your point that it is the TECHNOLOGISTS who are hedgehogs, rather than the TECHNOLOGY; and I agree that foxes make the best strategists. In that respect my initial comment to JP’s first “nurture versus nature” entry tried to address the problem that our current educational system is not doing very well when it comes to cultivating such foxes:


    At the end of the day, the only way we can deal with what I called the human nature of the beneficiaries of technology is through a better understanding of human nature (another Hardy title of a collection of Berlin essays, THE PROPER STUDY OF MANKIND); and that can only be achieved by restoring the humanities to the attention they deserve, particularly in undergraduate curricula.

    In the absence of that understanding of human nature, I think the danger is less whether the metaphor runs out of steam and more whether it loses its meaning through misunderstanding. Gray used the word “opposition” in his summary; but Berlin is enough of a Hegelian to seek synthesis where there is opposition. Human nature produces both hedgehogs and foxes, and we should all view them through the lens of our own humanity so that they may better coexist!

  5. on 27 Aug 2006 at 11:52 pm Gordon Cook

    Hi Steve, I especially like your “Having clarified Berlin’s position, I agree with your point that it is the TECHNOLOGISTS who are hedgehogs, rather than the TECHNOLOGY; and I agree that foxes make the best strategists.”

    Your others comments make good sense as well. I have a somewhat dufferent idea i’ll be back with tonight.

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