The Metaphorical Search Engine

Current search engines present a Catch 22 for all of us - but the book's anti-hero Yossarian has inspired a solution.

The way that famous search engines work is annoying me more and more.

The work I do with many clients is about business model innovation – seeing your organisation in a new light, finding new ways of working that let you race ahead of the competition.  If you want to completely re-boot how your brain thinks about your job/company/work, then the last thing you should do is use a standard search engine algorithm – they’re designed to narrow down their search by favouring things you asked about already, or ranking things the majority ask about. All it’s doing is regurgitating the information that’s already familiar to you.  What about some help with creating new information, new concepts?

For radically fresh thinking you need new, left-field, more abstract things that help you to pioneer a more unusual path towards your understanding of the subject.

Which is why I smiled when I read about YossarianLives, a new metaphorical search engine being launched later this year.  At last!  Type in a word and it will generate a list of disparate but potentially metaphorically-related answers.  Type in ‘love’ and you might get ‘sleep’, ‘river’ and  ‘prison’ – and you’ll have to figure out that love can be something you need every day, it can be deep or shallow, or it can confine you.

New Scientist tipped us off to this story, for which many thanks.  However I think this part of the report may have missed the point:

Phil Blunsom, a researcher in computational linguistics at the University of Oxford, is sceptical. “Detecting metaphors is pretty difficult in itself, mapping between them is very difficult, and to do this with enough accuracy to be usable seems a bit hopeful,” he says.

There’s a more fundamental question which is: should a concept like ‘accuracy’ be applied to this at all, given that its objective is to support creative thinking?

Metaphorically, you can connect anything to pretty much anything if you put your mind to it – just ask anyone who’s used Edward de Bono’s ‘random word’ methods for lateral thinking.  They’ll tell you it’s the words that seem at first to be the most irrelevant that end up providing the big breakthroughs.  You really have to put some effort into those ‘irrelevant’ words to work out a new association with your subject – which is exactly what you set out to do.

If I were trying simply to catalogue common metaphors for a subject, I’d want an ‘accurate’ list of common metaphors.  But that’s not what YossarianLives is for. Whether you’re just looking for a less clichéd way to describe something, or you’re seeking a whole new way of thinking about it, you’ll want a response that includes some easily explained answers – and some weird answers that make you think “What on earth is that doing there?”  Those are the ones that will get your creative side up and dancing.

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