✨Metaphors We Build By

How a theory in cognitive linguistics explains the future of unicorn meat and augmented reality

Yo! ✌️ I’m Brett! I am a Product Manager, musician, and Twitter power user. Twitter is where all the action happens in the tech industry but it’s not easy to keep up with. I write this weekly newsletter to help people stay informed on the most important discussions happening on Tech Twitter.


Ever wonder why Tik Tok got so popular? Or why all pop music kinda sounds the same? Or why crypto adoption is so slow? Or why we use phrases relating to eating when talking about businesses (e.g. cannibalize the core product, eat into their bottom line, take a piece of the pie)?

It’s all related to ✨conceptual metaphor✨! Here’s the TLDR:

🤯We conceive of the future in terms of the present - conceptual metaphor theory says there’s no such thing as abstract thought. Everything we can imagine is built on metaphor for things we have already experienced. Example: “economies built to last” “foundation of the economy” use the metaphor Economies are Structures.

👷‍♀️Builders build the future, translators get it adopted - Translators use metaphorical (and literal) language, design patterns, workflows, and even entire products that relate to existing paradigms in order to transition users to new paradigms.

💾Backward compatibility is crucial for driving any behavior change - translation can be found anywhere there is behavior change - from adopting new computing platforms, to diets, to social media products, to musical genres.

  • 📱Real world to flat to 3D bookshelves - Apple’s early skeuomophic designs allowed for psychological backwards compatibility between real world and mobile experiences. Neumorphism does the same for mobile and AR.

  • 🥩 Beef to fake beef to unicorn meat - Moving society towards a plant-based diet would be impossible without creating plant-based meats that are backward compatible with animal meat diets. That’s what Impossible Foods is doing.

  • 😜 Facebook to Instagram to Tik Tok - New social media products can gain early traction as tools for creating content for existing products. By integrating into an existing behavior (content creation for one product) new products have a better shot at changing it.

  • 🎶 Soul to Disco to House Music - All new popular music is highly derivative of existing popular music because listeners have a hard time adopting music that is too divergent from their existing tastes.

👉If you build it AND translate it, they will come - Merely building futuristic products isn’t enough for getting them adopted. Translating these products into terms that are palatable and intelligible to people today is a crucial step.

🤯 We conceive of the future in terms of the present

I took a linguistics class in college that fundamentally changed my perspective on the world. The key insight, which the professor, George Lakoff calls Conceptual Metaphor Theory, was this:

There is no such thing as abstract thought. Everything we can conceive of, from economics to love, is based on conceptual metaphors for physical experiences.

Take Marc Andreessen’s famous adage, “software is eating the world.” The tech industry (represented by the word software) doesn’t have a physical manifestation in the real world, yet we still understand what it is. That’s because we use metaphors like “Industries are Animals” to conceptualize it.

There are countless examples:

This phenomenon is also evidenced by the mass appeal of diagrams. They make complex and abstract concepts simple to understand by metaphorically representing them with physical objects.

Human brains are essentially relational databases where everything eventually gets linked back to physical experiences from the real world. This also explains why old visions of the future seem funky years later.

It’s impossible to conceive of a future that is not completely derived from present day experiences.

It also explains why so many startup ideas seem highly derivative and why metaphors like “Uber for X” are so popular in VC pitches.

The most creative minds - artists, scientists, technologists, entrepreneurs, and particularly sci fi writers - create their vision for the future by iterating on the present a few more times than others are able to.

The more “visionary” someone is, the more iterations they are able to imagine.

Balaji Srinivasan is a great example. He famously sounded the alarm for the COVID19 pandemic months before everyone else and regularly shares wild ideas around the impending fracturing of sovereign nations in to influencer-controlled city states. His predictions are not abstract but based on several iterations of events played out in the future.

The tech industry is filled with visionaries, but it’s the translators who deserve much of the credit for actually making the future a reality.

👷‍♀️ Builders build the future, translators get it adopted

Throughout every major computing platform shift, there’s a long period of R&D (Creation) where the industry is primarily made up of builders - engineers, scientists, and fringe personalities. This is where crypto is today and where the internet was in the early 1990s.

After the platform infrastructure is built out, there is a short period of early adoption followed by wide-scale adoption (Deployment). This early adoption period is absolutely crucial and when many of the most significant businesses get built.

Most of the top mobile apps were founded/launched around 3-4 years after the first iPhone was released in 2007.

During this early adoption period, translators are instrumental in bringing about mass adoption. These individuals are designers, marketers, developer relations experts, product managers, etc. and they all employ the same strategy that human cognition itself is built on - conceptual metaphor.

💾 Backward compatibility is crucial for driving any behavior change

In software, we have backward compatibility, in design we have skeuomorphism, in leadership we have "meet people where they are.” All three concepts revolve around the same premise of conceptual metaphor and are core components of technology product adoption.

In order to bring people into the future you must migrate them from the present

Put in conceptual metaphor terms - people learn to use new products and services best when they are metaphorically represented as existing products or services.

Translators use language, design patterns, workflows, and even entire products that relate to existing paradigms in order to transition users to new paradigms. This strategy for user acquisition applies well beyond the tech industry.

Whether it’s augmented reality, alternative meats, a new consumer social app, or even a new musical artist, backward compatibility / skeuomorphism is crucial to drive adoption.

Let’s dig into what that means for each of these cases.

📱Real world to flat to 3D bookshelves

Probably the most famous recent example of this is Apple’s skeuomorphic design system that was introduced when the iPhone came out. This was a brilliant move by the translators at Apple. Mobile phones were a brand new concept, so it would have been difficult for consumers to understand how to use certain apps if they did not use designs that were direct representations of their real-world manifestations.

Now after nearly a decade of flat design, Apple is introducing a new design system that features 3D objects again. With speculation that Apple is launching their AR glasses soon, the launch of the new design system that features 3D objects is conveniently timed.

As AR adoption grows, users will lean heavily on this system to conceptualize of their new 3D experiences in terms of the flat experiences they’ve been accustomed to for so long

VR has the same challenge as AR in transitioning users from the flat world of desktop and mobile to the immersive, 3D world of VR. The advantage VR has is that the gaming vertical is already mostly 3D. The biggest question will be whether VR gaming paradigms will be applied non-gaming applications (e.g. productivity, communication) to drive wider adoption or if deliberate reference to existing flat design is required.

Crypto feels a little lost at sea right now. While the core pieces of infrastructure required for mass adoption are starting to fall into place, the industry still lacks translators. Most crypto products heavily use workflows (e.g. Metamask sign in) and language (e.g. staking, governance) that are unfamiliar to every day consumers. The key to crypto adoption will be to build products that consumers don’t even realize use crypto.

🥩 Beef to fake beef to unicorn meat

Animal protein makes up a large percentage of the American diet. Countless companies have introduced alternative meats over the years to varying success. One of the recent stand out companies is Impossible Foods, whose CEO says their objective is to make the animal meat industry obsolete in 15 years.

There are plenty of vegetarians on the planet - why make fake meat? Backwards compatibility. In order to bring meat eaters into the meatless future, they would need an intermediary step, a skeuomorphic non-meat that functions like real meat - that’s Impossible Foods.

It won’t be long until Impossible and the other alternative meats startups create tasty, affordable alternatives to every staple animal protein.

But that’s not where this story ends.

There really is no reason why food innovation has to stop when society completely adopts alternative meats. Apple did away with skeuomorphic design and Impossible Foods will do away with skeuomorphic meats.

As companies like Impossible Foods continue to compete optimizing for taste, affordability, and nutrition, it’s highly likely we’ll enter a world where entirely new categories of proteins will emerge that don’t taste like any proteins we know today.

Unicorn meat anyone?

It’s worth noting that if we follow this thread several more iterations deep, we may land on something like Soylent, which has some traction as a meal-replacement within a small community. In order for Soylent to achieve its vision of replacing a majority of food consumption, it needs to win over regular people who eat normal food today by building intermediary products like Impossible Foods or just waiting until the world gets there.

😜 Facebook to Instagram to Tik Tok

Social media product adoption cycles follow the same pattern as computing platform adoption and alternative meats adoption - it’s all about interoperability.

Chis Dixon’s famous “come for the tool, stay for the network” framework suggests these steps for growing a new social network:

  1. Build an app that helps users create unique content to share to other social networks

  2. Other users on those networks will see that content and download the app

  3. Once enough users are on the app, introduce social features - build the network

This playbook was perfectly executed by Instagram, which initially grew as a tool to help people create filtered photos to share on Facebook. Since photos were already incredibly popular on Facebook, a social network entirely focused on photos wasn’t a huge conceptual leap.

Tik Tok later pulled the same stunt - it was initially focused on helping people create (lip sync) videos to share on Instagram. Again, since video was already a popular form factor on Instagram, a video-only social network appealed to users.

Just like Impossible Foods co-opted existing preferences for animal proteins to drive adoption of their alternative meats, social media companies co-opt existing preferences for certain content types (photo and video) to drive adoption.

To understand where social media goes from here, look at content types that are already popular on Tik Tok.

🎶 Soul to Disco to House Music

The same strategy used to drive adoption of a new computing platform is used over and over again in the music industry.

In order to attract listeners, new musicians need to appeal to existing tastes. In other words, new music needs to be backward compatible with existing musical trends. There’s clear evidence of this in the history of music - every new genre has clear connections to existing popular genres. House music would not have taken off if it were not for the popularity of Disco and Soul.

Ricky Reed started his career as the front-man of an indie progressive rock band called Facing New York that played incredibly obscure music, several degrees removed from popular music of the time. His dream was to change the music industry, but failed to do so until he started writing pure pop music for the likes of Jason Derulo, Pitbull, 21 Pilots and more.

Today, he runs the record label that put Lizzo on the map and is widely known for pushing the boundaries of songwriting and music production.

Ricky Reed explained in an interview,

I used to think that the most successful way of changing mainstream music attitudes was to tap dance around on the outside of it and throw rocks at the castle walls. I eventually realized that the only way to get inside was being the Trojan horse.

I myself struggled to get traction as a musician likely because the music I was making was too divergent from existing tastes. Most journalists and playlist curators I pitched said they liked my music but couldn’t promote it because it didn’t fit into their catalog.

The career of basically every famous musician follows the same strategy of creating highly derivative work early on before branching out into more uncharted (though still necessarily derivative) territory. Even the Beatles started as a cover band.

🎬 Conclusion

It should come as no surprise that basically every human-created system follows the same laws as human thought. That’s just how things work.

Whether you’re trying to launch a career in music, build the next social network, or transition humanity onto plant-based diets, AR, VR, or crypto, a very deliberate strategy based on conceptual metaphor is required.

In order to bring people into the future you must migrate them from the present

Meet people where they are, build backwards compatible systems, use skeuomorphic design.

If you build it AND translate it, they will come.

🙏 Thanks

Hope you enjoyed this little break from the wild world of Tech Twitter news!