Idea Hampsters on the Bleeding Edge: Metaphors of Life and Death in Silicon Valley

By Gabriel IgnatowJohn T. Jost
2000| Working Paper No. 1628

Organizational theory has addressed the role of metaphor in analyzing organizational culture, fostering innovation in organizational development, and in maintaining control of employees through language and socialization. We argue that metaphors can perform an additional, previously unexamined “environmental compensations” function in organizations. Qualitative content analyses of computer industry jargon indicates that the distinctive language of the high-technology industry contains an inordinate concentration of metaphors related to biological images and experiences, which can be categorized in terms of three “animal reminder” themes identified by Rozin, Haidt, and McCauley (1993); the human body, animals, and mortality. Specifically, we find that: (a) there has been a steady increase in the use of biological metaphors in the computer industry over the last three decades, (b) there seems to be a greater concentration of biological metaphors in the computer industry than in other comparable occupations, and (c) the metaphorical system reflects an overarching scheme in which technology is represented as pure, and threats to technological progress are seen as biologically impure. We propose that metaphors of life and death propagate successfully in part because they serve a compensatory function by bringing into the cognitive environment stirring and taboo topics such as the human body, mortality, animal life, which are otherwise conspicuously absent from relatively antiseptic workplace environments.