How Analogies Reveal Connections,
Spark Innovation, and
Sell Our Greatest Ideas

John Pollack
(Gotham Books)
  • Wilbur and Orville Wright beat out all the university-trained engineers in building a successful airplane because they ignored the example of birds, didn't even consider using flapping parts. Instead, they concentrated on the lift capabilities of a stable arched wing, powering it with a smaller wing placed in the vertical, in front of the machine: the propeller.

  • Henry Ford was not very enthusiastic about building cars on an assembly line. The prototype was put in place by an engineer, Bill Klann, working mostly when Ford was out of town. The prototype came from a disassembly line in Chicago that Klann had visited: a slaughterhouse operated by the Swift meatpacking company.

  • Steve Jobs brilliance lay in translating "familiar tactile experiences into a virtual, smaller, digital version that mimics the original." Thus desktop, trashcan, turning pages, folders --- even a mouse --- were "digital analogies that look the same, and seem to act the same, as their physical counterparts."

  • Thirty-five years ago, Tim Berners-Lee devised a program called Enquire which would "store information without using structures." The key lay in connections. He imagined that it "would reveal the true nature of its internal connections and how its people and their ideas were related to each other." In 1989, he took the plan to his supervisors at CERN, but they wren't interested. So he set out to build "a global version of his program" on his own, one that would interlink all the computers in the world "to connect millions of users." He imagined joining all these machines in a nonhierarchical system, "All the bits of information in every computer at CERN, and on the planet, would be available to me and anyone else. There would be a single global information space."

  • When governments declare war, they "are signaling the moral imperative of their cause, the profound danger of a declared enemy, the stakes for society as a whole, and the willingness to expend almost anything in the pursuit of violence." America's most recent wars --- on poverty, drugs, and terror --- probably fail because no-one knows who the enemy is. In a war, the enemy always has to be defined.

In the war on drugs, if we don't define the enemy, risk losing because there is no way to fine-tune our artillery. Thus, who is our foe?

    --- A disaffected high school student smoking a bong at a party?
    --- Inner-city drug dealers selling crack?
    --- The foreign kingpins who ship heroin to our shores?
    --- Wall Street traders doing a line of coke out in the Hamptons.

"Or is the enemy actually the drugs themselves?"

"If so, which drugs and in what quantity?"

"Alternatively, is the real enemy addiction itself?"

Shortcut makes a powerful case for analogies, the joining of dissimilar ideas as a creative force, but, as we see in some of the examples that Pollack gives, analogies can lead us down the wrong road, even into a ruinous disaster. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, President Eisenhower compared that loss to the playing of dominoes, the ones that kids carefully set up on end. When one falls, all do.

"If the communists were not defeated in Vietnam, their victory could lead to the sequential toppling of neighboring Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and eventually even Japan," is how Pollock sums it up. Thus America's deep involvement in Vietnam. Thanks Ike.

    Under successive presidents, the analogy's hold on the American imagination continued to draw the nation deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Vietnam, which eventually cost taxpayers the equivalent of more than $686 billion, killed 58,252 American soldiers, and claimed the lives of some two million Vietnamese.

Pollack has put together a short introduction to the power of analogies --- how logic jumps have created so much in the way of progress . . . and so much in the way of fatal traps. The writing is clear and concise, although sometimes the asides make for the best parts of the narrative. There's Wilbur and Orville's background in building bicycles, which Pollack sees as a key element to constructing a tricky, lightweight machine that could run fast enough to get off the ground without falling over. Like a bike, it depended on a delicate balance in order to free itself from the restraints of gravity.

He tells a fine story, the last fractious meeting between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates --- early on, they worked with each other --- as they were about to launch their respective empires.

Jobs: "You're ripping us off!" Gates: "I think it's more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it."

Then there's the background on a Supreme Court decision asking if a mouth-swab DNA test is an "unlawful search." Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting vote --- surprise! --- cites the Fourth Amendment as forbidding such an action when "there is no basis for believing the person is guilty."

There is a too-long chapter on John Roberts stating, in his confirmation hearing, that a justice sitting on the Supreme Court is merely like an umpire --- a friendly, Saturday-hot-dog analogue that is quite a stretch from the truth (umpires don't make up the rules). This leads us into the legal morass of another innocent baseball analogy, known as "Three Strikes." In the baseball game you're out. In American jurisprudence, you quintuple the prison population in a scant 10 - 15 years.

Pollack gets into a stretch when he cites the five rules that make an analogy, most of which went right over my head. But, mostly, his telling of these remarkable stories make good sense, and give him a chance to lob a few terrible jokes as well. On Berners-Lee's theory of the internet: "Even if some links fail, the overall load is distributed through multiple pathways, and the whole structure remains greater than the hole." And on Johannes Gutenberg, who went bankrupt while creating his historical invention, moveable type.

Pollock observes that when he got embroiled in a lawsuit with one of his investors, Johann Furst, Gutenburg went bankrupt --- a pauper among prints --- and struggled financially for many years after.

--- Richaard Saturday
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