Berkeley colleagues and students rib me about a vocabulary obsession I have.
I cannot abide and repeatedly object to the word “impact” –whether as verb or as noun — and to its variants, “impacted” and the grotesque “impactful.” It is acceptable, although inelegant, to write that the bat impacted the ball, or about the impact of a car on a pedestrian, or about an impacted tooth. It is not only inelegant but also logically and intellectually misleading to write about, say, the social impacts of a policy or how a technological device is impacting our culture Using “impact” to describe social or historical change impairs clear thought.
It is, alas, only one of the more blatant examples of how casual metaphors can undermine causal analysis.
The Grammar Part
The grammar guardians have been all over “impact” as a verb; it is really a noun. But they are giving ground to common usage. One writes, “the verb impact and its variants (impacted, impacting) will always be a teeth-grinding annoyance, but I’ll grudgingly admit, it is no longer considered incorrect.” The New York Times style rules allow using impact as a verb but only in limited fashion: “as a verb it means to strike with force. Do not use it to mean affect or have an effect; in that sense it is technical jargon.” The Times’s editors, it appears from a quick look, have kept the general use of impact to its noun form (as in these 2012 New Year’s Day headlines: “Baylor Feels Impact of Heisman Trophy” and “Financial Crises’ Impact Varies Widely”). [Update: Alas, discipline at the Times has faltered. On January 29, 2012 (p. sr-7), Gail Collins wrote that gossip about politicians' "private lives impacts their careers."]
My objection, however, goes beyond such schoolmarmish fastidiousness; it is about the danger of implicit analogy, the misuses of metaphor, even of impact as a noun.
As far back as 1965, the 2nd edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage described the noun form of impact as a “vogue word” which “the herd” uses, often inappropriately, to seem in fashion. Impact, says Fowler’s, “means primarily . . . a collision and, by its extension, its effect on the object struck.” Its “use figuratively in this last sense” is the problem. Fowler’s notes that impact is a metaphor that has been stretched senselessly, as this last example from the Times illustrates: Reporter “Amy Harmon . . . [covers] the impact of science and technology on American life.” It is precisely in reading about technology in American life that my complaint about “impact” developed. (The following discussion draws from Ch. 1 of America Calling.)
The Understanding Part
“Impact” is everywhere in the literature on the social consequences of new technologies. The way writers typically deploy the metaphor calls forth a mental picture: Like a cue ball hurtling on green felt, a new technology smacks into some part of society (say, business communications) and that “ball” in turn collides into another part of society (say, family life) and so forth, in a cascade of ricochets. This a vivid but a lazy way of thinking about technology and change.
The impact language often implies that the technology has an inherent property – cars are speedy, phones are instant, trains are mechanical – that is imprinted on people’s psyches by impact. One writer, for example, argues that, since electronic communications are “placeless,” so those media make people “placeless” or “rootless.” Many writers suggest that cold, metallic devices like telephones turn their users into cold, hard personalities.
What really happens with technological change is much messier and cannot be described with sweeping generalities. Entrepreneurs develop and market a new technology with particular uses in mind. Some customers are attracted. Those who adopt the new technology start adapting it to their own ends. Users alter other behaviors or have new experiences, with further consequences.
For example, early 20th-century automobile manufacturers sold cars as recreational toys, much like 19th-century bicycles. Some people, mainly farmers, found practical uses for cars and manufacturers responded by developing vehicles for those markets. Farmers used cars and trucks not only to take goods to market but also to shop in farther, bigger towns, bypassing and dooming village merchants. Many city people eventually bought cars to commute to work, dooming private streetcar systems in most cities. And so on. Profound consequences indeed followed the introduction and widespread purchase automobiles — suburban sprawl for one. But the automobile itself did not “impact” anything (other than fence posts, cows, and unwary pedestrians); people adopted and used the technology.
The “impact” metaphor hides these sorts of complexities. It allows lazy arguments alluding to social “billiard balls” colliding into other social phenomenon without really explaining what real people are actually doing. By ridding ourselves of the impact metaphor, we are forced to think harder and more clearly.
“Impact” is just one of Fowler’s vogue metaphors that constrict imagination and impair clear thinking. There are many others.
Take “capital.” The original meaning is financial: e.g., “money or assets put to economic use” (from here or here; and see the OED), or “already-produced durable goods used in production of goods or services” (Wikipedia). Then came the metaphoric terms “human capital” (apparently referring to personal traits such as skills, education, and motivation), and “cultural capital” (artistic taste, music appreciation, etc.), and the most mutant version, “social capital” (trust, friendships, connections, club memberships, almost everything social). It has never been clear to me why anyone needed to hide lucid and precise concepts under the lumpy metaphor blanket of “capital.” Real capital can be loaned, financial capital earns interest, fixed capital depreciates, and so on. But I cannot loan you my education, earn interest on attending the opera, nor invest your church attendance in my start-up business. Calling those things “capitals” only obfuscates.
Altruism, Human or Otherwise
The original meaning of altruism is “devotion to the welfare of others, regard for others, as a principle of action; opposed to egoism or selfishness” (OED). It is a subjective, human orientation. Evolutionary reductionists appropriated the term to describe metaphorically animal behavior — say, army ants charging one another. This use of the word has become so pervasive that the animal version (“behavior by an animal that may be to its disadvantage but that benefits others of its kind”) is now listed by dictionaries as a second definition (e.g., here).
Perniciously, this metaphoric use has, by a sort of backwash, by reverse analogy, distorted our understanding of human behavior: If what the army ants do is “altruism,” then our explanation of animal altruism explains human altruism. Voila, sociobiology!
Beware the Metaphor
Analogies, metaphors, and similes are great rhetorical tools. (This post is full of them — like “rhetorical tools.”) But they are dangerous ones. Even when a writer is aware that he or she is deploying one — as Richard Dawkins is when he writes of “the selfish gene” — their use can displace more precise and accurate description. (Never mind the willful misuse of metaphors.) Even worse, when writers deploy metaphors without self-awareness, as is typically the case with “impact,” then the distortion is all the greater.
Let’s bring impact to its knees…. er, or something.