Think Sideways – Jigsaw launches unique dictionary to demystify tech

Jigsaw hopes to help our understanding of technology with the Sideways Dictionary, a new online tool that uses analogies to explain specific words and concepts

Tech is such an integral part of our lives that it’s alarming so much of it is so difficult to understand. But the Sideways Dictionary, created by Alphabet’s tech incubator Jigsaw, is designed to help change that.

Unlike a regular dictionary that offers definitions of words and phrases, Jigsaw’s Sideways Dictionary, as the name suggests, provides users with a slightly different way in to understanding tricky concepts – through analogy.

Jigsaw worked with The Washington Post and UK writer Nick Asbury to create the dictionary which has now gone live at sidewaysdictionary.com.

From ‘BitCoin’ to ‘Botnet’, via ‘Sandboxing’, ‘Black Hat’ and ‘Patch’, Asbury helped to populate the Dictionary with around 300 analogies for 75 different terms for the launch. “When I got involved, there was the seed of a thought about using analogies to explain technology in an accessible way,” he explains.

“One of the examples was email being like sending a postcard, whereas sending a secure message is like sending a sealed envelope. People instinctively use analogies like that when explaining new concepts, but there was no central bank where they could be stored, searched and shared.”

We often use this comparative technique when attempting to explain things (the first definition of ‘analogy’ on Google comes back as “a comparison between one thing and another, typically for the purpose of explanation or clarification”). But it’s also a process that gets used in the construction of jokes. Unsurprisingly then, humour forms a large part of the Jigsaw project – being funny is certainly one way of being memorable.

Asbury notes that creating analogies can be a tricky art in itself. “When they’re good, they feel like magic – like discovering an underlying connectedness in all things,” he says. “But they can also be frustrating – as a reader, you experience something close to physical pain when an analogy goes wrong, like it’s hurting the synapses in your brain.”

A key theme that the creators of the site noticed was that actually “all analogies are inherently imperfect,” Asbury continues. “The more perfect an analogy is, the less useful it is. The best analogies shed light on one aspect of an issue, but can never capture its totality.

“One of the advantages of Sideways Dictionary is that it gives you multiple analogies per term – each one may be imperfect, but together they have a cumulative effect. Even the process of working out where an analogy falls down leads you closer to an understanding of the issue.”

The name of the project owes particular influence to Alan Fletcher’s The Art of Looking Sideways, Asbury reveals. “[It’s] the classic book about design and lateral thinking. This is more like the Art of Writing Sideways.”

The site is also open to contributions, so visitors can suggest alternative ways of describing particular concepts – the analogies themselves can then be voted on by users. The Washington Post will be using some of the best analogies on its website when tech terms come up in its reporting.

Alfred Malmros, Jigsaw’s Head of Marketing says, “The more we can create a shared vocabulary around technology, the better we’ll be able to understand how it’s reshaping our world. The innovation emerging from the technology industry is staggering, but too often we fall back on jargon to explain new concepts. Sideways wants to change that.”

The Sideways Dictionary is now live at sidewaysdictionary.com (a Chrome extension is also available here), and if this lateral approach to explaining the world of tech has caught your imagination, Asbury has a few tips on coming up with your own analogies below.

How to write a good analogy:

“Analogies usually happen by serendipity – they occur naturally in conversations or in the course of thinking deeply about a subject,” says Asbury. “So to sit down and generate analogies mechanically is a weird process. But I found it’s like a concentrated version of what happens in creative thinking generally.

“You take an issue like ‘secure socket layer’ or ‘wiki’ or ‘zero-day’ and that becomes your anchor point, like the end of the compass that stays in the centre of the page. Then you move the other end of the compass in a slow circle, passing through lots of areas – household objects, films, fairy tales, sports, games, cities, the natural world, pop culture, human interactions. All the while your mental compass is scanning through these worlds and trying to find matches back to the term at the centre.

“When a match occurs, you try to capture the analogy in a single sentence and then expand as needed. Some colour and humour adds to its memorability and jaggedness. A good analogy can serve a twofold role – it’s partly about explaining the issue, and also about making it linger in the mind.”

Nick Asbury has written more about his work on the project on his site at asburyandasbury.com. Development/design agency: Hello Monday. Film/animation work: Google Creative Lab London

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