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Transportist: Only a Sith deals in absolutes
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Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
I have come to believe one of the major failings in our language, and thus in the way we think (see what is commonly referred to as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, about whether language shapes how we think — how could it be otherwise?) is the use of words and concepts as absolutes rather than archetypes.
The most excellent podcasters John Siracusa and Jason Snell have a very short, highly entertaining podcast “Robot or Not” in which John proclaims on whether something does or does not belong to a particular English language category.
Consider for instance the question they recently discussed, are there more doors or wheels in your house? Well what is a door? Some things would be almost unanimously agreed to as being doors (a door to a room, a cabinet door, a dishwasher door, a toaster door). They are labeled as such. Others are less obvious. Is an attic hatch a door? Are drawers doors? Are electrical switches doors?
Similar questions arise: Is Cereal a Soup? Is a Hot Dog a Sandwich? The internet loves these things. But the problem isn’t the category, it’s the idea of categories. Cereal, like a Fog, is Soup-y. Hot dogs are sandwich-like.
What is Silver Spring, Maryland? There are many definitions and perceptions.
Where does a metropolitan area begin? We have formal definitions, but really it’s a continuum, based on degree of interaction between places, and we have large hinterlands around isolated cities (Minneapolis - St. Paul reaches into the Dakotas), and overlapping commute sheds of nearby connurbating cities (San Francisco and San Jose, Baltimore and Washington, even Minneapolis and St. Paul once upon a time).
Is the Sydney trains system a “metro”? It’s underground in places. It’s grade separated. It has a high frequency (relative to many other “metro” systems). It is more rapid than surface transport in most corridors. Yet the Sydney Metro is a new system, which is more conventionally metro like (the trains only have one level). We need to move beyond categories to degrees and continuums.
What is a bicycle, an e-bike, a moped, a motorcycle, a micro-mobility device? What is a scooter? Devices might be neatly classified by definitions that no-one uses or relies on.
Many of our concepts should really be on a multi-dimensional spectrum, rather than as an “is” or “is-not”.
This has obvious implications for many different applications in transport. When is a car an AV? Is it Level 1 or Level 3 or Level 5? While this is better than “AV or not”, it is not as good as just identifying what attributes it has. This leads to confusion, and more than of just naïve1 journalists. Consumers will think they have something they do not. They will think the car is “driverless” or has “Autopilot” etc., and turn off their own minds and attention, leading to adverse consequences.
What is to be done? Now, shaping how all humanity thinks from Sith to Jedi is a tall order. But it is something we must all be conscious of in our own language use and interpretation. Undoubtedly, even the idea of what is a category is contestable. We must aim to try to understand what people of good faith mean rather than rely on what they literally say.2 Intentionally misunderstanding what someone else is saying (that is, taking a “bad faith”, rather than “good faith” interpretation of something unintentionally ambiguous) is becoming more and more prevalent. While it spreads from opposing politicians and tv commentators, this kind of behaviour should be considered morally unacceptable. We should ourselves aim to be precise, which may require identifying ambiguity, while forgiving of others ambiguity.
Are there any other kind?