Thursday, September 04, 2003

Real Abstractions

Some people are having difficulty with this map project. "Real" was supposed to be slightly ironic, but apparently it's caused some trouble.

Reflecting, I think I see the problem. A name for a country is an abstraction. It's either a string of symbols that encode sounds, or a series of sounds, which the people in a given language have agreed represents a country. In a purist sense, all such abstractions are equivalent, since they are all arbitrary. Complicating this, the very idea of a country is an abstraction! We've made a general agreement that a certain geographic territory, and all of the stuff inside a line, is a country. This would be more defensible if a) those geographic limits matched any actual geographic features or b) they didn't change. But mostly, they don't, and they do, respectively. In fact, the idea of the nation-state is enormously powerful in our world; even fairly pathologically dysfunctional governments like North Korea and Afghanistan are still extraordinarily powerful institutions by any rational human standards; only in comparison with the hyperpowers of the world do they dim; but don't forget that North Korea can call on an army of more than a million people. But, still, we must admit, an abstraction.

So we are, indeed, dealing with abstractions. But let me dismiss a very common and important misconception, that abstractions aren't real. Of course they're real! The opposite of abstract is "concrete," not "real." And to really screw you up, the opposite of real is "unreal", not "artificial." Artificial means that something is created by humans to embody an intention: it is an artifact. As we'd say when interpreting the archaelogy exhibit at the Museum of Science, "An artifact is something people made or used." Artifacts are artificial and vice versa. Abstractions are artificial in this sense, since they are all products of human cognition with the intention of communicating.

Hmm... in keeping with my resolution to have blog entries be first drafts, I'm not going to edit this, but I feel like I'm just crashing through the ceiling on my way up.

Let me rephrase, and get back on track.

A name for a country is an abstraction, one that we find useful. There are many simultaneous names for a country, which carry varying amounts of associated semantic meaning, which will in turn vary for different speakers. For example, "United States" is a fairly semantically rich name to a speaker of English; it refers both to the country of the USA, and gives some indication of the nature of the country. A speaker of French with no knowledge of English at all might recognize the sounds yoo-nye-tid-stayts to refer to the country he calls Etats-Unis, without recognizing that it means the same thing. More plausibly, we could call China "Zhongguo" without knowing it meant "Middle Kingdom." Who is to say which handle is more "real", China, Zhongguo, or Middle Kingdom?

My argument for maps -- my name of the day for the project is "Bell Maps," after Eric Bell, the mathematician who said "the map is not the territory," -- is that the more of these abstract handles we know, with associated semantic value, the better we will be able to understand the other people who share those handles. And when the handles are those that are in fact used by the people who live there, then all the more important for us to know them. Does this mean we have to follow their example and use their names? Well, no, although frankly I think it's rude not to. Does that mean their names are more "real" than those we use? Well, again, not really in a philosophical sense, but I must insist that Deutschland is objectively a more accurate name for that country than "Germany."

One more issue: some people, even more radical than my proposal, said that we should use their script on the maps, that using transliteration into a Latin alphabet was no more real than the traditional English name. Again, all of these things are equally abstract, so I wouldn't say that transliterations are worse. As ideograms, yes, those labels would be valid handles, but a) we have a terrible memory for scripts we cannot read, so these are not particularly memorable handles, and b) we could not pronounce them. It might be educational to show the local name of a country in the local script, but this is not a useful handle for us. Bell Maps are not meant to be a global replacement for all maps around the world; they're meant to be for the English (or at least Latin-alphabet) reading world, as an adjunct to all other sorts of maps. Political maps don't replace geographic maps, or weather maps, or topographic maps. Bell maps are just one more tool to represent the world.

Okay, I'm officially done talking about this for now. Tomorrow, robots!