Social ontology and the challenge of suitcase words

This is a wonderful expression I just picked up from Machine, Platform, Crowd by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson. As they describe on pg 112-113, suitcase words jumble together multiple meanings in a way which renders questions more obscure than they would otherwise be:

Is generative-design software really “creative?” It’s a hard question because creativity is a prime example of what AI pioneer Marvin Minsky called a “suitcase word.” As he put it, “Most words we use to describe our minds (like ‘consciousness,’ ‘learning,’ or ‘memory’) are suitcase-like jumbles of different ideas.” We see just such a jumble in different definitions of creativity. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, states that creativity is “the use of imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work.”

In a lecture today I argued that our debates about the meaning of the human are prone to this, relying on contested terms without properly defining them. It’s when we confront suitcase words that social ontology becomes invaluable, offering us techniques for unpacking these terms and ensuring the debate proceeds in terms of the contents of the suitcase rather than the suitcase itself. If we are clear about this purpose then it invites us to undertake ontological reasoning in a focused way, orientated towards the clarification of questions through the delineation of entities and characteristics.

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