(#29) The Delights and Dangers of Abstraction
“We must be careful not to confuse data with the abstractions we use to analyse them.”
— William James (American philosopher)
Abstraction is a human superpower. It’s thinking, sideways. The process that enables us to condense complex, multipart objects into simpler blueprints. With abstraction, we can automate the boring stuff under the push of a button. But what happens if the button breaks?
Physicist Paul Dirac’s eponymous equation (the first to predict antimatter) hides the beautiful collision of quantum mechanics and special relativity, each of which are text book topics in their own right. Programmers execute thousands of lines of code with a single command. Most of us live in towns and cities whose layout of shops, emergency services, roads, and drains is no accident. 3D artists can craft an animated Disney blockbuster without having ever taken a geometry class. And most of us tell the time without awareness of the cogs under the watch face (or its digital equivalent).
Collections of fundamental ideas can be packaged up into boxes that we can take for granted. We need never peer inside. Abstraction gives us the building blocks from which to build more complex systems.
So, what happens when what we’ve built comes crumbling down? What can we do when we’re no longer able to use the blocks because we’ve forgotten how to look inside the box they came in?
Abstraction, for all its wonders, can also lead us to miss the underlying mechanisms that make the the particles dance, the code run, the city thrive, and the clock tick. Even if you’re the ‘ideas person’, the boss, the delegator, the executive, the person who leaves the ‘details’ to the experts, consider this nonetheless:
How would you build what you envisage if the expert team members you relied on all disappeared tomorrow?
How can you impress upon your team the delights and the dangers of abstraction?
Dr Marc Reid is an academic scientist and entrepreneur based in Glasgow, Scotland.
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