Abstractions

Abstraction (from the Latin abs, meaning away from and trahere, meaning to draw) is the process of taking away or removing characteristics from something in order to reduce it to a set of essential characteristics. Being able to “abstract” concepts effectively (and transform/apply them to the situation at hand) can be very useful (and valuable in the right environments).

On the topic of abstractions, I found these quotes from I Am A Strange Loop particularly thought provoking:

“We human beings are macroscopic structures in a universe whose laws reside at a microscopic level. As survival-seeking beings, we are driven to seek efficient explanations that make reference only to entities at our own level. We therefore draw conceptual boundaries around entities that we easily perceive, and in so doing we carve out what seems to us to be reality.”

“What happens on the lower level is responsible for what happens on the higher level, it is nonetheless irrelevant to the higher level. The higher level can blithely ignore the processes on the lower level.”

The whole book is great (though a bit long) but it gets at a few really big ideas and illustrates them in a rather unique way—through arguments of logic, mathematics, and biology. The author then takes these arguments and applies them to day to day life (and the countless micro and macro decisions we make all of the time).

One of the first big ideas highlighted in the book is the topic of abstraction. Abstraction, as defined above and a core thesis of the book, is both essential to civilization AND relatively *arbitrarily* constructed.

A good way to understand this idea is through a simple example.

You may look at a chair, and well, call it a chair.

By call, I mean you may tell someone else go look at that chair. You may also consciously register the phrase chair in your head (without uttering a word). You may even subconsciously notice the object and classify it a chair somewhere in your brain without any verbal or non-verbal cues. Upon looking at the object, you would likely conclude, without much thought, that it is stagnant/not moving/immobile.

The reality, though, is that “chair” is really just a bunch of atoms buzzing around. The atoms are moving very quickly and constantly and made up of millions of tiny components.

Yet, as we look at the object, we decide, in our heads that it is a static chair.

We do this not because it is *accurate* (from a physics perspective). We do it because it is *convenient* (and in turn effective for us to live our lives).

Without abstraction, it would be very difficult for us to communicate (both to ourselves and to other people). Could you imagine calling every object on the earth by its atomic components? That would be taxing. That would be inefficient. And so—we use language to more efficiently communicate ideas and process information.

Thinking in this way, and recognizing that our language is truly an abstraction on top of the micro-components of the world, is ?humbling? It is humbling, at least to me, because I often critique others for not speaking precisely enough. In reality, though, I am the one who, too, is just using a convenient abstraction layer to get my ideas across. I find that at work and in personal life, often times, me and the other people are thinking in different abstractions. It is not that we do not care to understand ideas or each other but rather that we are occupying a different level of precision. The solution, therefore, is to try to find the same plane to communicate across.

Another big idea mentioned along the lines of abstractions is this notion that we do not necessarily need to understand the micro in order to use and understand the macro.

How many *things* in your life do you use (and sometimes even rely on for your health and your livelihood) without really understanding?

  • Do you know how your food was raised? Could you grow it on your own?
  • Do you know how the internet works? Could you recreate it?
  • Do you know how your own brain works? Do you know how cells work?

This list could truly go on forever. SO MUCH of what we depend upon today—from the electricity in our homes to the medicine we put in our bodies—is not understood by the average person (at least not at the atomic level).

Has it always been this way? Is it increasing or decreasing? Or was there a time where humans really needed to understand everything they touched?

Again, I am left feeling curious. Is this optimal? If you understand the micro, are you able to use the macro better? What level of micro? Or is it OKAY sitting at the abstraction layer?

This begets another question which is *what is the appropriate level of abstraction* to focus on?

Upon reflection, you would think—at least I would think—that I would have been more intentional about understanding the appropriate abstraction level _before_ going super deep on a topic.

For instance, should I understand how chairs are built by studying chair architecture, history, or physics? This is a topic for another essay, but learning to learn better, and also optimizing the sequence of what and how we learn I think is an understudied (and relatedly under-optimized) area of learning.

But back to abstractions—I think the problem, or at least the loop I am stuck in in some capacity, is making sure I am caring about the *right* level of abstraction. Now, there is no universally right level. But for the sake of orientation, I am questioning the level at which I am operating. Should I work on tech companies? Should I work on science? Should I work on history? What is the right abstraction level?

I imagine many of life’s choices can be traced back to the abstraction level. For instance, if you work on something that is more fundamental to science – a low abstraction level – your feedback loops may be _much longer_. What I mean by that is it may be harder? to have pivotal breakthroughs but they may have a bigger long-term impact on the way we understand the world. That being said, it is also interesting that, in general, most of us do not understand low levels of abstraction, so if you want to have a big impact, you may actually want to focus on the super high levels—almost to the religion levels—so that you can come up with ideas that will be extremely widespread.

You could see how this rabbit hole can go on for a _long time_. The mental exercise is at minimum interesting to me, as you can apply “abstraction thinking” to the meta of everything, but also extremely practically in a single conversation. The latter, the extremely practical implication, has helped me be more effective in communication.

My new step one, rather than diving into the *ideas* is to figure out what abstraction level is most optimal and making sure me and the other stakeholders (or if there is no other stakeholder, myself) is operating at the right level.

Skipping this step leads to a lot of inefficiency because THERE IS NO RIGHT, ONLY ALIGNMENT (and that idea is for another essay).


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