Tag Archives: learning

Layers of abstraction, the cost of convenience, and the commoditization of experience

The story of progress is one of abstraction, of increased convenience, and the taming of novel experience into the everyday.

An obvious example that comes to mind is in programming, and in fact this is the context in which the seed of this idea first came to me. In my first digital electronics lab at UMR we learned how to program the 8088 processor using machine language (or maybe it was assembly language). I have no memory of either language, but what did stick with me was the idea all higher level languages are simply abstractions of those languages that humans can understand and write. The farther away from machine / assembly you get, the easier (more convenient) it is to get the machine to do what you want it to do, but at the cost of understanding what exactly you are telling the machine to do. And as things get more convenient, you don’t even need the experience of understanding: writing a block of code to do something in a given context becomes nothing more than a copy/paste from Stack Overflow or some other place where someone (or something) else has already had the experience of creation.

A very different example, but one still close to my heart, is the sport of rock climbing. I learned to climb when I was in high school, in the early ’80s, when it was still a novelty. Before we could actually start climbing we had to learn basic rope management, the various knots, how to belay. And the gear, though effective, was by today’s standards, very rudimentary; if you needed your gear to do something, you figured out how to make it work. Today if you want to climb, you just go to the local rock gym, rent a harness and some shoes, get a quick lesson on how the auto-belay works, and away you go. Not saying this is a bad thing, I love that so many people are being introduced to the sport, even if they only climbing they ever do is in the gym. But that commoditization of the experience, that extreme convenience, abstracts them away from the joys of adventure climbing. And turns the experience of climbing, in many ways, into just another workout.

Of course, these examples are important, but they aren’t life and death. Like, say, knowing how to hunt, kill, clean, and prepare your own food. Or how to clear some land and build your own shelter. Or so many other aspects of simply surviving that we (in the so-called developed part of the world) no longer need to worry about. Or, perhaps more accurately, don’t need to worry about at the moment.

One last example for now: When I first heard Dave Gray talking about his latest book, Liminal Thinking, I wrote down “layers of abstraction” among my notes. Though different from the other examples here, I couldn’t help but see that connection. That the more we commoditize our thinking – the more we are on auto-pilot – the more abstracted we are from an understanding of where our beliefs come from, and the harder it is to understand where others are coming from.

The many layers of abstraction, the incredible conveniences we have today, and the commoditization of experience are not, in and of themselves, bad things. As I mentioned at the start, this is the story of progress. It’s when we forget that this is happening, when we start to believe that this is the way things have always been without understanding how we got here, that we run the risk of losing our ability to progress.

A year in books – my 2017 reading list

I have started on my 2018 reading adventure with Walter Isaacson’s new biography of Leonardo da Vinci (who, as readers of this blog will know, is a bit of a role model for me). I hope to do better this year at sharing my thoughts as I go. Because last year I barely did that at all, I thought I would go ahead and just share my list from 2017. It is a shorter list than some years, longer than others, surprisingly light on fiction this year. This does not, of course, include any of my “short form” readings online and elsewhere.

Would love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, and any recommendations from your own 2017 list that you think I should add to my 2018 list.

Non-Fiction

George Lucas: A Life by Brian Jay Jones

The Card Catalog: Books, Cards, and Literary Treasures by Library of Congress

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Carlos M.N. Eire

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings by Neal Stephenson

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field by Nancy Forbes

Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, with David Roberts

Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason, and religion by Stuart Kauffman

The Employee Experience Advantage: How to Win the War for Talent by Giving Employees the Workspace They Want, the Tools They Need, and a Culture They Can Celebrate by Jacob Morgan

Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland

Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Live in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies by Geoffrey West

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People : Power Lessons in Personal Change by Steven R. Covey

Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing through other patterns by Nora Bateson

Hymns for the Fallen: Combat Movie Music and Sound after Vietnam by Todd R. Decker

Exponential Organizations: Why new organizations are ten times better, faster, and cheaper than yours by Salim Ismail

Fiction

Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Returning to Zero (Mick O’Malley #2) by Alan B. Johnston

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre

The Tomorrow Code by Brian Falkner

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson, Nicole Galland

(Note: the links to books on this page point to Amazon so that you can buy them if you’d like; if you do purchase a book by following one of these links, I will get a small percentage of the transaction. This will not increase your cost for the book, but will let me take Julie out for a nice meal once in a while.)

Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: A Journey beyond System Thinking

System thinking is goal-oriented: there are always pre-defined goals and objectives, which system must achieve, and there are always prescribed requirements and criteria, which system must satisfy. As the achievement of any goal happens always in the future, system thinking is obsessed with prediction and generating plans, blueprints, time-schedules and scenarios.

Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impact on the further development of this process. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow any goal-oriented strategy and any targets’ setting anchored in the future.

Source: Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: A Journey beyond System Thinking (Dr. Vladimir Dimitrov)

Toys and tools – different in degree, or different in kind? 

At the end of a brief history of human communication, Dave Gray of XPLANE gets to what he sees as the future of communications: visual communications. Today, we are free once more. Paradoxically, n…

Source: The toys of today, the tools of tomorrow | Brett’s Phrontistery

Congrats to Moodle team – 3.1 now available

Congrats to the Moodle team and everyone involved in the Moodle 3.1 release, including an update to Moodle Mobile. From the announcement:

Moodle 3.1 wraps a lot of new features together with hundreds of fixes and improvements into a package that we’ll be supporting for the next three years, 1.5 years longer than most releases.

I am proud to announce that the most important new feature in this release is the new core support for competencies, which is something we’ve been talking about and developing in the community for many years.  These help when Moodle is used for competency-based education (CBE), “mastery learning” and any technique that involves learning plans based on the things students know, and the things they are yet to know.

A quick thought on failing

Though no one sets out to fail, failure is an essential aspect of learning. You can’t learn if you never fail. But it is important to remember that failure is but a means to an end – learning – and not an end in and of itself.

Failure should not be sought out, but when it happens you should squeeze it for all it’s worth and learn what you can from it. 

Organizational forgetting

I wrote the following back in November 2005:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do we forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

That post also included a reference to memory and forgetting in the human mind, taken from the book The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

explored this idea a bit further in March 2007, where I added the following to my thinking:

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve.

And yet again in June 2009:

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.”

I was reminded of this train of thought today when a colleague shared a link to a TEDx talk by Pablo Martin de Holan titled Managing Organizational Forgetting, based on a paper of the same name published in the MIT Sloan Management Review. If you read my quotes above, I’m sure you understand why this opening paragraph from the paper grabbed my attention (emphasis at the end is mine):

Over the last decade, companies have become increasingly aware of the value of managing their organizational knowledge, and researchers have investigated those processes extensively. Indeed, the ways in which organizations learn and have stocks of knowledge that underlie their capabilities can be a powerful tool in explaining the behavior and competitiveness of companies. Yet something is missing in the current discussions of organizational knowledge: Companies don’t just learn; they also forget.
Pablo Martin de Holan 

There is a lot of great info in the paper (about 12 pages worth), but for now I’ll just mention the two modes of forgetting – Accidental and Intentional. Obviously, you will want to limit the former and maximize the benefit of the latter. At the risk of a giant spoiler (you should still take the time to read the full paper), de Holan summarizes nicely:

Some companies forget the things they need to know, incurring huge costs to replace the lost knowledge. Other organizations can’t forget the things they should, and they remain trapped by the past, relying on uncompetitive technologies, dysfunctional corporate cultures or untenable assumptions about their markets. Successful companies instead are able to move quickly to adapt to rapidly changing environments by being skilled not only at learning, but also at forgetting. Indeed, as companies work to increase their capacity to learn they also need to develop a corresponding ability to forget. Otherwise, they could easily be learning counterproductive knowledge, such as bad habits. The bottom line is that companies need to manage their processes for forgetting as well as for learning, because only then can they deploy their organizational knowledge in the most effective ways for achieving sustained competitive advantage.

I really wish I had come across this paper back in Winter 2004 when it was published. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

And for those of you interested in the TEDx talk, here you go.