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.

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Shared understanding – two stories

Here are a couple of stories I’d like to share on the idea of shared understanding. The first, a conversation between me and my son, Zeke, highlights the importance of being aware of and understanding the context of a situation from different people’s perspective. The second, a story about a friend of mine, shows the importance of ensuring shared understanding in a shared context and how easy it can be to not have it.

You know the way home, right?

My son, Zeke, and I were in Milwaukee for the Midwest Gaming Classic. As we were walking from the hotel to the car getting ready to head home on Sunday morning, Zeke asked me, “You know the way home, right?” A reasonable question, and one that I could honestly answer with yes. Which was the right answer, though as it turns out that was not the question he was actually asking.  What Zeke was really asking was, “Can we listen to the radio on the way home?”  A little background may be in order.

map

On the drive up to Milwaukee I used Google maps on my phone, connected to the car audio system, as a navigator to get us from home to the hotel. Because I wanted the navigation to come through the audio system, we were limited to listening to music or podcasts (or other apps) from my phone and couldn’t listen to the radio. So when Zeke asked if I knew the way home, he was really wondering if I needed to use Google maps to get us home. If I had said, “No, I don’t know the way”, then he would have known that we wouldn’t be able to listen to the radio, and if I said “Yes” then we could listen to the radio. (If you’re wondering, we listened to a couple Premier League soccer matches and the first half of the Cardinals / Braves game.)

Because of our long history (nearly 25 years) together, I knew that he didn’t care whether or not I knew the way home. He knew that if I didn’t, I would simply use Google maps as my navigator. I did know that he cares about what we listen to in the car, that he prefers to listen to talk (usually NPR) or sports over music, and that he usually watches Premier League soccer on TV on Sunday mornings. So understanding where he was coming from allowed me to answer the question he was actually wanting an answer for. It’s probably worth noting at this point that Zeke is autistic and, while able to communicate verbally, has some unique challenges and methods in his communications. Developing this shared understanding has been critical for both of us to understand each other.

DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

Some friends were out rock climbing. It was an especially nice weekend, so there were a lot of people out taking advantage. There was one route my friends wanted to attempt so they waited while another pair were climbing. While most of my group of friends were relaxing and just generally hanging out, one friend – we’ll call him Dave – was watching the other pair climb. And good thing he was.

nwaHCR

When a climber reaches the top of a route on lead, he will typically clip directly into the anchors and go off belay so that he can fix a rappel to get back down. Sometimes, though, he will set some gear and run the rope through the gear so he can be lowered down and the next climber can then top rope the route. In this case, the climber did neither; instead, he down climbed to the last piece of protection he had placed on the way up, apparently with the expectation that his belayer would then lower him from that point. The belayer, however, was not aware of any of this, having expected that the climber had gone off belay at the anchor. (I think you can see where this is going.)

Dave, my friend, was watching all of this and saw that 1) the belayer had taken the climber off belay and 2) the climber was getting ready to let go of the rock and lean back to be lowered to the ground, which meant that 3) the climber was just about to plunge to his death. At which point Dave shouted at the top of his lungs, “DO NOT LET GO, YOU ARE NOT ON BELAY!

The route this pair was climbing was an overhanging 5.11c, meaning that this was an experienced pair of climbers (5.11c is hard) and that when the climber is on the top half of the route the climber and belayer cannot see each other. The typical exchange when the climber gets to the top and clips into the anchor would be for the climber to shout down, “Off belay” (to let the belayer know that they can take him off belay) and the belayer shouting back up, “Belay is off” to make sure that the climber knows he is on his own. In this case, the climber shouted something down, the belayer thought it was “Off belay”.  The pair thought they had a shared understanding of the situation, but they obviously did not. The climber had broken from the routine, while the belayer was following the routine because she didn’t know of the climber’s change.

Fortunately for this pair, and everyone at the crag that day, Dave’s warning was in time and successful in stopping the climber from letting go and leaning back.

The point?

There is no real definition of what “shared understanding” entails; it’s more of a “know it when you see it” kind of thing. These two stories, hopefully, show what shared understanding might mean in different situations; one being a situation where two people are coming from a different context and one where they are coming from the same context.

Would love to hear some of your stories about shared understanding, or the lack thereof.

 

Arkansas marble and the Boone County Caravan Spring

In the aftermath (afterglow?) of the recent US elections I’ve been giving some thought to discussions about rural America that have been bouncing around. I drove through quite a bit of this ruralness on my way to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch this past weekend for a climbing trip with friends. Don’t worry, I didn’t think too much about all this while we climbing. But we did have some good conversation around the campfire.

On my drive home from the Ranch yesterday I decided to stop at a couple of historical markers along Highway 7. I’ve driven this road several times, and have seen the signs for the markers, but had never stopped before. Here’s what I found.

Arkansas Marble

arkmarbleThe first marker at which I stopped was a commemoration for the Arkansas marble used in the Washington Monument.

This marker commemorates the Arkansas marble in Washington’s Monument, taken by Beller and Harp bros. from this hill in 1836. This marker erected in 1954 by Newton Co. History Society.   W.F. Lackey Pres, Manda Hickman Sec.

A quick Google search (Arkansas marble Washington Monument) returned some great sites and information about the stone, the Washington Monument, and even the roadside marker itself.

Boone County Caravan Spring

boonecocaravan

The other marker at which I stopped on my journey was a commemoration of a much less successful journey from the mid 19th century.

Near this spring, in September 1857, gathered a caravan of 150 men, women and children, who here began the ill-fated journey to California. The entire party, with the exception of seventeen small children, was massacred at Mountain Meadows, Utah, by a body of Mormons disguised as Indians.

A(nother) quick Google search (Boone County Caravan Spring) pulled back this treasure trove of Mountain Meadows Massacre Historical Accounts, among other great resources.

The point

I came across these two markers, commemorating the actions of people just a couple of miles, and a couple of years, apart in what many people would call “the middle of nowhere”.  No real point here except a reminder that there is a lot of history all around us in this big wide country of ours. Not all of it makes it into the history books, but it is all a part of how we got to where we are, and where we are going.