abstraction appropriation

Abstractions and the ability to create them are what make us human. Our ability to reason abstractly and symbolically, to represent what we see and do and to capture and utilize knowledge is fundamental to all forms of human progress and communication. And when we think carefully about what role abstractions have played in human society, we see that our ability to reduce the incredible complexities of the world to their essential natures is behind nearly everything we do as humans.

When looking back on recent history, however, it is possible that humanity has made a fundamental shift in its use of abstractions. We have always used abstractions to communicate and talk, to coordinate, to understand nature and build technologies, from weapons to printing presses to computers, to conceptualize the essential nature of nature, and bend it to our wills and desires. Abstractions, I would argue, have been the primary mediators between humanity and nature, besides our bodies. The axe or the hammer are not simply wood and metal, they are instantiations of abstract ideas that humanity has carried from generation to generation. It is only through the idea of a hammer that a hammer can exist.

In just the past century, however, our use of abstractions has evolved. We now regularly use abstractions not only to mediate our relationship to nature, but also to mediate relationships with ourselves and others. Take, for example, the notion of IQ tests. These use of these tests is not simply to assess: the takers of these tests consume the results of the test and use such information to change perceptions of themselves. Or, consider any modern communication medium, such as e-mail or text messaging. These abstract forms of face to face communication mediate, constrain and mold our conversations in very specific ways.

This in itself isn’t problematic. After all, abstractions, by definition, eliminate detail in order to facilitate communication and action, so there are bound to be abstraction failures and mismatch; their inherent minimalism is also what makes abstractions useful, by helping us to manage the complexity of the world.

But there is a more nefarious way in which our use of abstractions may change human behavior: in many situations, we view abstractions not as a means to an end, but an end in themselves. We begin to mistake the abstraction for the thing it represents.

There are several cultural memes that highlight this phenomena. “Gaming the system,” for example, is the idea that someone will exploit properties of a system of rules or policies in order to effect results that violate the intent of the rules; Baker et al. documented this behavior in educational tutoring software, where students would learn the conditions in which the software would provide aid or answers, and do precisely the actions necessary to most quickly acquire the aid or answers.

Other examples are not about exploitation, but pragmatism. For example, students in high schools and universities want to acquire knowledge and skills, but perceive that it is scores, grades, and degrees—our abstractions of learning in modern education—that are truly important, and not the learning itself. The danger here is less at the individual level (as an individual student may overcome this through reflection), and more at a societal and cultural level: over time, it is possible that the abstractions representing knowledge become so institutionalized that society forgets what they were intended to represent.

I see these abstraction appropriate every day when I teach. Just yesterday I had an enjoyable, but disheartening discussion with a couple of students near graduation who were disappointed in their final grades for a course I taught last quarter. Their concern was that the grade points they received, which were one or two tenths lower than the grade points they typically receive, would lower their GPA several hundredths. I assured them I understood their concern, but also pointed out to them that there was probably not a single person who would ever look at that grade, nor the tenths place of their grade, ever again in their lives. One of them mentioned graduate school applications and I insisted, if they were above a 3.7, what would really matter were their letters, publications, and experience, since the number doesn’t really mean much of anything.

This was disappointing to them, to say the least. I reassured them that it was the products of their work, and the experience they had gained in the course, that would be the truly lasting parts of their education, and that the numbers meant nothing. They thanked me for my time and walked away slightly confused, unsure about what other strange quantitative incentive structures might be in store for them post graduation.

Every educator knows what I’m talking about. Every middle manager who’s had to quantify or categorize their employees’ performance knows what I mean. And while these abstractions may help us facilitate decision making, we rarely think about their side effects on human behavior and the larger incentive structures we propagate through society.

Where else do you see the abstraction misappropriation? And what are the consequences of embedding these abstractions in the software throughout our communications and infrastructure? Is all of this just a manifestation of Campbell’s law, or does this idea go beyond social planning? And what is it about human cognition that leads this phenomena, if it is as widespread as it seems?

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