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Abstraction

Posted on 10 July 2017 by James Cowan in General Semantics

In my previous blog about General Semantics (see "Jargon 2: All in the ear of the beholder", 18 February 2017), I touched briefly on the topic of abstraction. The idea that in most cases we are only talking about certain aspects of something, not the whole thing. Thus, depending on your topic, you may want to talk about a cow as a heavy animal which damages damp pasture by walking upon it. Or as an animal which can generate milk from grass. Or as a (generally) docile, friendly and inquisitive beast. Or a dangerous animal if you get between her and her calf. So it is important that your audience is clear about which cow you are talking about when you are defining it in limited terms. Even if you are using the same language as they, confusions can easily arise. Which, as I mentioned in my earlier article on General Semantics, is whence the development of the science originated.

Like many in the computing trade, I have long been addicted to the art of Sudoku. When you are solving a Sudoku puzzle, you are attempting to place a number in a row, column or square, according to the rules that every row, column or 3×3 square must (ultimately) contain all the digits from one to nine - and there must be only one instance of each digit in each row, column or square. Simple. The first, unwritten, rule is that you can only put a number into an otherwise empty cell. So the abstractions to be applied are (1) to test that there is an empty cell in this group (row, etc.); (2) whether there is already an instance of this digit in the 9×9 square, and if not (3) whether there is already an instance of the digit in the row through that cell, and if none of the above (4) whether there is already an instance of the digit in the column through that cell. And if the answers are respectively "yes", "no", "no" and "no", and this is the only location in which the digit may be placed, then write the digit into the cell. But note that throughout this process, it is not important what other numbers are in the relevant row, column and 3×3 square. The abstraction that has to be applied is (a) to find an empty cell and (b) to find an empty cell that is not connected to any other cell with the relevant digit in it.

In my past life I was drawing flow charts and other pretty pictures of processes in a business, with a view to improving them, and my boss and I had a different view of what should be included in the diagrams. In one case I was trying to improve the expenses reimbursement process, so my view of the business was limited to the players who were concerned - essentially, the accounts team and the person wanting a taxi fare paid. The boss demanded that I show the "global view" of the business, including all the departments and the external suppliers and customers. We had a number of spirited discussions about this, and I think I finally convinced him, but it was all a misunderstanding of what the abstraction was that I had applied to the whole business to concentrate on this one small process. My fault, I suppose (now!) for not making it unequivocally clear from the outset. (Diagrams are a little difficult to use to explain an abstraction, I say in my own defence …)

The process of abstracting is fundamental in communication - as long as everybody involved understands the abstraction being applied!


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