Abstraction Imperils Empiricism

We live in a world of abstractions built on abstractions. These simulations take us further from reality and make empirical verification increasingly difficult.

Folksonomies: abstraction empiricism

Abstractions Turned Obfuscations

There is an old saying in Silicon Valley, “There is the first 80% and the second 80%.” While it is really hard to create new technologies, it is also really hard to implement them for any measurable advantage. This has always been true: The steam engine didn’t matter until it was put into a ship and locomotive; the Wright brothers’ flight didn’t matter until it moved people; electricity needed to be delivered to the home; and telephony didn’t matter until there was a connection. However, the connection between invention and implementation used to be more obvious.

In the 1970s, complexity in technology reached a point that it wasn’t possible to move forward without abstractions. I was taught the beauty of abstractions as an electrical and computer engineer. Doped silicon where you are solving physics equations suddenly become transistors where you are dealing with 0s and 1s suddenly become chips where you are issuing instructions, then computers where you are writing code, and then user interfaces where you are clicking. It was a great way to deal with overwhelming complexity. The abstractions made it all manageable.

But now the abstractions are getting in the way.

We have converged on a world where the people who do the first 80% have no competency or interest in doing the second 80%. The SaaS industry is a frequent target of the Great Stagnation because it is chasing high margins rather than high value outcomes - which, to be fair, is a rational response to a punitive capital landscape that penalizes companies for deviating from a specific set of metrics. And it’s not just SaaS. The Defense Industrial Base underwent a financialization in the 1990s where the focus shifted to dividends and buybacks rather than innovation. I could go on. Lacking the incentives to allocate resources towards implementation, companies instead create an abstraction to define the “right” way to do something.

But when the abstraction isn’t tethered to empirical results or anything measurable and falsifiable, the abstraction is just an obfuscation, a cargo cult ritual.


Folksonomies: abstraction technology empiricism


Don't Let the Simulation's Beauty Convince You It's Real

The architecture faculty who designed Project Athena’s Garden dreamed of transparent understanding of design process; today scientists are reconciled to opacity and seeing only a CAVE’s shadows. Over the past twenty years, simulation has introduced its dazzling environments and we have been witness to our own seduction. A mechanical engineer instructs his students: “Don’t be fooled by the graphics.”17 Luft says that beautiful codes promote the “illusion of doing really great science.” Kinney teaches “human supervisory control” to inoculate students against the ?ashy colors and confusing styles of air tra;c control displays. When simulation pretends to the real, buildings look >nished before they have been fully designed and scientists >nd no fault in “impossible” molecules that could only exist on a screen. Computer precision is wrongly taken for perfection. The fantasy, visceral in nature, is that computers serve as a guarantor, a “correction machine.” Kinney puts it this way: “As technology becomes more and more sexy, the problem is that we get lured into it, the seduction, and we actually come up with what we think are good displays but actually they’re bad.”


Folksonomies: abstraction simulation