Our mental capacity is limited. There are only so many things you can see, so many things you can hear, so many thoughts you can think, so many ideas you can have, so many people you can remember, so big a family you can manage, so complex a system you can understand all of — at any moment.
The things we have to deal with, understand and make decisions about every day outstrip our capacity. We are limited in bandwidth. The bounds Shannon discovered for signal processing and communication systems apply every bit to us.
We are signal processors and communicators
But evolution has given us tools to overcome our limited capacity, similar to the tools we’ve built to overcome the limited capacity of our communications and storage systems — a kind of compression. We find ways to cram more information into less space, less concepts, less words, less ideas, less Dunbar slots. This is essentially the purpose of abstraction (generalizing).
Think of a table you’ve sat at today. There are infinitely many tables. But we don’t have to learn that every new variation of a table that we see is a table. “Table” the abstraction subsumes all actual tables. Every real table is compressed into the “table” in our brains so we can recognize all tables as being tables without having to maintain an infinitely large catalog of objects, each separately labeled as “table”. The world of tables isn’t simple and continuous. But our abstract “table” is.
Think of google maps. It gives us a model of the world sufficiently granular to get us from point A to point B, assuming the world hasn’t changed too much since when that picture was built.
If we only ever learn to navigate from the map, we may not be able to deal with a world that’s changed in big (or even small) ways from the map. Or with a world that changes faster than the map does. Or with a world that’s simply different when you’re on the ground dealing with the actual terrain. Our interface with the world is often at the wrong level of abstraction.
Our interface with the world is often wrong
Treating abstractions as if they are the real world works fine until the real world does not conform to the model. What do we do then? If we’ve only ever interacted with the model and never learned the ways in which the world regularly deviates — the range of ways in which it can deviate — from our maps, we’re at a loss. Like the stereotypes and biases we rely on when thinking about people of different ethnicities and backgrounds that don’t at all apply to any given person we meet. Which happens. It always happens. It always will.
When we encounter a new table, we don’t hesitate to adapt how we behave to fit its specific dimensions, placement, etc. It’s clear that trying to let go of the coffee cup at four feet in the air when the table tops out at two feet won’t end well. That is, we actually observe the characteristics of the new thing and treat it according to its real properties — and not those of some idealized abstract table.
Being able to not only create abstractions out of things, but then also treating each individual thing — from the systems we create to the people we encounter — according to their distinct character is thecore skill (and challenge) for the world we’ve created.