Critical Complexity

Here’s a task for you: draw a circle radius three around the origin.

What system do you use? Well, you could use an intuitive system like Piaget’s turtle. Walk out three, turn ninety degrees, and then walk forward while turning inward. By identifying as a specific agent, you take advantage of having a brain that evolved to control a body. If it doesn’t seem intuitive, that’s because you’ve been trained to use other systems. Your familiarity is trumping what comes naturally, at least to children.

You’re probably thinking in Cartesian coordinates. You may even recall that x^2 + y^2 = 3^2 will give you the circle I asked for. But that’s only because you memorized it. Why this formula? It’s not obvious that it should be a circle. It doesn’t feel very circular, unless you fully understand the abstraction beneath it (in this case, the Pythagorean theorem) and how it applies to the situation.

Turtle geometry intuitively fits the human, but it’s limited and naive. Cartesian geometry accurately fits your monitor or graph paper, the technology, but it’s an awkward way to express circles. So let’s do something different. In polar coordinates, all we have to say is r=3 and we’re done. It’s not a compromise between the human and the technology, it’s an abstraction – doing something more elegant and concise than either native form. Human and technology alike  stretch to accommodate the new representation. Abstractions aren’t fuzzy and amorphous. Abstractions are crisp, and stacked on top of each other, like new shirts in a store.

We’ve invented notation that, for this problem, compresses the task as much as possible. The radius is specified; the fact that it’s a circle centered around the origin are implicit in the conventional meaning of r and the lack of other information. It’s been maximally compressed (related technical term: Kolmogorov complexity).

Compression is one of the best tools we have for fighting complexity. By definition, compression hides the meaningless while showing the meaningful. It’s a continuous spectrum, on which sits a point I’ll call critical complexity. Critical complexity is the threshold above which a significant abstraction infrastructure is necessary. But that definition doesn’t mean much to you — yet.

Think of knowledge as terrain. To get somewhere, we build roads, which in our metaphor are abstraction. Roads connect to each other, and take us to new places. It was trivial to abstract Cartesian coordinates into polar by means of conversions. This is like building a road, with one end connecting to the existing street grid and another ending somewhere new. It’s trivial to represent a circle in polar coordinates. This is what we do at the newly accessible location. We’ve broken a non-trivial problem into two trivial pieces – although it wasn’t a particularly hard problem, as otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to do that.

Delivering these words to your machine is a hard problem. You’re probably using a webbrowser, which is written in software code, which is running on digital electronics, which are derived from analog electronics obeying Maxwell’s equations, and so on. But the great thing about abstractions is that you only need to understand the topmost one. You can work in polar coordinates without converting back to Cartesian, and you can use a computer without obtaining multiple engineering degrees first. You can build your own network of roads about how to operate a computer, disconnected from your road network about physics.

Or perhaps not disconnected, but connected by a tunnel through the mountain of what you don’t understand. A tunnel is a way to bypass ignorance to learn about other things based on knowledge you don’t have, but don’t need. Of course, someone knows those things – they’ve laboriously built roads over the mountain so that you can cruise under it. These people, known as scientists and engineers, slice hard problems into many layers of smaller ones. A hard problem may have so many layers that, even if each is trivial on its own, they are non-trivial collectively. That said, some problems are easier than they look because our own sensemaking abstractions blind us.

If you want to write an analog clock in JavaScript, your best bet is to configure someone else’s framework. That is, you say you want a gray clockface and a red second hand, and the framework magically does it. The user, hardly a designer, is reduced to muttering incantations at a black box hoping the spell will work as expected. Inside the box is some 200 lines or more, most of it spent on things not at all related to the high-level description of an analog clock. The resulting clock is a cul-de-sac at the end of a tunnel, overlooking a precipice.

By contrast, the nascent Elm language provides a demo of the analog clock. Its eight lines of code effectively define the Kolmogorov complexity: each operation is significant. Almost every word or number defines part of the dynamic drawing in some way. To the programmer, the result is liberating. If you want to change the color of the clockface, you don’t have to ask the permission of a framework designer, you just do it. The abstractions implicit in Elm have pushed analog clocks under the critical complexity, which is the point above which you need to build a tunnel.

There’s still a tunnel involved, though: the compiler written in Haskell that converts Elm to JavaScript. But this tunnel is already behind us when we set out to make an analog clock. Moreover, this tunnel leads to open terrain where we can build many roads and reach many places, rather than the single destination offered by the framework. What’s important isn’t the avoidance of tunnels, but of tunnels to nowhere. Each abstraction should have a purpose, which is to open up new terrain where abstractions are not needed, because getting around is trivial.

However, the notion of what’s trivial is subjective. It’s not always clear what’s a road and what’s a tunnel. Familiarity certainly makes any abstraction seem simpler. Though we gain a better grasp on an abstraction by becoming familiar with it, we also lose sight of the underlying objective nature of abstractions: some are more intuitive or more powerful than others. Familiarity can be born both by understanding where an idea comes from and how it relates to others, and by practicing using the idea on its own. I suspect that better than either one is both together. With familiarity comes automaticity, where we can quickly answer questions by relying on intuition, because we’ve seen them or something similar before. But depending on the abstraction, familiarity can mean never discarding naïveté (turtle), contorting into awkward mental poses (Cartesian) – or achieving something truly elegant and powerful.

It’s tempting to decry weak or crippling abstractions, but they too serve a purpose. Like the fancy algorithms that are slow when n is small, fancy abstractions are unnecessary for simple problems. Yes, one should practice using them on simple problems as to have familiarity when moving into hard ones. But before that, one needs to see for oneself the morass weak or inappropriately-chosen abstractions create. Powerful abstractions, I am increasingly convinced, cannot be be constructed on virgin mental terrain. For each individual, they must emerge from the ashes of an inferior system that provides both experience and motivation to build something stronger.

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