Don’t get it? Abstract it!


As a species, we have this tendency to distance ourselves from that which we don’t fully understand. The more complex an idea, the bigger an abstraction we create.

The simplest example of abstraction is the relationship between the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and the physical mechanics of a computer. Even I can’t specify exactly what that relationship is. Based on the human tendency to function on simplified abstractions, programmers created a way to interact with computers based on ideas the public already understood. That way, we don’t have to wrap our heads around the hardware of the machine itself.


A computer’s “desktop” is modeled after what a normal desktop would look like. Files and icons resemble physical paper and folders that might be strewn atop the desk. Menus act like drawers. Clicking and scrolling are forms of interaction that make us feel like we’re a part of the visual world of the computer – something that is entirely fabricated for the end-user to understand the way their information is stored in the machine.

In Evil Media, Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey point out that even programmers use abstractions to work with computers. Programming languages, interfaces, class libraries, applications, and operating systems are all abstractions of computing technology.

Still, this concept goes further than computing.

Take Bennett’s theory of thing-power. It’s tough to imagine a seemingly inanimate object carrying an energy and acting on its environment. We are beings of movement and action, and because we could never relate to objects that lacked those qualities, we abstracted them into dead, useless “things” at our disposal.

Feelings are another basic abstraction. Brennan’s Transmission of Affect highlights the fact that we don’t fully understand what the energy of affect is nor do we comprehend the process by which it actually moves from person to person and spreads. What have we done? We’ve abstracted that transmitted energy into compartmentalized “feelings” that can be labeled, shared, and understood to a degree without fully understanding the causality.


So, what about death? The idea of an afterlife is certainly an abstraction of death. We can comprehend a change in residence. We can vaguely comprehend a shift from the material world to an immaterial plane. Yet, we still have to deal with dead bodies.

I believe cemeteries are also an abstraction of death. The dead are hidden to rot in silence, and the living have statues and commemorative engravings to provide comfort in times of loss. Regardless if cemeteries garner much attention, they are always there.

The Marble Cemetery on 2nd Street provides subliminal comfort to those that pass it daily, regardless of whether or not they have a loved one buried in the plot. Cemeteries represent a place to go when one departs for that place unknown at the end of a life. They are quiet reminders that we will be taken care of when we face the scariest part of our existence.

It’s interesting that, because we can’t understand a process, we cope with it by skewing it. There is debate over whether this is a dangerous thing to do. There are circumstances – like abstracting death – which do more good than harm, and help the majority of us hold onto our sanity.

However, in terms of modern computing, failing to understand the logistics could pose a major threat. The NSA Revelations are a perfect time to consider leaving the abstraction of computing technology by the wayside and picking up a copy of Computer Science for Dummies.

Unless you feel like you have nothing to hide.

– Madison Neufeld

~ by Madison on November 20, 2013.