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Marc Barclay
Mrs. Lindgren
Creative Writing - 2
22 February 2016
The Relevance of Abstractions
WARNING: contains manipulative writing technique probably unfit for a meditative essay
unless it qualifies as risk allowed through artistic liberty. I hope it qualifies.
When Ole Kirk Christiansen’s toy company started making “Automatic Binding Bricks,”
he probably never imagined that his endeavors would greatly affect the ingenuity and innovation
of millions of children around the world. Years later, his company, Lego, would become one of
the world’s largest toy companies, its product being a startlingly simple idea: the stackable,
interlocking block.
As a child, Lego has done much to teach me and my peers about creativity and
construction. While Lego kits exist for building houses, spaceships, and elements from movies
such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars, most people I know enjoyed Lego in a more original sense.
They would create their own contraptions, gadgets, and designs, their minifigures adventuring
through handcrafted terrain made from red and blue blocks interspersed with flashes of other
colors or textures. The idea that one could take a collection of very simple objects and combine
those objects to form another larger, more complex object, which in turn might form a piece of
yet another, larger object, is easy to understand, but it has huge ramifications.
This quality of block stacking is known as abstraction. Be very prepared to have me use
various forms of this word extensively. They will appear exactly 40 times in this work. You have
been warned. WAIT! Do not put down this paper. Don’t do it. Good, you’re still reading, so I

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take it we’ve reached an agreement. Yes, I’m talking to you directly, through this essay, making
perhaps the most obnoxious, unfitting, and appalling display of a fourth wall break that has ever
graced this planet, and for absolutely no reason. Now you, my reader, should be properly
hooked. Do continue. A very simple way of understanding abstractions is to realize that they are
just levels. That’s it. Levels. Now, the interesting thing about these levels is that they relate to
each other in special ways, namely that upper levels mask lower levels. Lower levels might have
attributes or functionality that shows through or affects the higher levels, but higher levels do not
necessarily reveal exactly what happens at lower levels, rather, they might exhibit behavior that
is a result of the lower levels, but appear as it’s own behavior. When my peers created elaborate
scenes of space ships engaging in space dogfights, the abstraction occurred where those scenes
were made up of spaceships and planets, which were made up of spaceship parts and large
spheres, which were made up of Lego blocks. Do not skip the next paragraph.
Fortunately, thanks to modern science, we have access to one of the world’s greatest
examples of a chain of abstractions: matter. Take the human body, for instance. Our body is made
up of organs and various structures, which can be visualized as a level, and when you “go down”
a level, you reach the cellular level, where everything is constructed of trillions of cells. Cells
have their own behavior and jobs; a liver cell’s behavior might be to duplicate rapidly, while the
liver organ’s behavior is to regenerate. Of course, this regeneration of the liver is the result of the
duplication of cells at the lower level of abstraction. Moving down the chain, cells are made of of
various compounds, solutions, molecules, and other chemicals, each of which has its own
properties that determine how it acts and how it reacts. Each of those chemicals is fundamentally
composed of atoms of various elements. Now, it is possible to break atoms down into protons,
neutrons, and electrons, but as for now, the atom shall suffice. I could have just stated that the

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human body is composed of lots and lots of atoms, and that would have been completely correct,
but doing so would ignore all of the levels in between, or, in other words, the abstractions. If you
are this far, thank you for following my directions. You will be rewarded with insight and the
ability to stare at walls for fifteen minutes after taking the standardized test of your choice,
pondering the inner workings of the company that produced the drywall that makes up the walls
of the rooms of the building of the institution of which you are sitting inside pondering the
drywall company. Heh.
What makes abstractions so wonderful is that they can be found anywhere where systems
exist, for more often than not, those systems make up larger systems and are made from smaller
systems. There are entire fields dedicated to the study of systems, one of them being cybernetics,
which depending on how it’s defined, can mean the study of systems that feed back onto
themselves. What are some systems that you encounter everyday and that impact your life? The
school system employs a number of abstractions, one example being the grade letter: an
abstraction of the percentage number of one’s score being an abstraction of one’s performance.
Athletes cannot escape the abstract hold either. Soccer is built from a ball, two goals, some
people, and very simple rules, and yet, there are a number of plays and strategies built on top of
those rules that I assume teams make use of. I mean, seriously, what the hell do I know about
soccer? I’m sure you could probably find layers and levels in whatever sport you do or do not
play. In fact, I want you to take exactly nine seconds right now to ponder just that. No cheating.
How about the society in which you live. Society is more riddled with abstraction than FIFA was
riddled with corruption back in 2015 (Okay, that’s one thing I know about soccer). For one,
society has a number of systems, behaviors, concepts, and rules that it employs and enforces to
varying degree. Money is a physical, or these days digital, abstraction of value, and financial

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concepts such as investments, loans, and inflation are abstractions built on top of money. Here’s
a thought experiment: a stranger walks up to you in a mall, blinding you with their larger-thanlife smile, grabbing your hand and constricting its blood flow while gyrating it vigorously, all to
exclaim that it’s a pleasure to see you again. You don’t recognize them. Maybe their eyes were
too bright with excitement. Perhaps their handshake was overly enthusiastic. Possibly their tone
of voice just seemed a bit off. You return the formality, exclaim that you really must be going,
and make a beeline towards the exit. Congratulations, you just used abstractions to navigate a
simple social interaction. Your feelings of discomfort were built upon their overall demeanor,
which was built from their speech patterns and nonverbal actions, which were built from
potentially a malicious motive or goal. As a society, we have a myriad of abstractions,
interlocking, each with their own sets of rules for each level, and if one takes a minute to sit and
examine this whole fiasco, they can discover that it’s turtles all the way down.
I realize that this discussion is dragging on, and you are probably seeking an intermission.
You will just have to wait. Sorry, not sorry. Though I don’t wish to beat a dead horse, I feel it is
necessary to share with you, my dear reader, possibly the most emotionally touching and
beautiful of all abstractions. A wife telegrams her husband in 1879 to tell him that they are
expecting. Let us expand this. A telegraph is a simple mechanical device that the human operator
clicks, each click sending an electrical signal down a wire. That wire can lead anywhere, another
city, a foreign country, maybe even the next town over, but almost instantly, the electricity
reaches the end of the telegraph, where it repeats the clicking patterns entered by the first
operator. This time, a second operator listens to those clicks, which are in Morse code, and
translates them into English, writing or typing them to send to the recipient, in this case the
spouse. So ultimately, the binary pulses of electric current turn into clicks, which are translated

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into letters, making up words and sentences that, when read, make the newly expecting father the
happiest that he has ever been in his life. That short blips of electricity can add up to represent
the most immense human joy clearly demonstrates the power of abstraction, and it is perhaps the
most wonderful usage applied to this concept.
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Due to their encapsulated nature, abstractions exhibit a number of interesting properties
that can be harnessed and used. A major usage is simplification. Drawing back to our previous
physics example, one might surmise that a chemist could take into account the already known
characteristics of a specific compound rather than painstakingly calculating the behaviors of each
individual atom and predicting outcomes from elemental properties and their positions within the
molecule. While I am sure the latter is done on occasion when necessary, the vast majority of the
time, chemists and everyone else deal with simplifications of complicated systems when
interacting with them. This is used more extensively in technology than perhaps any other area;
in fact, one could argue that abstractions are the foundation of computer science itself, to some
degree. As such, programmers are constantly utilizing the benefits of abstraction when crafting
code, both intentionally and unknowingly (I’m looking at you, Javascript). Say one were to write
a website where people clicked on buttons and typed in boxes. This should sound very familiar,
as it describes around 99% percent of all sites on the web. Even though they could code each
individual button and box separately, telling the web browser to draw lines here and color in
spaces there on the screen, that would be a lot of work and take up a lot of unnecessary space.
Instead, one would code a button and box “object” that does all of that for them, and where they
would normally have to retype all of the code each time to place another silly button, they would

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instead just type “place_button()” or something wherever they wanted one, and the button object
would fill in the rest for them. That object is an abstraction. A seasoned developer might use
what is called a “library,” which is just a file containing objects and other abstractions coded by
other programmers so that they are able to make their own buttons without having to program
each one themselves, in the same way that most people buy cake mix instead of growing their
own wheat, sugar, and milk. I want you to think of an object that you use frequently that is
simple on the outside and complicated on the inside. How do you use it? How does it actually
work? How you use an object is often times an abstraction of what actually happens when an
object is used.
You are now a top secret government contractor, and having been just hired by the FBI,
you need to prove yourself trustworthy and fit to enter their headquarters. For this, the FBI issues
you a series of tests and assessments, as well as a background check, and for the next week, you
are bogged down in paperwork. Handing in your paperwork, the Bureau accepts you, and you go
to somewhere pick up a special card saying you are allowed in the building. Can you spot the
abstraction? That’s right, my intrepid reader, it’s the special card! Rather than having you take all
of those tests again and perform another background check, the card alerts the guards at the door
that you have already completed the necessary requirements and are fit to enter. That card not
only simplifies protocol, it also adds a level of “access control,” serving to control whether or not
you can access the building. This form of abstraction is similar to a flag; it simplifies a bunch of
lower-level, complicated details while at the same time sending a message, which determines
what is to happen. Movie tickets, passwords, and language itself are real life examples of this
phenomenon, as they are assigned a higher level meaning that controls or represents the actions
or abilities of another.

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It is dizzying to dwell for too long a duration about abstractions, however, as divisions of
ideas and objects develop downwards, extending towards more levels of infinite complexity.
They control much of our lives, and yet we continue to create more and more of them, layering
abstraction on top of abstraction until often times we cannot see the bottom. This is not always a
bad thing, but as it is said, one compromises control when simplifying. How ironic then, that
abstractions often take just as much or more power away from those they are meant to empower.
Supermarkets abstract the farming process away from the common citizen, easing society’s
ability to eat, but at a cost of less control over the food production itself. Have you ever tinkered
with the parts of a car underneath the hood, and if so, what percentage of people you know have
done the same? Do you need to be able to understand the inter-workings of the engine in order to
press a pedal or steer a wheel? Apple tightly bundles its clean, robust operating system, OSX,
with its sleek, aluminum hardware, but as an enterprising user might notice, disassembly of a
Macbook is no simple feat. Even OSX, with its intuitive, usable interface and solid, consistent
performance, limits the majority of users, who are unwilling to hack the system around in order
to have full power over their machine. Again, this is not a black and white issue; abstractions
always introduce compromise. In many ways, one’s usage of an abstraction is enhanced by
knowing about the lower level layers however. I would be willing to guess that most farmers
could do a better job picking out quality groceries than I could. Certainly an understanding of the
human body and its muscles assists an athlete in training and performing. If all of this is true,
then I wonder what is accomplished through an understanding of abstractions themselves.
Being able to understand high level concepts like abstractions is part of what makes
humanity so successful. That we as an organism can not only notice patterns, but invent our own
patterns that classify and describe other patterns has had tremendous consequences, affecting

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how humans think, create, and act. On a less grand scale, the ability to manipulate one’s own
world by recognizing abstractions is a crucial skill that we not only discover for ourselves, but
are taught by others. Adding layers to things that otherwise do not need them is “so Homo
Sapiens,” and we as individuals and as a group both benefit and hinder ourselves by doing so.
Interestingly enough, although we process these abstract ideas mentally, it often takes concrete
examples and objects in order to learn about those same ideas or teach them to others. This
comes back to the old paradox of trying to explain colors to a child born blind. We know what
red is because our parents showed us fire trucks, stop signs, and strawberries, and they told us
that all of them were red, not ever once bothering to further explain themselves. We understand
that what we see when light with a wavelength of 650 nanometers hits our eye, our brain
abstracts that signal as an idea equal to the color of our own blood. We learn through example to
understand these ideas and utilize them to our advantage. Perhaps the greatest toys are those
designed to be manipulated, to be explored, to be put together, and to be broken, teaching us with
each Lego car how to not only create new ideas, and by extension abstractions, but also navigate
and wield those which already exist.