Abstraction, information, and complexity.

Abstraction is probably the main contributor to the information revolution, but a negative impact on people’s ability to see, understand and deal with complexity.

The information revolution starts with writing. Writing enables to codify with a simpler abstract system of signs (letters) ideas that exist in people head and keep them available to be used in the future. Then this abstraction went one level above when in 1745 Joseph Marie Jacquard introduces a looming machine that used a series of wooden plates with holes that define what will be the outcome of the fabric. This idea later used by Allen Turing to create the concept of the computer as we know it today. Both used the idea of something or nothing to depict much more complex tasks, a higher level of abstraction.

Abstraction is still useful as it simplifies concepts for people. You don’t need to be an expert in running IT systems if you consume software as a service from a vendor. But here’s come the problem, the complexity of providing the basic service (weaving, computing or providing information technologies) doesn’t go away, it actually becomes more complex. The fact that you directly not dealing with this complexity doesn’t mean that it has gone. Someone else needs to deal with this complexity, and you still depend on his ability to deal with the increased complexity because of the abstraction provided to you.

Another problem with abstraction is that it gives people the feeling that we can simplify complexity. Therefore, it’s hard for people to see how complexity builds in their organizations, industry and the business world. The tricky part of the complexity is that it requires different thinking. Methods and tools to deal with it. If this change is missing, using the wrong tool will create damage.

Complexity is a simple concept. It’s the unpredictability of a system because of the autonomy level, diversity, and interdependence of its part. The problem is that complexity is growing in an exponential way and it’s hard to detect when the unpredictability is a real issue. Abstraction is one cause. The false feeling that we can simplify complexity is conflicting with the reality that like energy, complexity doesn’t go anywhere. Actually, based on Ashby’s law, complexity is in infinite reinforce a cycle that increases it all the time.

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