GA WDI Week Five Day Three

“Abstraction is a double-edged sword.” — DT*

Two days ago: “This is Structured Query Language, or SQL. You use it to access relational databases. Here’s how it works; do these exercises to get some practise; make sure you’re familiar with the syntax.”

Today: “This is Active Record. You don’t need to touch SQL now.”

See that? How quickly we went from this-is-important-stuff-you-should-learn to actually-now-that-you-know-how-to-do-it-you-don’t-need-to-do-it? That’s the theme for today, and I get the feeling it will be a recurring theme over the coming weeks. Learn how to do something, then learn how to not have to do it. But the first half is vital. It’s abstraction as a convenience. You can get objects to and fro your database without getting your hands dirty with SQL queries, but without getting them dirty first, you wouldn’t appreciate why or how it’s working.

Of course, there are plenty of situations where it’s either not necessary, or indeed advisable, to know what’s going on backstage. We’re constantly insulating ourselves from the inner workings of our technological advances. I think my favourite answer to the question, “How does the internet work?” is “You don’t need to know.” It’s designed in such a way that it allows the end user to do end-user-y stuff like visit a website or check their email while being insulated from what’s happening behind the curtain. The Wizard’s back there somewhere, resolving that domain name to an IP address. There might be another curtain behind that Wizard. But luckily, you don’t need to know, in much the same way that you can post a letter without knowing how it’s going to get there.

“I am one of these people who are quite happy to wear cotton, but have no idea how it works.” — E. Blackadder

I love that joke. That cotton was once the “modern technology” that people were confused by. But it brings us to the other edge of the sword. Abstraction can insulate you from things you would want to know about if only you knew about them. Cotton is an unlikely good example. I was sent a survey about sustainability today by some of the students from the UX course. I answered as truthfully as I could and as quickly as I could (those database aren’t gonna query themselves) but somewhere in the tail-end of the survey I ticked the places I’d bought clothes from in the last six months. The only answer was Uniqlo. Hmm. What’s that doing in a sustainability survey? Oh, right. Cotton comes from a plant. Clothes are made by people. Ah. Good point. And why did I shop at Uniqlo? It’s cheap. Hmm. How much do I know about where their clothes come from? I guess I don’t. I take your point, survey. I wouldn’t buy $1 coffee from 7-Eleven because it can’t possibly factor in fair wages or conditions for the people growing it. Maybe that applies to more than just coffee.

*DT is our lead instructor, and full of quotable quotes. You’re going to be hearing a lot from him.

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