Social Abstraction

How Society’s Abstractions Make Individuals Free

Let me begin with a brief aside on the concept of abstraction.

The idea of abstraction might seem a bit vague or fuzzy, perhaps abstract. In fact, the concept of abstraction is quite concrete. It means hiding unnecessary details.

I first learned about abstraction when my high school computer science teacher introduced me to programming. The forebears of computer programming wrote low-level machine code, manipulating the 1s and 0s in the language of the computer. Modern-day programming, though, was high-level programming. We no longer program the individual bits; rather, we program in a language roughly resembling English. To add two numbers together, all we have to do is press the “+” key, and the computer takes care of the hard parts, manipulating the actual bits in its memory to calculate the sum. Freed from having to worry about the machine code, the programmer can add many numbers together almost as easily as adding just two numbers.

Once I began to understand abstraction, I started to see it everywhere. Addition is just an abstraction of counting. The sum 4+4 could be represented by tally marks, |||| + ||||, which equals ||||||||. This is how addition works for learners counting on their fingers. But counting much higher than 10 on fingers is burdensome.

Multiplication is an abstraction of addition. If a school has 10 classrooms of 30 students, how many students does it have? Addition works fine, just add 30+30+30+30+30+30+30+30+30+30. Burdensome? Now try 10*30 = 300. Easier?

It can be taken further. Exponents are themselves an abstraction of multiplication. When I get dressed in the morning, I have 4 shirts, 4 pairs of pants, 4 pairs of socks, 4 pairs of shoes, and 4 neckties. How many different outfits can I wear? Multiplication works fine: 4*4*4*4*4. But exponents work better: 4⁵ = 1,024 different outfits.

Abstraction doesn’t just happen in math. When a painter wants to add color to a canvas, she only needs three colors: red, blue, and yellow — the primary colors. With these three colors, she can make any other color she wants. But imagine the tedious effort required if, every time she wanted something that resembled purple, she had to combine red and blue in the perfect proportions. Madness! Instead, she can abstract away the unnecessary detail of combining red and blue by mixing the colors just once, calling the mixture “purple,” and then using it as its own color. In fact, she can buy any number of premixed colors. To her, the exact proportions of red, blue, and yellow in each paint are unnecessary details; freed from having to perfectly mix her primary colors before every stroke, the painter can focus on the high level work of her composition.

Now to my point: civilization is itself an exercise in abstraction.

Pre-agricultural societies focused on finding and securing food. This detail mattered, and it mattered to everyone. Whether they were hunting or gathering, every member of society spent hours a day acquiring food. But the advent of agriculture gave humans at the dawn of history their first stable nutritional surplus that could support a growing population. With every adult no longer required to find or produce food, they could spend time developing writing systems, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, and theater. For everyone not involved in agriculture, knowing how to make food was an unnecessary detail. Civilization abstracted away the common problem of procuring food, freeing everyone else to create, construct, and calculate.

The urban societies that developed in the first civilizations faced new problems, though, that their ancestors never had. Better said: they faced new problems that their ancestors couldn’t have. Yet, with each new shared problem, they found a shared solution, lifting everyone one up together:

  • To protect the thousands of people living in close proximity, civilization abstracted security by building fences and fires, shelter and shade.
  • To quench the thirst of citizens and crops, civilization abstracted the water supply by building aqueducts and canals.
  • To keep a growing city clean, civilization abstracted sanitation by building sewage systems and garbage collection.
  • To connect people within and between cities, civilization abstracted travel by building roads, bridges, and tunnels.

In each case, the solution didn’t simply solve the problem for everyone; it freed them from having to worry about how to solve the problem. The placement of fortress towers, the arches in the aqueduct, the layout of the sewage pipes, the brick pattern in the roads: for everyone not directly involved in their construction, these were unnecessary details. Everyone else could drink and travel and sleep easy at night without thinking about the details. In the process, every member of society benefited, from the highest prince to the lowest pauper.

As time wore on, the abstractions built up. Not all of them were technological, though. Many were deeply social. Individuals needed a place to congregate, but if there were no meeting grounds, every pair or group would be forced to create its own space. So civilization abstracted away this problem, freeing citizens from the isolating effects of a stratified economy by creating public squares, temples, and stadiums for communal gatherings, worship, and enjoyment.

Another pernicious problem found its way into every civilization — how to determine value in an exchange. Each individual was forced to calculate, and agree on, the exchange rate between every pair of goods. Chickens for goats? Beads for logs? Eggs for axes? Madness! So civilization abstracted the unit of value by creating money. Once they had a common currency, citizens no longer had to worry about the details of every pairwise exchange. Every good had a price, and that price determined the exchange rate with every other good.

As civilizations rose in power, influence, and size, citizens began to face the biggest problem yet: how to be heard by government. So when ignored by insensitive, callous, and unlistening rulers, civilizations built democracy. They abstracted away the common problem — how each citizen could make his or her voice heard — by building a system that listened to every citizen equally. No longer did each individual have to worry about the details of how to get the king, czar, pharaoh, or emperor to listen. They created what may have been the most powerful abstraction yet: the vote.

Modern civilizations face the same driving force that ancient civilizations faced: how to build an ever freer society by getting to the next level of abstraction. At each new level, we face new and shared problems that were nonexistent or impossible at lower levels. It is only by solving the common problems at this level that we can ever hope to get to the next.

Right now, we are on the brink of the next communal abstraction, grappling with mutual problems as we shape the 21st century. We wonder whether our children will get the education they need to succeed, what our jobs will look like in ten years, and how our parents will receive the care they require as they age.

This framework provides two clear principles for how to move forward.

  1. We cannot lose any of the lower levels of abstraction. As the tower of abstraction is built, every floor supports all the ones above it. It might seem like we should never take advances like running water, electricity, or indoor plumbing for granted. However, we must take them for granted. It is only by no longer having to worry about the lower levels of abstraction that they are truly abstract, truly unnecessary details. “Losing” a layer of abstraction means making those details necessary again. We cannot step down if we wish to keep climbing.
  2. To continue advancing, we must seek permanent solutions to our current problems that allow us to take those solutions for granted in the future.

What do these two principles mean in practice? The first means we can’t let our foundations erode. It means we can’t let our infrastructure crumble — every broken bridge, severed sewer pipe, and decaying dam is a step down the ladder of abstraction for a neighborhood or city somewhere. It means we can’t let our civic society disappear — every disbanded book club, canceled church gathering, and shuttered extracurricular activity is a slip down the stairwell of abstraction for those readers, churchgoers, and schoolkids deprived of social engagement. And it means we can’t let the right to vote elude any voter. Every impediment to the polls is a kick out the window of the tower of abstraction for those unable to vote.

The second principle means we must no longer treat a hundred million individual problems as individual problems. Doing so traps everyone together, unable to reach the next level of abstraction.

If a hundred million people seek access to healthcare, they are stifled from reaching the next level because they must focus on necessary details. When healthcare is either too expensive or the coverage too limited, it means people spend far too much time dealing with the how to get healthcare. That prevents them from starting a family or a business with the comfort that sickness won’t lead to poverty. We solve healthcare by making it an unnecessary detail.

If a hundred million people spend countless hours deciphering an undecipherable tax code, they are stymied from reaching the next level because they must focus on the details. Whether that means navigating a complex web of rules, or spending time and money leaping through loopholes, a complicated tax code traps people in wasteful details. We solve the tax code by making the payment of taxes an unnecessary detail of citizenship and business.

On one hand, this philosophy is traditionally liberal.

It calls for strong labor unions, so millions of voiceless workers can have a voice. When a hundred million individual employees wage lonesome battles with their employers, those employees’ productivity and well-being are damaged. A collective voice that speaks for workers, and exists on an equal footing with employers, frees workers everywhere from worry that their rights are in danger.

It calls for high-quality public education for all. A hundred million people face the dilemma of upending their lives to get their children the best education possible—either by moving to new school zones or spending small fortunes on private schools — or giving up entirely on ill-equipped teachers and underfunded programs. A solid public education system means the decision to raise a family doesn’t hinge on the quality of the local school zone. And public education doesn’t just mean K-12. It means daycare, preschool, college, vocational school, and adult education. How can we hope to have a land of opportunity without exposing everyone to those opportunities?

On the other hand, this philosophy is traditionally conservative.

It calls for a strong defense and a strong police force. When a hundred million people fear for their safety, they are no longer free. But when a hundred million people fear the police, they are no longer free.

It calls for robust religious institutions, which provide the moral instruction, community, and belonging that humans everywhere seek. But having robust religious institutions means tolerance for and coexistence with other religions. When the name of any religion is desecrated, or anyone is discriminated against for their nondiscriminating religious views, no one is truly free.

It calls for fierce individualism. Every man, woman, and child deserves to be his or her unique self, with the opportunity to create, make mistakes, and flourish. But when every man, woman, and child faces the same obstacle to opportunity, they will never be truly free until those obstacles are collectively removed.

What is at the next level of abstraction? A step closer to freedom. Abstraction frees us from the burden of unnecessary details. Multiplication frees the student from repetitive addition. Pre-mixed paint frees the painter to focus on the composition. Faucets, toilets, electricity, phones, roads, temples, elections — they free us. Advancing our society means building up ever-more-powerful abstractions. By doing so, we free ourselves to gather, to love, to learn, and to explore our communities, or countries, and our world.

Yesterday’s solutions are the foundation for today’s freedom. Today’s solutions will be the foudation for tomorrow’s freedom.