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To find a Buddha, you have to find your nature.
– Bloodstream Sermon

We perceive the world as an abstraction of reality. When we look at a tree, we see a tree, we don’t see all the individal branches and leaves that make it up. Even if we viewed a tree that way, branches and leaves are still abstractions. Even if it were somehow possible to view a tree as all the individual molecules that make it up, that is still an abstraction. There is no escaping abstraction in how we relate to the world.

A monk asked Dongshan Shouchu, “What is Buddha?” Dongshan said, “Three pounds of flax.”
– Zen Koan

The core of Zen Buddhism is trying to see past the abstractions that our minds crave so desperately in order to make sense of reality. There are very few people who find enlightenment because of the power that abstraction holds over our minds. To the enlightened, those who see reality as it is, questions framed in terms of orthodox abstractions make no sense.

This is the fundamental issue that makes creating anything hard. What we create is real, but how we view it is through the lens of abstraction, and there is no escaping this. We generally believe that we conceive at a high level of abstraction and implement at a low(er) level of abstraction. We strive to increase the level of abstraction because we believe this is the way to improve productivity.

Conventional Wisdom

Productivity vs. Abstraction Level: Conventional Wisdom

This turns out not to be entirely true. The closest concrete representation of how we conceive of a design is the written specification. As reviled as it is, this document best represents our intentions at the level of abstraction that we conceive of the design. But, if we look at an average written spec., we find that it encompasses many levels of abstraction. We find:

  • textual descriptions that are written at a very high level of abstraction, “it’s a bus that has a processor, memory controller, and I/O controller sitting on it.”
    • structural, behavioral, data, and temporal abstraction.
  • Block diagrams of major subunits showing how they are connected.
    • unabstracted structure at a high level, structural abstraction of blocks, behavioral, data and temporal abstraction.
  • Equations, code snippets, gate-level diagrams.
    • basically no abstraction.
  • truth tables
    • structural abstraction only
  • waveforms
    • structural abstraction, behavioral abstraction, unabstracted data, time.

and many other levels of abstraction in between. What this indicates is that as we conceive of a design, we jump around to different levels of abstraction as we consider different aspects of the design. And this holds even if we try to move the level of abstraction up. A new abstraction level just adds to the set of abstraction levels that we can use. What this means is that there is a law of diminishing returns as we move up in abstraction.

Law of Diminishing Returns

Productivity vs. Abstraction: Law of Diminishing Returns

Even more importantly, productivity doesn’t increase monotonically as we raise the level of abstraction. Design is the process of translating from the abstractions that we conceive to those required by the implementation. The greater the gap between these, the lower our productivity in implementing the design.

The conventional wisdom that productivity increases as abstraction increases is based on analyzing just two points on the abstaction continuum. If we plot productivity vs. abstraction level, the only points that we really can count on to improve productivity are those that are close to the natural abstractions at which we conceive.

Accounting for Translation from Natural to Implementation Abstraction Level

Productivity vs. Abstraction: Accounting for Translation from Natural to Implementation Abstraction Level

Productivity falls off rapidly as the gap between implementation and conception abstraction levels increases. This is one of the reasons that it has been such a struggle to raise the level of abstraction in design. Finding the right fit that matches how we think at the highest levels of abstraction is exceedingly difficult, but is key if we want to continue to improve productivity by raising the level of abstraction at which we design.


One Comment

  1. Interesting post..

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