Don't be afraid to move down the ladder of abstraction

In programming, there's an idea that's often called the ladder of abstraction. When you approach a problem, you can understand small bits of it and then put those together into larger pieces. By thinking about the problem with these larger pieces, you can get a better idea of what's going on.

A piece of advice that's often given is to move up the ladder of abstraction. Build a tool or function that does a low level thing, then just use that instead of looking at the lower level again. When you're starting from scratch on a project. This is a great idea. Using the ladder of abstraction allows you to quickly build things that work well, without having to keep solving the same problems over and over again.

However, there are times that it makes total sense to move down the ladder of abstraction, and look at what's going on as concretely as possible. This is especially true if you're debugging, and trying to fix something that's broken. Higher levels of abstraction obscure what's actually happening, which makes it difficult to isolate a problem so it can be fixed.

That's not to say that bugs should always be hunted in the weeds. Moving up the ladder of abstraction can help you to find out which particular component of a larger system is the source of the problem. Once that's been determined, you'll have to be more concrete with that component in order to solve the problem.

I also think this kind of model is good for solving more than programming problems. I've successfully used the idea of changing levels of abstraction to solve software bugs, fix hardware errors, and figure out how to deal with socially difficult situations. I would expect the idea to also work well in the softer sciences, like politics, but it seems like people often get stuck in at one level in those areas.

I sometimes have conversations with people about political systems that have clear problems, like how global warming is dealt with in the US. Sometimes, the solution proposed is systemic change. When I ask what that means, answers are often given at the level of the entire political system, rather than what specific people or groups should do. While I agree that "the system" needs to change, I think trying to change the system as a whole is ineffective. It would be much more effective to move down a level of abstraction and suggest who do what differently. Once that's done, the system is different. Systemic change has happened, but at a level that is easier to impact.

I think that some aspects of political discontent stem from being stuck at one level of abstraction. If you think that global warming or poverty needs to be solved at the level of the US government, then that's a huge problem and how are you going to do anything. It's easy to get overwhelmed that way. On the other hand, if you think of those problems as being generated by smaller sub-components, then you have places to look for actions that are achievable.

I don't have the answers for those large systemic political issues right now, but I do think that this idea from software can be of help. By being willing to move to more concrete understandings, we can solve problems that seem intractable.