I’ve written before about abstractions on top of physical reality, and just came across another angle on it: abstractions are a luxury! Necessity forces you to see closer to the underlying reality, or at least to invent new and different abstractions. From Akhil Sharma’s Family Life:
It is also hard to remember how frugal we were. We saved the cotton that comes inside pill bottles. Our mothers used it to make wicks. This frugality meant that we were sensitive to the physical reality of our world in a way most people no longer are. When my mother bought a box of matches, she had my brother sit at a table and use a razor to split the matches in half. When we had to light several things, we would use the match to set a twist of paper on fire and then walk around the apartment lighting the stove, the incense stick, the mosquito coil. This close engagement with things meant that we were conscious that the wood of a match is soft, that a bit of spit on paper slows down how it burns.
In this twitter thread I also told the story of a friend of mine, an American papermaker living in a rural Cambodian village. She wasn’t some hands-off academic: she was a book artist who had spent the last decade studying and making with her hands. And yet, in this village, when she went to make fiber out of the snai tree, the villagers kept giving her helpful suggestions, inventing new techniques, in fact treating her like you would a child who has not quite learned how to live in the world.
When you follow a recipe or procedure you see interfaces: flour is the thing that can be mixed with water into a paste with the following qualities. When you are always improvising, you come to learn more, to engage directly with the thing, to see its many other capabilities.
Abstraction is a power we have gained, but what have we given up to achieve it?