Discovering the art of abstraction

This guest post was written by my 18 year old son Robin Jadoul, based upon the transcript of a speech he delivered at the Telenet-BBC Public Speaking Awards (about which I reported in an earlier article on this blog.)


“The expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” ― inspired by William Warde Fowler and used by William J. Mayo, Konrad Lorenz, Mahatma Gandhi and many others

Due to the progress mankind is making in almost every aspect of life, we don’t have the possibility anymore to gain knowledge on everything. We don’t have the choice anymore to search for profound knowledge on each subject that attracts our attention.

To be able to keep an overview of all, or at least most topics that are at hand, we need to focus on the big ideas, without bothering about all the tiny details that are involved in everything we do. We need to find a way to know without knowing everything. A way to leave all complication behind us. Thus enters the notion of abstraction.

The concept of abstraction is perceivably simple and useful in our day to day lives. It simply means making a clear separation between the internals (the inner workings) and the interface (the part ‘users’ get to interact with). This makes it easy for the users to, indeed, use things, while they needn’t know anything at all about the internal mechanics.


An excellent illustration of this technique is a microwave oven. You probably all have one at home and frequently use it as well. But I dare suspect that not a single person thinks on a daily basis about what exactly powers that splendid machine that warms food and drinks for them. You see, you just need to set a few simple parameters, or put simpler, push a few buttons, and the internal implementation takes care of the rest for you.

Internally this microwave probably relies upon some other layers of abstraction as well, to power the rotation of the dish, or to fire the waves at the object inside of the microwave. This way, we can stand on the shoulders of giants, and do great things ourselves.

Does any of you even want to know, to the level of the underlying physics, how your smartphone connects to the internet to get exactly that YouTube video you wanted to see? Or how the astronauts get to the ISS in a space shuttle?

Yet I strongly believe that the level of abstraction we are at today is the best we could wish for ourselves. We have a broad idea of how things work, without the details, and we can use things without needing those details. But if we want to keep on innovating, we also have to preserve this intuition about other kinds of topics. Who knows what marvelous, unsuspected connections between science and religion, for example, can be found. If a scientist knows nothing about religion, how does he know when he has found something relevant?

Another bonus of having at least a basic understanding of how things work is that you can easily try to fix them yourself. A bit extreme perhaps, but you wouldn’t want to call a handyman every time a screw gets a bit loose, would you?

So in short: I believe that we should be happy that humanity found a way to use or to know without knowing, but also that a general knowledge still remains a requirement for human kind.

Abstraction is an art. We must try to walk on its boundaries, without falling off either end.

A tale of two talks

This is a true story that happened a couple of years ago when two executives of competing companies delivered a plenary keynote address during the opening session of a large industry conference.

The first presenter of the day was deliberately a charismatic speaker. He brought a broad and interesting slideshow about his company’s vision on emerging market trends, the challenges and opportunities these pose to customers, and gave examples of how his people were providing the right solutions to tackle the problems.

Forty-five minutes later, the second speaker talked about largely the same industry topic, but addressed it from a technical regulation perspective – with lots of acronyms, jargon and details. During his speech, he made at least five references to the preceding presentation, acknowledging the trends, challenges and opportunities earlier listed by his competitor. But he forgot to mention his own company, and neglected to talk about the products and solutions they were building and selling.

Both keynotes were interesting, complementary and well presented, but IMHO speaker #2 made a few notable mistakes:

  • By taking a dry regulatory stance, he missed the opportunity to inspire the audience and position his company as a thought leader and market leader in the domain;

  • By making so many references to and confirming what was said by the previous speaker, he provided free publicity for his competitor;

  • By not explicitly mentioning his own employer and their solutions, he missed a great opportunity to promote them to a large audience or potential buyers.

Although I am not a fan of hard sales talk (particularly not at public events), the first keynote speaker certainly did a better job in selling his story, his employer and his products.


More keynote presenter advice may be found in this blog post by Mike Brown.