Our encapsulated world, Part 2

Last week I wrote a short post discussing the concept of encapsulation. It was a short little post, primarily because I ended up being too tired to write as much as I had wanted to.

Well, at the moment I am sitting in the Phoenix airport for a 2-hour layover with nothing else to do (and therefore no excuse). So let’s explore this topic a bit more.

I already described encapsulation as the process of conceptualizing a system of many interrelated parts as a single unit. In Gӧdel, Escher, Bach (or GEB), Douglas Hofstadter utilizes a different term to describe the same notion: chunking. The image he evokes is that of taking many small things and assembling them into a distinct “chunk” that can be studied and acted upon from outside—i.e., from a higher level—without requiring much (or any) knowledge of the aforementioned “many small things” within it. Hofstadter provides an excellent series of examples of this process in the realm of science, starting with the notion of a quark as one of the smallest such “interrelated parts” composing larger-scale systems (i.e., protons and neutrons) that we know of.

[O]ne does not have to know all about quarks to understand many things about the particles which they may compose. Thus, a nuclear physicist can proceed with theories of nuclei that are based on protons and neutrons, and ignore quark theories and their rivals. The nuclear physicist has a chunked picture of protons and neutrons–a description derived from lower-level theories. Likewise, an atomic physicist has a chunked picture of an atomic nucleus derived from nuclear theory. Then a chemist has a chunked picture of the electrons and their orbits, and builds theories of small molecules, theories which can be taken over in a chunked way by the molecular biologist, who has an intuition for how small molecules hang together, but whose technical expertise is in the field of extremely large molecules and how they interact. Then the cell biologist has a chunked picture of the units which the molecular biologist pores over, and tries to use them to account for the ways that cells interact.

These examples are easily mapped to completely different domains where similar “chunking” takes place. For instance, consider the structure of a human society. At perhaps the lowest level, we have individual people with very specific desires and concerns. Then individuals form into households, which in turn compose neighborhoods, which in turn make up towns. You don’t need me to explicitly continue the progression; in your mind you already see that this sequence can be carried further with cities, counties, states/provinces, etc. (surely there are concepts like this in just about any governed area, though the specific terms denoting them may be different).

And just as Hofstadter’s examples included objects (fields of study) as well as subjects (scientists practicing within these fields), so can we discuss groups as well as leaders when it comes to human society. Neighborhoods may or may not have councils that oversee their community facilities; for towns and cities there are mayors, for states there are governors, and so forth. And like a chemist whose primary focus is at the molecular level, and who doesn’t necessarily need to have a deep understanding of the interactions among protons and neutrons, a state governor maintains a “big picture” view of the affairs of his or her state, typically without spending a considerable amount of time investigating the specific low-level issues facing each individual town and city (maybe some, but likely only the major ones) within it.

Another way of putting this is that we could say a state governor has a “chunked” view of his or her state’s towns and cities. He or she might view each as a single unit—an encapsulation of the neighborhoods, which in turn are encapsulations of their many households and individuals—and be interested in high-level facts, such as which towns have high crime rates, which have budget issues, etc.

Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, GEB contains yet another example of encapsulation that deals with societies, but not human societies: ant societies (i.e., ant farms). Hofstadter gives a fascinating account of how ant farms can exhibit high-level meaning even as the individual ants within them have no concept of the “bigger picture” to which they belong. For example, if certain members of the ant farm locate food, they will emit signals which are detected by other nearby ants from the farm, who will follow these signals and converge on the site of the food. The ants will all then form into a sort of “team” whose purpose is to deliver the food to some location that needs it. Hofstadter refers to such a “team” of ants as a signal, for reasons which I probably couldn’t explain as well as this excerpt:

Let’s say a signal is moving along. As it goes, the ants which compose it interact, either by direct contact or by exchange of scents, with ants of the local neighborhoods which it passes through. The contacts and scents provide information about local matters of urgency, such as nest-building, or nursing, or whatever. The signal will remain glued together as long as the local needs are different from what it can supply; but if it CAN contribute, it disintegrates, spilling a fresh team of usable ants onto the scene.

What Hofstadter has done is proposed a way of looking at ant farms that encapsulates the movement of groups of ants within the colony as signals which travel from one part of the colony to another, much like signals in the brain which travel via neurons. Considering them in this way, it is possible to visualize the same activities of an ant farm from a “high level” without even imagining ants at all! The ants in this view are something like a medium through which messages can be carried, and their role could just as easiliy be played by neurons or any number of other things.

But anyway, back to humans. An unfortunate but well-known weakness of the hierarchical system of human societies is that each additional layer of government adds a notorious layer of corruption and inefficiency. I don’t know well enough to say whether the “corruption” part is universal, but it seems almost unavoidable that the “inefficiency” part is; when lower levels are reliant upon higher levels for assistance in solving a problem, there is overhead involved in utilizing the proper channels to reach the higher levels, gaining the necessary approvals, waiting for the applicable resources—so as not to fail too miserably in trying to outline sources of inefficiency here, I won’t even attempt to exhaustively list them all. But there are undoubtedly more.

This is a bit ironic, because often the people most qualified to solve problems at the low level are those who are intimately familiar with those problems; but they are not the ones with the authority or the resources to put solutions in place.

This warrants another one of my nerdy software parallels, if only because I think it’s illuminating to consider how similar human society is to a computer system in this respect.

The similarity is this: computer systems, like human societies, can be broken down into smaller and smaller components at lower and lower levels of detail. At arguably the lowest level are the actual machine code instructions understood by a particular processor; above this are very primitive constructs offered in low-level languages such as assembly which aggregate groups of instructions into logical units; then above this are slightly more elevated constructs in slightly higher-level languages such as C. As you move higher and higher in this progression, you proceed through more and more levels of encapsulation, with each level (often with its own corresponding higher-level set of languages) viewing each component in the level below as a single “chunk” without requiring in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of that chunk.

This is actually an extremely powerful strategy that we humans have discovered as a way of extending our abilities as a species far beyond the abilities of our individual brains.

Consider what I’ll call a “high-level software application” such as Microsoft Excel. This is a fairly advanced tool that requires a rather complicated system (namely, the Windows operating system) in order to be useful. This complicated system in turn utilizes drivers and software libraries in order to run properly; these drivers rely on hardware with specialized instruction sets; each hardware device in turn relies on the correct functioning of its constituent parts. This progression could almost continue forever. What’s worth noting is that, once again, we are describing a series of systems wherein an expert of one level does not have to understand the inner workings of the level below. That is, the development team responsible for Microsoft Excel did not necessarily need to understand the inner workings of Windows in order to get their work done; they merely needed to understand certain components of Windows, and how they could interact with those components (e.g., how to interact with the file system in order to save a spreadsheet to disk)—those chunks as it were.

A well-known trade-off required for all this encapsulation is that the further software gets from the actual hardware it is running on—that is, the more layers of encapsulation separating the software instructions from actual hardware instructions—the greater the cost to the software’s performance. Modern high-level languages such as Java or C# require entire virtual machines to be running for the sake of portability. Dynamic languages like Python and Ruby require interpreters that require even greater overhead. These layers upon layers introduce a certain kind of inefficiency just like the multiple tiers of government in human society introduce inefficiency.

I would keep going, but at this point I am quite exhausted; so it will have to wait for a future installment. As it stands, I think attempting to draw parallels among the fields of science, the levels of human society, ant colonies, and various programming languages was quite enough for one blog post—regardless of how rambling and incoherent that attempt may have been!

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