Model compression and us

Often, it almost seems like if we run the process of understanding long enough, we could just stay in the applying cycle and not have to worry about learning ever again. Sure, there’s change. But if we study the nature of change, maybe we can find the underlying causes of it and incorporate it into our models – thus harnessing the change itself? It seems that the premise of modernism was rooted in this idea. 

If we imagine that learning is the process of excavating a resource of understanding, we can convince ourselves that this resource is finite. From there, we can start imagining that all we have to do is – simply – run everything through the process of understanding and arrive at the magnificent state where learning is more or less optional. History has been rather unkind to these notions, but they continue to hold great appeal, especially among us technologists.

Alas, combining technology and a large-enough number of people, it seems that we unavoidably grow our dependence on the applying cycle. In organizations where only compressed models are shared, change becomes more difficult. There’s not enough mental model diversity within the ranks to continue the cycle of understanding. If such organizations don’t pay attention to attrition of its veterans, the ones who knew how things worked and why, they find themselves in the Chesterton’s fence junkyard. At that point, their only options are to anxiously continue holding on to truisms they no longer comprehend or to plunge back to the bottom of the stairs and re-learn, generating the necessary mental model diversity by grinding through the solution loop cycle, all over again.

I wonder if the nadir of the hero’s journey is marked by suffering in part because the hero discovers first-hand the brittleness of model compression. Change is much more painful when most of our models are compressed.

At a larger scale, societies first endure horrific experiences and acquire embodied awareness of social pathologies, then lose that knowledge through compression as it is passed along to younger generations. Deeply meaningful concepts become monochrome caricatures, thus setting up the next generation to repeat mistakes of their ancestors. More often than not, the caricatures themselves become part of the same pathology that their uncompressed models were learned to prevent.

In a highly compressed environment, we often experience the process of understanding in reverse. Instead of starting with learning and then moving onto applying, we start with the application of someone else’s compressed models and only then – optionally – move on to learning them. Today, a child is likely to first use a computer and then understand how it works, more than likely never fully grasping the full extent of the mental model that goes into creating one. Our life can feel like an exploration of a vast universe of existing compressed models with a faint hope of sometimes ever fully understanding them. 

From this vantage point, we can even get disoriented and assume that this is all there is, that everything has already been discovered. We are just here to find it, dust it off, and apply it. No wonder the “Older is Better” trope is so resonant and prominent in fiction. You can see how this feeds back into the “excavating knowledge as a finite resource” idea, reinforcing the pattern.

In this way, a pervasive model compression appears pretty trappy. Paradoxically, the brittle nature of highly compressed environments makes them less stable. The very quest to conquer change results in more – and more dramatic – change. To thrive in these environments, we must put conscious effort to mitigate the nature of the compression’s trap. We are called to strive to deepen our diversity of mental models and let go of the scaffolding provided by the compressed models of others.

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