Confusing the photo for reality

A little over a year ago I had dinner with my family at Revel in Seattle. Among the plates – a selection of grilled meats.

Yummy, yes. And this amateurish food-porn shot helps me recall that night. The restaurant sights and sounds. The table conversation. How the table suddenly got quiet after food was served.

I have many photos like this and they provide a lot of value for me. I can still actually feel something when I look at the photograph and recall the experience. But they are not really the thing I experienced. Each photo is simply a visual representation of some small part of the experience. An abstraction.

I think most people get this with photographs. We conceptually make a distinction: There was an experience. And there is a photograph of that experience. But I am afraid we too often forget this type of distinction when we move into other types of abstractions – especially things that help us make sense of the complex world around us. And this is especially important to me in my field – where our job is to create abstractions to try and understand.

Let’s take social network analysis as an example. In an organizational use SNA gives us a picture of relationships among people. It is a really interesting tool and the data and meaning you can pull from it gives you that geeked-out-high of discovery. Wow – look what we found when we did this analysis. But in the end it’s an abstraction. It’s not reality. It is based on looking at a very specific subset of data (which undoubtedly includes some error) and then representing that data in a way that is aligned with a theory of social networks. Useful? Valuable? Appears to be. An abstraction? Yes. Reality? No.

I write this because I am trying to become more attuned to checking myself, in much the way that Danial Kahneman writes and talks about checking our cognitive biases. Kahneman talks about our tendency – when faced with a really complex question – to substitute it with one that is easier to answer. And then we apply a heuristic to that easier question that gives us an answer about which we can feel confident. (Ex: Predicting whether someone will be successful in a new job is a complex question. But boy – candidate A just answered those three key questions during the interview that makes them seem like a perfect cultural fit for our company. So we answer the complex question with a simpler one – did they do well in the interview?).

Think about it. Think about the models and ideas and concepts — all the abstractions — that drive our thinking and behavior. I don’t want to stop using these ideas – just like I don’t want to stop enjoying photographs of past experiences. Just want to check myself to make sure I respect the distance between the abstraction and the complexity of human relationships, thinking, and feelings.