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Concrete Theory Exists in Two Dimensions November 24, 2009

Posted by mgodoublems in Book Analysis.
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I just recently – today, on my flight back from an interview in Chicago (which went well) – finished reading Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott.  Professor John Marshall recommended this book to me, and it is a truly remarkable analogue of some aspects of modern society for having been written in – get this – 1884.  I’ll explain why.  I won’t cover everything, but I will attempt to touch on the larger analogues.

The book is extremely abstract, and heavily influenced by  the author’s choice of vocation – Abbott was a clergyman.  However, it was somewhat heretical, and definitely can not be considered to be a ‘religious’ book by any means.

Flatland is the story of A. Square, a square existent in a two-dimensional world filled with geometric shapes.  There are four directions in this world – North, South, East, and West – but no Up or Down.  Females are linear, bright at the tip and dark at the tail, so it is not possible to see them moving away from you.  The lowest males are nearly linear, but are actually isosceles triangles with an extremely small angle.  Every subsequent generation expands the triangle.  Status improves with angle until equilateral status is reached, and from that point forward every generation increases the number of sides of the polygon.  The most prestigious members of society have many, many sides, and are nearly circular.  This is a direct analogue to the idea that every subsequent generation is supposed to surpass their parents.  Parents can also have their children go through a controversial side-splitting surgical procedure to attempt to increase their status.  This is an amazing predictive analogue of the ability to genetically engineer children that is theoretically possible, though an ethical nightmare.

Because it is a two-dimensional world, there is no way for shapes to directly discern what other shapes are, even though every shape has an eye at one vertex.  The lower classes discern how many sides other shapes have by ‘feeling’ each other, but to feel the upper classes is a social faux pas.  The upper classes rely on the ability to discern angles through a nearly-perpetual fog by sight-reading and how quickly sides fade away.  Because of this, shapes with a high number of sides can get away with being considered ‘circular’ due to the inability to discern the number of sides by sight.  Because the lower classes do not have the ability to discern higher sides by sight – they are not taught so – they are oblivious, only knowing that they are beneath everyone that isn’t a triangle.  Analogous to modern keeping-the-plebians-plebians ideals that exist in several societies.

The story gets strange (not strange already?) when A. Square comes across a one-dimensional society, which cannot understand a second dimension that he lives in.  He becomes frustrated with trying to explain it to them, and they become hostile to him.  Later on, he meets a member of a third dimension, a sphere, and responds exactly the same way to him.  The sphere pulls him into the third dimension, showing him exactly what his world looks like from ‘Up’.  The sphere then tasks A. Square with teaching the ‘gospel of the third dimension’ to the rest of his society.  He is imprisoned for his heretical views.

Flatland was about a century ahead of its time.  Abbott brought to light societal issues of his time and of the future in an extremely abstract way.  Some of the issues, such as the controversial child-modification surgeries, did not exist anywhere near his era.  Modern genetic planning can be seen as directly related to this, as stated earlier.  The whole book is a foray into the idea of different societies of different levels of complexity looking at each other in different ways.  Basic societies without electricity look upon more advanced societies with the hostility of a lack of understanding.  It’s the same with the modern society – if those in power came across an extraterrestrial force, they would likely react in an automatically hostile manner, not because it is necessary, but because they don’t understand what they are dealing with.

This all leads back to an idea that has come up a lot in my interactions with those of other backgrounds – the concept of being ‘married to an idea’.  Everyone is guilty of this at one point or another.  If a person has a set way that they understand the world to be, something new can be met in one of two ways – inquisitively, or with hostility.  The less educated will choose the latter nearly universally, and, at times where something completely earth-shattering and mind-blowing comes about, even the more educated will react with some level of hostility towards the new idea.  It’s just the way that the world works.  If I understand A, and B comes along, I will naturally be like no, no, it’s A, get away from me with your crazy B.  It’s a pre-programmed survival mechanism from earlier man.

The ability to think without the boundaries of ones own learned perception, as A. Square learned to do, is an important aspect of moving from disciplinary thought to antedisciplinary thought.   The idea, as stated in a paper called “Antedisciplinary” Science, written by Sean R. Eddy, is that the world is moving away from thought from a single disciplinary angle, and instead people must teach themselves multiple disciplines in order to have a proper spectrum of knowledge to be effective in high-intensity fields such as engineering and design.  It’s no longer possible to get by with a single direction of knowledge, as it may have been in the past.  I have truly taken this to heart, expanding my horizons by reading as much as possible and taking a variety of courses that are not within my curriculum as an engineer.  I have taken a course on mineral resource economics, several courses on history, and plan to take a course on drawing or creative art and design next semester.  I hope these decisions help me in the future with reaching my career goals.

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