Module 4: Abstracting

Packing a Whole Lotta Punch in the Simplest Presentation

The cognitive tool of abstraction involves locating, isolating and representing the simplest idea, aspect, characteristic, or element of a more complicated concept and doing so in a manner that elucidates the original concept. To me, that means expressing the very soul of an idea in as simple and elegant a manner as possible and thereby leaving a more powerful impression.

The concept whose abstractions I chose to explore is the idea that words cannot be taken back on the internet. The importance of taking care with what one posts on the internet, including personal safety, data security, and, perhaps most commonly ignored, internet etiquette, is central to being a good digital citizen. Along those same lines, clear recognition of the permanence of one’s actions and responses on social media is also an important aspect of digital citizenship.


Warning: It can be difficult to undo thoughtless actions online.

In creating my abstractions, I soon realized that I was also employing analogies. I suspect this was due, at least in part, to the fact that I had just finished reading the chapter titled Analogies in “Sparks of Genius.” As I was exploring the abstract space of posting to the internet, I eventually started thinking about representing hurtful words on social media as something that, once done, cannot be undone. I played with a few different methods for representing that concept and finally settled on the analogy of a tube of toothpaste. Once squeezed out, it is well nigh impossible to get the toothpaste back into the tube. Similarly, once thoughtless or hurtful words are posted on social media, it can sometimes be almost impossible to remove them or take them back.

For my second abstraction, I wanted an auditory method of conveying the dangerous potential to which careless online activity can lead. With thoughts of focusing on a high school audience, I crafted a brief public-service-announcement style audio clip to bring home the point that one must pay attention to what is said and done online or face the consequences of potentially permanent damage.

Initially, I toyed with the idea of conveying the abstractions live with students as a kind of hands-on activity. For example, having someone squeeze a tube of toothpaste followed by a group discussion about how difficult it is to get it back in again, and then guiding the group members to make the connection between the demonstration and hurtful words found online. However, I adjusted the first example to a graphic to make it easier to present on my webpage. And the second example seemed rather risky (broken glass in a classroom setting…?), so I opted for an audio interpretation. That said, I do believe that these images and sounds are powerful enough to leave a lasting impression on students. And isn’t that the point of any abstraction?


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