Why Do We Model?
It may seem like an odd question, but I am asking it anyway: Why do we model? And, by the way, what in the world am I talking about?
The picture in this Post is of our beloved neighbor Ruby, and even though she is only six, she knows exactly what I am talking about. We are creative collaborators, you see, and so when I suggested that we could make a "model" of our solar system, I was curious to know her definition of a "model." I asked her: "What do you think a model is?" She replied that it was something like a simplified version of reality that you learn from. I really have no idea how she knew this, but Ruby is one of the most remarkable six year olds you will ever meet.
In An Introduction to General Systems Thinking (one of may favorite tomelets now in its Silver Anniversary Edition), Gerald Weinberg tells us that "Every model is ultimately the expression of one thing we hope to understand in terms of another that we think we do understand." That statement does take a bit more parsing than Ruby's simple formulation; but, I suppose as we get older we can't fend off the urge to try and sound a little smarter. Perhaps, Mr. Weinberg is slightly guilty of this offense.
In any case, for many of us creating a simplified representation that captures the essence of a problem we are trying to solve, is a regular, essential practice in our professional lives. For some of us, it even plays a major role in our personal lives. For others, this is a seemingly a foreign concept.
Or is it? As a test, I want you to ask your local "Barista" at that global, green and white coffee empire or, better yet, your local coffee joint (by the way, these young caffeine enablers are likely to have a more advanced and more recently minted college degree than you and I, so it's a fair question): What does modeling mean to you, and why do think we model? I'd love to hear the answers you get.
Why Do We Model: The Existential Answer
So, if you ask me -- and I know you didn't, but, as usual, you'll get my answer anyway -- why do we model? My answer is: why, yes, of course, to begin with, to gain a foot-hold on something we are trying to understand better, but, most importantly, to create a portal of sorts on the world. To give us a way to see the world that perhaps we couldn't have achieved before. And all of us do this! We are all modelers, in this sense.
What we do is we create a System, and our System is either our idea of the world, or a model that we readily acknowledge is a simplified picture of the real world. As Mr. Weinberg puts it: "What is a system? As any poet knows, a system is a way of looking at the world."
And the interesting thing about our models, our systems, our portals to the world we are trying to understand, is that they both help us to understand the world and they are also completely colored by the modeler's individual perspective.
Wallace Stevens puts it best in The Man with the Blue Guitar:
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
And they said then, "But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are."