Let’s get meta for a minute

Like, really meta.

Okay, so picture there’s a problem you don’t know the answer to. Let’s talk about this problem. Meta level-1.

So, it’s a problem that’s really tough to figure out because there’s a lot of abstract, moving parts. The kind where experience with the sort of problem would help a lot, but any simplified example that attempts to approximate it becomes hopelessly contrived and abstract, while any real instance of the problem is complex for its own reasons. Maybe you haven’t ever had one of these problems, but I assure you that they exist. Essentially, they’re problems where complexity is an integral part of the problem.

Now, let’s talk about what happens when you discuss those sort of problems. Meta level-2. The most common case where these problems arise is in bad solutions. When you don’t properly frame the response to a real problem, you might work yourself into a corner where a very complex, convoluted answer is the only way out. In this case, the real solution isn’t to solve the momentary problem — it’s to think about the root problem differently. People who have run into these sorts of problems (which I’ll call Complex Problems) are likely to give you that advice: If you run into a Complex Problem, re-examine the foundation of what led you there and look for ways out.

If you didn’t notice, we just started talking about people talking about the kind of problem we’re discussing. Meta level-3. We have to go deeper.

Something cool happens when you realize that the advice to reframe your solution to simplify it is, while good advice, not always correct. People often give stock, cargo-cultish advice when they recognize the broad class of a problem, without examining its specifics. Even if most problems fall to the advice, not all necessarily will. Now we’re talking about the way that people talk about the kind of problem we’re discussing. Meta level-4.

Taking it to the extreme, let’s wonder about the class of problems for which that is true, and whether there are classes of problems where it’s not. Where the cargo-cult result is always correct. It’s possible that for some sorts of problems, the standard advice is guaranteed not to fail. Now we’ve hit meta level 5: talking about the type of problems that elicit specific ways for people to talk about the kind of problem we’re discussing.

Well, kind of. Meta level-5 kind of got lost there: we’re really just talking about types of problems that people talk about in certain ways. That’s only like 3 levels of metadiscussion.

But now we’re talking about the metadiscussion itself — that’s level 5. In a fashion, you could say that we reached level 6 in talking about talking about the metadiscussion, but can we really go along like that? That would amount to a quick infinity: you can always get a level deeper by talking about talking about etc… which, while maybe true, feels cheap. Let’s say you can’t do that in a pragmatic sense of metadiscussion.

But discussing the validity of the meta-ness of the metadiscussion seems pragmatic enough to count. So is that level 7? I’ve lost count.

Anyway, those were my thoughts while I walked to the washroom and back.

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