Dominik Tornow

The Blind Men & The Elephant

There are many different mental models when thinking about distributed systems. Each mental model is a lens onto the system, emphasizing some aspects and deemphasizing others.

The parable of the blind men and an elephant is a story of a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant before and who learn and imagine what the elephant is like by touching. The parable is often used to illustrate the importance of considering multiple perspectives when trying to understand an abstract or a complex topic.

Six blind men are brought to examine an elephant that has come to their village. The first man touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a thick snake. The second man touches the tusk and says that the elephant is like a spear. The third man touches the ear and says that the elephant is like a fan. The fourth man touches the leg and says that the elephant is like a tree. The fifth man touches the side and says the elephant is like a wall. The sixth man touches the tail and says the elephant is like a rope. Each of the blind men is convinced that he is right, and that everyone else is wrong.

In the same way, studying multiple mental models, different ways of thinking, can help you gain a more holistic understanding of the topic. Additionally, by being exposed to multiple perspectives, you can also identify any misconceptions that may be present in your own thinking.

So, if you encounter different models of a distributed system, it does not mean that some of them are incorrect. When reading posts, articles, or papers, try to not only understand the model chosen by the author, but also the reasons behind their choice–what makes the model suitable for the point they are trying to convey?

Keep in mind that this can be quite challenging and even outright frustrating: You may have to set aside your hard-earned mental models in favor of an author’s mental model. However, you will gain a more holistic understanding in return.

Our understanding is filtered through the lens of our interpretive frameworks