Two Wrongs

The Expressivity Limitations of Object-Oriented Programming

The Expressivity Limitations of Object-Oriented Programming

tl;dr: Writing software is encoding knowledge. Knowledge takes the shape of propositions. Compressing rich propositions into is-a and has-a relationships does not lend itself to clarity.

That was dense. Let’s back up a little bit.

I’m learning a little bit of cognitive task analysis1 Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide To Cognitive Task Analysis; Hoffman, Klein, & Crandall; Bradford Books; 2006. at the moment, and one of the first tools the authors present are concept maps2 If you do an image search on the web for concept maps, you will see a lot of mind maps – it is a common misconception that concept maps and mind maps are the same thing. They are not. Concept maps have proven themselves useful in studying expertise, whereas mind maps … I don’t actually know if mind maps are useful for anything.. Concept maps are based on the core idea that propositions are the fundamental unit of knowledge.

I’m not the right person to strictly define propositions, but you probably get the right idea if you think of a proposition as a statement that, if you would make it more concrete, could become a single testable hypothesis. Here are a few examples of propositions3 I just pulled arbitrary quotes from a document I happened to have open on my second monitor anyway.:

Look at the richness of those statements! We have temporal conditions (“when” and “after”), statistical generalisations (“usually” and “may cause”), preconditions in both directions (“used only when” and “requires”), statements of subcomponents (“incorporate”), linguistic abstraction (“refers to”), psychological statements (“inform”), functional dependencies (“differ depending on”).

This is what knowledge looks like. A can be related to B through a wide variety of abstract relationships. This matters for software design, because programming is literally translating our knowledge about the problem into a form the computer can execute. The shape of our knowledge has direct consequences on the shape of our code.

Now, what does object-oriented programming look like? We tell students that it allows exactly two kinds of propositions:

That’s it. This is not enough to encode the richness of our knowledge about a domain.4 Imagine trying to express “the service plug is used only when the vehicle is subject to high voltage” using those two relationships. You’re likely to end up with confusing artifacts like a ServicePluggable which is-a vehicle! Expertise researchers have also discovered this; classification trees are simply insufficient to express knowledge, and if we try, we end up with complicated ontologies that have long since lost any disceranble connection to the original problem.

Shoehorning knowledge into the two classic object-oriented proposition types creates problems that are auxiliary to the one we’re trying to solve.

But we can do better!

The first step is to be mindful of what we are doing. Whenever we find ourselves creating a new type of object – especially if it’s one we struggle to find a good name for – we can stop and think about exactly what sort of proposition it is we’re trying to write the code for, and if there’s a better way to express it. If we do this consistently, we may come up with new useful patterns to encode various types of propositions.5 And if you happen to look for a way to innovate on programming language design, take a hint from the research around expertise, and come up with first-class ways to encode other propositions.

Some preview readers have had a recurring misconception, which I want to set straight: I’m not claiming is-a and has-a are the only types of abstraction available object-oriented languages. As a reader pointed out, most object-oriented languages have other types of abstractions which are not the object-oriented parts, like interfaces (responds-to), plain functions6 Sometimes only available as class methods, but still., and more.

This is specifically what is meant by “stop and think […] if there’s a better way to express it”. It seems to me as if the two object-oriented propositions is-a and has-a are a very popular hammer, and I think we can do a better job of illustrating to people why and how not everything is a nail.