In this post, I will discuss beauty and technology. You will see specific examples of beautiful ideas found in computer science, ancient texts, and the latest creation of PreEmptive Solutions called Runtime Intelligence™. We will discuss the future of our industry and what helps software succeed. We will have a fascinating adventure through time and space. Buckle up, sit back, and enjoy the ride!
Complexity of software and technology
Technology is a complicated beast. One distinguished computer scientist remarked that he always dreamt of the day when a personal computer will be easier to use than a phone. Alas, he quipped, this day finally arrived when he no longer understood how to use his phone. Arguably, software is the most complex machinery known to man. With few keystrokes and limited only by the power of his imagination, a programmer can improvise machines of unprecedented complexity. How do we deal with these beasts, and what should be our guide?
What is beauty? This topic fascinated the most brilliant minds in our history since ancient times. In his discourses, Plato talks about dividing nature at its joints and putting the pieces back together. The ability to do these things properly constitutes in his eyes the power of gods. In Plato's ideas, a modern software engineer will recognize the concepts of coupling and cohesion that are central to the construction of high quality software. Christopher Alexander, an architect whose work inspired the design patterns movement, talks about "quality without a name" that recurs in great designs. This nameless quality is not in the eye of the beholder, he suggests, but can be objectively measured. One of the best definitions is given by Yale computer scientist David Gelernter in his fascinating book "Machine Beauty". According to Gelernter, beauty is the marriage of power and simplicity. Achieving more with less is the hallmark of beautiful design. Unification and simplification are the driving forces behind great advances in science, technology, and other human endeavors.
Beauty in Systems Design
Alan Kay, the creator of Smalltalk programming language, uses the U.S. Constitution as an example of a beautiful system. After more than 200 years, it still functions without problems. The rabbinic Sages discuss the concept of beauty in the Talmud, monumental compilation of biblical commentary, law and homiletics. Talmudic tractate Sukkah 35a analyzes the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar. The Sages conclude that it is the yellow citron tree, because the word "hadar" is interpreted to be a fruit which "dwells continuously all year on the tree" (ha-dar, literally, "that which dwells"). Thus, they understand the word "dar" to mean permanence, a continuous process through time, similar to the French "duree" or the English "endure". In other words, beauty implies something that doesn’t lose its relevance over time.
Beauty in Computer Science
One of the most beautiful ideas in computer science is object-oriented programming. Alan Kay describes the epiphany he had when he finally got the idea of recursive simplicity inherent in object-oriented design. He realized that instead of dividing computer program into weaker things called data structures and algorithms, why not divide it up into little computers that have the same power as the whole. The designers of Simula-67 carefully studied Algol-based languages and made a startling observation. In order to execute a procedure in Algol, a local environment is created, which exists only for the duration of the call. Why not let those environments stick longer indefinitely, the designers observed, and let them communicate with one another. This led to the creation of the first object-oriented programming language that allowed software to be based on the real world structure and greatly simplified the design and construction of complex programs. The beauty of Simula-67 design was that tremendous power was achieved by utilizing already existing constructs. The idea of object-orientation was latent in the design of Algol waiting to be discovered.
Beauty in ancient texts
Biblical stories are some of the best examples of power and simplicity. As little children, we learned the story of creation of Eve from Adam's rib. But did we know that the same story also contains deep insights into human nature and the Universe? Analyzing the text, the talmudic Sages make a startling observation. The Hebrew word "va-yiven" (created) used in the story exclusively in relation to Eve comes from the Hebrew word "binah" (understanding, intuition). After careful text analysis, the Sages conclude that when God created a woman He endowed her with greater intuition than a man! This is not a revelation to the better half of our readers who knew it all along, but this illustrates how a little story simple enough for children to understand also contains powerful insights into the makeup of our psyche. The power has been latent in the text waiting for us to discover it.
Beauty in Runtime Intelligence™
We finally come to the latest and greatest technology from PreEmptive Solutions - Runtime Intelligence™. In a flash of insight, the designers of Dotfuscator realized that in addition to obfuscating applications, why not let businesses inject additional code into their binaries that will talk back and provide all kinds of information about the way their software is used. In the age of agility, timely feedback is one of the most valuable assets. With a few simple clicks, organizations have a new powerful way to protect, manage, and monitor their software applications. This includes feature usage, shelf life expiration to stop applications from functioning after an expiration date, and tamper detection that allows an application to detect whether it has been hacked and take an appropriate action at run time. With aspect-oriented programming techniques, no additional code is required. Code that doesn't have to be written is the most beautiful code there is. Runtime Intelligence™ allows you to do that and more. The power and simplicity latent in its design speak for themselves.
Helping Software Succeed
Why is beauty important in technology? It is important, because it helps us to be more competitive by achieving more with less. It helps software succeed. Beautiful code is easier to read, modify, and extend, and it saves us valuable time by letting us concentrate on solving increasingly complex problems. The recent rise in popularity of agile methodologies that put great emphasis on aesthetics of software development is a testimony to this view. As more sophisticated machines are developed, beauty will continue to play an important role in technology. As we enter the next decade of the 21st century, let's hope that beauty will finally conquer the beast.