A Language Should Support the Future

There’s one design goal of Arc I find completely self-evident. Arc’s designed for good programmers. Duh. Programmers in the future will be better than us, because they’ll be capable of observing our mistakes. If a language doesn’t target good programmers, it doesn’t have a very bright future.

There’s way more to this concept than than Arc tackles, though.

Programmers in the future will learn from the mistakes we make designing languages today, and they’ll design better ones. For there to be a single language that persists despite future innovations, snowballing its own library support along the way, it ironically needs to be all the various languages people want it to be. It needs to be a customizable language. (And it needs to target platforms other than its runtime.)

Foreign Affairs

Any two of those languages will easily target each other’s runtimes, so if things happen the way I expect, we’re likely to find a landscape full of competing languages that all abstract over each other with no clear winner.

To limit that effect, it’s important for those languages to try to have no obvious defects from the outset, so that they don’t build up audiences that feel they need to spin off into various camps to pursue slightly better languages.

For this reason, I think it’s a mistake for any language that takes itself half-seriously to impose an arbitrary limitation on its users. A limitation that makes other things easier is fine, but the point of a tool is always to make people more productive, not less. Good programmers will police themselves as necessary.

But for the same reason, I think the strongest position in a winnerless landscape of customizable languages is a minimalistic one. If a customizable language’s runtime has only the features it needs for convenient syntax customization, the designer has fewer opportunities to mess up and introduce flaws. In that sense, the language should be severely limited, but for a non-arbitrary cause.

Civil Unrest

Meanwhile, each of these languages will itself host a lot of competing syntaxes and abstraction layers. Not all of those will follow the language’s own philosophy, ’cause they’ll be their own things. But many will be general-purpose tools for people to use when customizing the language’s syntax, and their presence will effectively recolor the language for people who want to take advantage of their added features. I believe the language should have a strong philosophy encouraging consistency between these libraries and the main language runtime API, so that the experience doesn’t fray into separate and competing sub-experiences.

But a language’s library landscape is anything but minimalistic, so it can’t share that aspect with the core. Libraries will inevitably introduce extra concepts with flawed designs and buggy implementations. Instead of trying to avoid this, library programmers should assume the programmers who use their code know better than they do, by nature of those programmers being in the future. Thus, when in doubt, they should leave their implementation details exposed rather than hiding them. They should maximize their users’ freedom, just like the language itself does.

A naive take on this would be challenging for libraries in active development. They tend to change their implementation details from release to release in incompatible ways, so if they feel pressured not to break others’ code, that limits their freedom! To solve this, I believe library users should be capable of using unstable features, but that the language culture should encourage library writers to make it clear what’s stable and what isn’t, perhaps in such a way that even if it’s easy for library users to use the unstable parts, it’s also easy for them to refrain from doing that.

Conclusion

So altogether, I believe the best kind of language is a minimalistic, customizable-syntax, cross-targeting build language which has a philosophy encouraging consistently unstable library APIs, makes nothing intentionally hard, and most of all prepares for future innovation.

Not only is this my kind of language, I think it’s imperative to make these languages extremely well from the beginning so that it we don’t let suboptimal versions gain the advantage of entrenchment.

A Language Should Target Moving Platforms

Platforms are not languages to me. Languages don’t deal with security, file operations, threads, and so on. Languages are syntaxes people use to develop tools on platforms.

Platforms stack, vaguely. The LAMP stack is a classic example: The server is Linux running Apache, content-specific sub-platforms are developed on top of PHP or Perl for Apache to use, data sub-platforms are developed on top of MySQL for the PHP/Perl code to use, and the machine code programs (the OS included) rely on a hardware platform of some sort or another.

Platforms also target other platforms and hide them away. For instance, a PHP coder hardly cares about the instruction set in use on the machine, ’cause the interpreter takes care of that. It’s easy to write a simple PHP script that doesn’t really care what the hardware, the OS, the server, etc. look like. In this case, PHP itself may be all we’re thinking about. In that case I’d say that PHP is our platform.

The reality today is that platforms and languages are developed symbiotically. Innovative general-purpose platform concepts spawn new languages suited for them, like Erlang. Languages which intend to support multiple platforms just end up defining their own. Most platforms can’t be perfectly translated into each other, so ports of platform-defining languages can only be sparse or imperfect, and when it comes down to it, one’s choice of platform determines one’s language options.

Many programmers, including myself, prefer to choose languages not based on the platforms they target but based on their smoothly adapting syntax as project-specific needs come up. Languages which support extensible syntax, like most lisps, are ideal for this purpose, since they hold an implicit infinity promise that they’ll eventually be every bit as beautiful and convenient as every other language, if people only bother to develop the necessary syntax extensions.

But customizable languages fall short today. People are used to developing programs that target just one platform—the runtime of the language they’re writing in—and that makes customizable languages only as flexible as the one runtime they’re limited to.

For a language to have an inflexible runtime is important for code reuse, but if we’re going to have a convenience-and-aesthetics language that’s capable of continuing to build momentum over the next, say, 100 years (Arc’s shtick), we need a language that will target 100 years of platforms we haven’t invented yet. Therefore, the platform the language code runs in and the platform it targets (usually) won’t be the same.

Instead, the language needs to encourage a development process that’s like writing a compiler or build script, where the code produces project artifacts like binaries and other-language scripts, and those are all that’s deployed.

AST Processing

If we start with a “compiler” that just outputs what it’s told to output, then writing code generators in the language will already be at least as convenient as writing the code manually, so the infinity promise will already fulfilled, albeit unimpressively. Templating languages are a step beyond this even, but flat string concatenation is an ineffective way to go forward. Instead, I believe the customizable language’s core focuses should be on AST manipulation, parsing, dependency resolution, and other compiler duties.

This is the direction I’ve been taking Blade and Penknife, my own programming languages. Platform innovation is well and good, but I believe truly general-purpose languages are nothing if not homes for syntax innovation.