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.

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