I have a new paper out with Tomas Petricek: Interaction vs. Abstraction: Managed Copy and Paste, to appear at PAINT’22. [Demo video] I have mixed feelings about this work.
I’ve been talking about the idea ever since my first Subtext paper, and tried to build it several times, but hit many difficulties. This new theory of structure editing I’ve been working on seemed to make it possible. So I had to try it.
The idea is philosophically tantalizing. There is a long-running intellectual debate between those who believe in Logic and Formal Methods as an account of language/cognition/programming and those who reject those accounts as shallow and inadequate. Wittgenstein famously took both sides. I believe programming offers us for the first time a way to substantiate the anti-logic position with a constructive theory that is more than just counter-examples and anecdotes. Managed Copy and Paste is my primary candidate for an Informal Method that takes on the Formal Methods.
Functional abstraction is considered to be the essence of programming languages, enshrined in the holy Lambda Calculus. A key benefit of functions is to centralize change. But if we can track copies and propagate changes between them then having a centralized abstraction is more of an ideal end-state than a necessary condition. The key change of perspective is to move from a program as a static crystalline abstraction to programming as an interactive process of continual adaptation. Managed Copy and Paste subverts functional abstraction and could actually be more ergonomic in practice.
The good news is that it works, and my editing theory handles tricky cases like copying copies. Unfortunately I’m not sure it turns out to actually be more ergonomic. At the very least it needs a lot more UI work. At the moment I’m afraid it is isn’t a slam dunk win, and it needs to be a slam dunk to get anyone to seriously consider such a radical change. Bottom line, I love the idea and its philosophical implications, but in practice it may be more of a luxury than a must-have. A vitamin, not a pain killer.
But what do I know? Tomas convinced me to write this paper to at least put the idea out there and see what happens. What do you think?