Dishonest Abstractions are Not Abstractions

February 22, 2016

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Ernie Miller started a tweetstorm on Friday that really rang true to me, about how certain abstractions are “dishonest”. In my mind, the dishonesty is calling them abstractions in the first place.

These tweets really spoke to me, but I don’t think abstractions are “lies” per se. Rather, I feel that the technologies listed (and others like them) are just really weak. They don’t deliver complete solutions to the problems they are there to solve and are built on poor (or no) abstractions, such that they require more of the user than they ultimately give.

CoffeeScript is the simplest example of this. It’s a programming language that produces stack traces in a different programming language. It requires almost the same amount of code as JavaScript and it doesn’t obviate the need to completely understand JavaScript. Why would I want this?

In a sense, HAML, SASS, CoffeeScript, etc. are nothing more than sophisticated sed scripts (or macro languages). But this problem isn’t specific to front-end technologies. AREL and Rails Migrations are two back-end examples. They profess to “save you” from SQL, but you really can’t use them without understanding SQL, you can’t access the full power of your database with them, and you can’t debug what they are doing without knowing SQL.

Compare this to writing C. Do you need to know assembly language to write C? For almost all cases, the answer is “no”. Sure, there may be cases where you have to dig into the assembly to figure out a problem, but these are vanishingly small.

Compare that to AREL or CoffeeScript where, as a matter of course, you must break through the “abstraction” to find out what’s going on. You spend almost as much time in the “assembly language” (SQL, JavaScript), as you do in the “higher-level abstraction”.

The scare quotes are intentional: to call HAML, CoffeeScript, and friends “abstractions” is to almost render the term meaningless. They don’t abstract anything away from you on any real level.

In my book, I encourage the reader to use JavaScript and learn SQL, because the tools given to you by Rails aren’t abstractions—they are extra things to learn that provide at best a marginal increase in productivity, and that productivity only applies during the least time-consuming part of software development: typing in source code.

These tools don’t meet any higher-order need a developer has. They provide the ability to execute code only and when compared to the technologies they replace, they appeal more to aesthetics than the ability to better deliver quality software.

Web front-end technologies seem woefully stuck in this quagmire. React gives you the ability to type markup that looks like a higher-order abstraction, but it’s still just a macro language for producing HTML that you must debug directly. Yes, source maps and other browser extensions exist to make this less painful, but your job at the end of the day is still trying to figure out what events are firing on what DOM elements, and how CSS is being applied to them.

I’m not sure what it will take to produce truly higher-level abstractions for powerful technologies like JavaScript and SQL. If the tools we have now are guilty of dishonesty, it’s mostly in overstating what problems they really solve.