Separation Of Concerns

Posted by Brian Fri, 01 Feb 2008 03:27:46 GMT

Let me try to explain to you, what to my taste is characteristic for all intelligent thinking. It is, that one is willing to study in depth an aspect of one’s subject matter in isolation for the sake of its own consistency, all the time knowing that one is occupying oneself only with one of the aspects. We know that a program must be correct and we can study it from that viewpoint only; we also know that it should be efficient and we can study its efficiency on another day, so to speak. In another mood we may ask ourselves whether, and if so: why, the program is desirable. But nothing is gained –on the contrary!– by tackling these various aspects simultaneously. It is what I sometimes have called “the separation of concerns”, which, even if not perfectly possible, is yet the only available technique for effective ordering of one’s thoughts, that I know of. This is what I mean by “focusing one’s attention upon some aspect”: it does not mean ignoring the other aspects, it is just doing justice to the fact that from this aspect’s point of view, the other is irrelevant. It is being one- and multiple-track minded simultaneously.

That quote is from Edgar Dijkstra 1974 paper “On the role of scientific thought”. Earlier in the day I had been reading about the futility of multi-tasking that our culture has become consumed with and then I came across his quote while reading about software design techniques. The two seemed to fit together very well.

I know the instant availability of information has definitely fragmented my mind. I used to be able to concentrate intently on any one thing with little effort. Now it seems almost impossible. Even writing this my mind is dashing in half-a-dozen different directions. That’s why I’ve been starting to unplug from various distractions. I canceled my cable TV months ago and I definitely don’t miss it. Is it really necessary to always be watching tv and reading? One of those two usually requires concentration. Why do you expect to get the most out of it while listening to Dr. Phil make someone cry? The explosion in media hasn’t been accompanied by an explosion in hours in a day. The sooner people come to grips with this and realize they can’t do it all, the better off we’ll all be.

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