12 September 2014

Artificial Expertise

Artificial expertise is a term that I tend to use in real-life discussions, which I would like to document in order to help make people aware of the concept. It refers to the specific kind of detailed knowledge that you get from working with complex systems that require a high amount of skill to operate—when those skills are not transferable to other systems. The expertise is not inherent to the problem, but incidental to the solution, and thus artificial.

As far as computing science goes, I can give you two very good examples of systems that generate artificial expertise. What’s wonderful is that they’re at absolute opposite sides of the spectrum of delight.

C++ is a cult of artificial expertise because it encourages—often necessitates—the constant consideration of details typically irrelevant to the problem at hand. The choice of passing parameters and storing objects by value, reference, pointer, or smart pointer needs to be considered for every declaration. All this takes place in the exciting context of a complex interplay between implicit conversions, exceptions, mutable memory, and silently undefined behaviour.

When I use C++, or help my coworkers to, it makes me angry and tired.

Perl is a cult of artificial expertise because it has many “tricks” for producing more compact and expressive code. You could think of a trick as anything non-obvious. I’m loath to use the term because I regularly see programmers labelling as “tricks” many perfectly ordinary language features and programming techniques, such as Python’s list comprehensions or Haskell’s lazy evaluation. In Perl, many of these take the form of sensible defaults that can be left implicit, or special variables used to control the behaviour of common operations.

When I use Perl, I feel empowered and clever. Like C++, Perl gives you many opportunities to improve your code or write it in the manner that you deem best suited to the problem, and in the hands of an expert it’s a powerful tool. Here’s the critical difference: Perl code that I have seen written by a beginner tends to simply not use the “expert” features; C++ code tends to accidentally use them, and often thereby run into undefined behaviour through their miscombination.

Now, knowing either of these languages puts you in imminent danger of getting yourself employed. And I believe this is no coincidence. Creating inefficiency is an excellent way to create jobs—it’s creating efficiency that creates careers.