The Virtual Reality of Code

# The Virtual Reality of Code

18:59
Wed
11
Nov 2015

In my opinion, coding is a virtual reality with its own set of rules unlike in the physical world. In physical world, each thing has its specific location at the moment, things don't appear or disappear instantly, we have laws of energy and mass conservation. Inside a computer, we have data in memory (which is actually linear - 1D) and processors, processes and threads executing instructions of a program over time.

I have been trying for years to imagine some nice way editing or at least visualizing code, which would be more convenient (and look more attractive) than the text representation we all use. I am unsuccessful, because even if we render some nice looking depiction of a function code, its instructions, conditions and loops, drawing all the connections with variables and functions that this code uses would clutter the image too much. It's just like this virtual world doesn't fit into a 2D or 3D world.



Movie depiction of computer programs is often visually attractive, but far from being practical. This one comes from "Hackers" movie.

Of course there are ways of explaining a computer program on a diagram, e.g. entity diagrams or UML notation. I think that electrical diagrams are something in between. Electrical devices end up as physical things, but on a diagram, the shape, size and position of specific elements doesn't match how they will be arranged on a PCB. Logical representation and electrical connections between them is the only thing that matters.

Today it occured to me that this virtual reality of code also has "dimensions", in its own sense. It's evident when learning programming.

1. First, one has to understand control flow - that the processor executes subsequent instructions of the program over time and that there can be jumps caused by conditions, loops, function calls and returns. It's called dynamic aspect of the code. It can be depicted e.g. by UML sequence diagram or activity diagram.

I still remember my colleague at university who couldn't understand this. What's obvious to every programmer, was a great mystery to him as first year's computer science student. He thought that when there is a function above main(), instructions of that function are executed first and then instructions of the main function. He just couldn't imagine the concept of calling one function from the other and returning from it.

2. Then, there is so called static aspect - data structures and objects that are in memory at given moment in time. This involves understanding that objects can be created in one place and destroyed in another place and at later time, that there may be a collection of multiple objects (arrays, lists, trees, graphs and other data structures), objects may be connected to one another (the concept of pointers or references). Various relationships are possible, like one-to-one and one-to-many. In object-oriented methodologies, there is another layer of depth here, as there are classes and interfaces (with inheritance, composition etc.) and there are actual objects in memory that are instances of these classes. It can be depicted for example by entity diagram or UML class diagram.

3. Finally, one has to learn about version control systems that store history of the code. This adds another dimension to all the above, as over successive commits, developers make changes to the code - its structure and the way it works, including format of data structures it uses. Branches and merges add even more complexity to it. GUI apps for version control systems offer some way of visualizing this, whether it's showing a timeline with commits ("History") or showing who and when commited each line of a file ("Blame").

There is even more to it. Source is organized into files and directories, which may be more or less related to the structure of contained code. Multithreading (and coprocessing e.g. with GPU, SIMD, and all kinds of parallel programming) complicates imagining (and especially debugging!) control flow of the program. Program binaries and data may be distributed into multiple programs and machines that have to communicate.

It fascinates me how software is so multidimensional in its own way, while so flat at the same time (after all, computer memory is linear). I believe that becoming a programmer is all about learning how to imagine, navigate and create stuff in this virtual reality.

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