Thoughts on Static Typing and Smalltalk

I'm a huge fan of static typing - I have fond memories of playing with ML and Haskell in college, struck by the shear elegance of the programs I read, and how when I wrote programs, they seemed to "just work". Even though most of my professional life has been spent writing code in dynamically-typed languages, playing with Elm over the last year or so has rekindled my love for static types.

My recent foray into Smalltalk has shown me the potential power of a dynamically typed system. I may be a fan of static typing, but I wonder if some of the advantages of static typing are present in a Smalltalk system.

Asking the program questions about itself

One of things that draws me to statically typed languages is the ability to write tools that answer questions about your programs; you can more easily write tools to ask what functions a module provides, what types of arguments a function takes, etc., in a statically typed language. Granted, you can fire up a parser for your dynamically-typed language and do this too, but a lot of dynamically-typed languages allow you to modify a module or function at runtime, so if you leverage this technique, you're out of luck. Also, just because you know that a function takes an argument aFile doesn't necessarily mean you know what type it's supposed to be; after all, it could be a filename, a file object, or a file stream.

However, I'm being a bit unfair to dynamically typed languages; after all, dynamically typed programming languages, are often unparalleled in their abilities of introspection at runtime. It should come as no surprise that dynamically typed languages thrive in a dynamic environment, and static languages thrive in a static one. That's the thing, though - for most dynamically typed programming languages, their natural state is static - bits sitting at rest on a disk somewhere. If you want to introspect your dynamic program, you need to embed a REPL or debugger or something in your program, and you need to do this for each and every program you work on.

Now, back to Smalltalk - it's the notable exception to the dynamically-typed trend above. Since a Smalltalk system is an ecosystem of live objects, it can know a lot more about itself than a bucket of bits on disk. This allows the environment to contain extremely sophisicated tooling - tooling that seems impossible for a dynamically typed language. After playing with Smalltalk for just a short period of time, it feels like the "regular" way of doing OO, as in Java or even Ruby, a Smalltalk inspiree, is somewhat lacking and one-dimensional. Smalltalk allows you to view your program, and even the environment, through a multi-dimensional view from many possible perspectives. It's as if you had a picture of a dog and were asked to divine certain properties about that dog, compared to having the actual dog next to you.

Encoding my expectations into the program

Another advantage that statically typed languages offer is they allow me to encode my expectations into the program. Even in a dynamically typed system, you have expectations on what a valid call to a function is - the argument is a string, or the argument implements the send method, or whatever. The difference is that you need to keep these expectations in your head while you're working. jEncoding these expectations helps ease load on the programmer's brain, helps others looking at the code understand how it's meant to be used, and helps tools, like the ones I describe above, gather information about the program.

With dynamically typed languages, you could encode your expectations in the form of a comment, but comments tend not to age well, nor are they verifiable by an automated tool like a compiler. It is for this reason that dynamically typed languages often encode expectations by way of tests, a technique which many statically typed languages advocate as well. Tests are great, but they are often separate from the implementation, so it's a step of indirection between looking at the code and surmising the author's original intent. Also, depending on how the tests are written, it can be difficult to figure out what the author's expectations were - god forbid there are bugs in the tests!

Another problem with TDD is that your tests need to be exhaustive, and they need to describe every situation for every program you write - for statically typed systems, it basically writes (some) tests for you based on what it can infer about your program.

Smalltalk is considered by many to be the community that invented TDD - xUnit-style testing, in fact, was prototyped by Kent Beck in, you guessed it, Smalltalk. Other than tests, Smalltalk doesn't really have a way to encode expectations into one's program, but this is probably why the testing culture is so strong.

Dynamically Typed Languages Aren't All Bad!

Now, judging from the previous few paragraphs, you may think that I loathe dynamically typed languages. Far from it! Much of my work is done in Perl (5 or 6), Python, and Lua, and I know that they are all of them powerful tools. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate the statically typed world from time to time. =)

I think dynamically typed languages are great for the "short story" analogue of programs; their flexibility is essential for prototyping. It think, however, that I would prefer a statically typed language when writing the programming equivalent of a novel. Having not written enough Smalltalk, I can't say if Smalltalk is suitable for writing such a program, but the passionate community behind Smalltalk seems to hint "yes".

Aside: Turning the Question on its Head

I just asked if a system like Smalltalk has my desired properties of a statically typed system; let's turn that question around: is being dynamically typed a required property of something like Smalltalk? When I talked about this on Twitter, Serge Stinckwich informed me of Strongtalk, a marriage of Smalltalk and static typing ideals. Sadly, it is no longer maintained. =( I would be very interested to hear about other research into this area; perhaps someone's already working on Strongtalk's spiritual successor?

Published on 2016-07-12