On the unambiguous usefulness of tools (in software and elsewhere)

November 5, 2016 by Lucian Mogosanu

In one of my previous essays I mentioned this rare property of software, of being "unambiguously useful".

This property applies -- or it very often doesn't -- to all things. For example hammers are unambiguously useful, as they can be used for driving nails into stuff. Phones are unambiguously useful because they can be used for talking over long distances. And so forth.

Tools on the other hand may be used in contexts where they are clearly not useful, or where their usefulness is otherwise unclear. For example it doesn't really make sense to drive an automobile in overcrowded towns where the traffic is high, where walking could be at least as efficient. Computers by themselves are for example not useful in any unambiguous way: they may be used for one purpose or another depending on their performance and/or the software they have installed, but they may also be used for completely irrational, anti-economical purposes, as the market-driven monkeys often do.

In computing the "tool-based approach" can sometimes be a particularly harmful beast1. Nevermind that CAD2 tools haven't helped bring anything new to fields such as, say, architecture. The number of tools available to solve (often general-purpose) problems in computers has exploded, often without any real positive impact on the fields they're used in3. This would not be by itself a problem if it weren't for those naïve wielders who think that the tool will solve all their problems, and who come to rely on the tool more than on the funny thing between their shoulders. But given this context, we can indeed say that tools may be not merely unproductive, but also counterproductive; and not merely useless, but also harmful.

So now that we know for sure that this ambiguity of usefulness is prevalent throughout the various areas of technology, we can fortunately draw from the examples above to define more precisely what it means for a tool to be "unambiguously useful". I happen to think that the following is a very good criterion for judging the usefulness of tools, in software and in general:

Tools are unambiguously useful if and only if they are used to replace human labour, and not the human mind.

For example a pocket calculator is unambiguously useful because it can do all that basic arithmetics faster and less error prone than you; it's however not meant to replace your knowledge of basic arithmetics. Compilers and interpreters are useful because they can automatically translate programs from a convenient4 level of abstraction to machine code. Operating systems5 provide users with a minimal set of tools to help the user automate tasks that would normally take a lot of time to perform.

As a counter-example, tools that aim to automatically find bugs in computer software are usually not unambiguously useful, although they might seem to be. While they may be successful at their task, they may also encourage their users to express intellectual laziness by yielding only dry results, without any improvement in the understanding of the root cause of said bugs6. The same can be said about automated spell checkers in the hands of the functionally illiterate.

So in general tools are unambiguously useful if they help you do the same stupid7 shit you normally do, but with significantly less effort.


  1. Or, as ol' Dijkstra would say, "tool-based software(-based) engineering considered harmful". 

  2. Computer-assisted, or Computer-aided Design. 

  3. Take programming languages for example. We nowadays have languages (Coq, Isabelle/HOL, Agda, etc.) that allow programmers to mechanically verify the correctness of their implementations with respect to some specification. How many programs do you know that are even partially implemented this way? I can name a few, but only a very few.

    Take Integrated Development Environments (IDEs) as another example. There is no doubt about the fact that they often come with very useful features, but is there any qualitative measure of their help in improving software? I'll leave this thought experiment to the reader. 

  4. Although "convenient" is definitely not an unambiguous description. Going too high or too low up or down the abstraction ladder can be a bullet in the foot, depending on what you're implementing. 

  5. By which I mean professional operating systems, not Windows, or whatever people use nowadays for gaming.

    Y'know, the ones with the nasty command-line shells and whatnot. 

  6. This is inherent in the definition of "computer bugs". Analysis tools may detect simple bugs such as buffer overflows, but they will never be able to help the programmer to properly code buffer overflow-free software in the future, while buffer overflows are the main cause of some of the nasty security bugs in the 2010s.

    Meanwhile there are classes of bugs, such as semantic bugs, that can only be detected through thorough testing or other methods such as formal verification. In short, they demand intellectual resources and huge chunks of attention, which are the scarcest things out there. Ain't nobody got time fo' that, unfortunately. 

  7. Do not, I repeat, do not dismiss this as mere claptrap. If anything, the goal of artificial intelligence is of a purely philosophical nature. With all the fancy AI algorithms, we still don't understand precisely why some of the tasks that seem so simple to us are mind-blowingly hard to program into a computer.

    AI and "cognitive science" will advance beyond snake oil by finding the answers to such questions, not by turning people into statistical models. But I repeat myself. 

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  1. [...] as any other tool, hold no power by themselves. You need someone to sift through them and arrange them in the proper [...]

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