Go 2 Generics: Contracts are too clever

November 16, 2018

The biggest and most contentious thing in the Go 2 Draft Designs is its proposal for generics. Part of the proposal is a way to specify things about the types that generic functions can be used on, in the form of contracts. Let me quote from the overview:

[...] In general an implementation may need to constrain the possible types that can be used. For example, we might want to define a Set(T), implemented as a list or map, in which case values of type T must be able to be compared for equality. To express that, the draft design introduces the idea of a named contract. A contract is like a function body illustrating the operations the type must support. For example, to declare that values of type T must be comparable:

contract Equal(t T) {
    t == t

This is a clever trick (among other things it basically avoids adding any new syntax to Go to define contracts), but my view is that it is in fact too clever. Using function bodies with operations in them to define the valid types is essentially prioritizing minimal additions to the language and the compiler over everything else. The result is easy for the compiler to use (it just runs types through contract bodies in a regular typechecking process) but provides generally bad to terrible ergonomics for everything else.

In practice, contracts will be consumed and used by far more than the compiler. People will read contracts to understand error messages about 'your doesn't satisfy this contract', to understand what they need to do to create types that can be used with generic functions they're interested in, to see how to specify something for their own generic functions, to try to understand mistakes that they made in their own contracts, and to understand what a contract actually requires (as opposed to what the code comments claim it requires, because we all know about what happens to code comments eventually). IDE systems will read contracts so they can figure out what types can be suggested as type parameters for generic functions. Code analysis will read contracts for all sorts of reasons, including spotting unnecessarily requirements that the implementation doesn't actually need.

All of these parties and all of these purposes are badly served by contracts which require you to understand the language and its subtle implications at a deep level. For instance, take this contract:

contract Example(t T) {

The implications of both lines are reasonably subtle; the first featured in a quiz by Dave Cheney, and the second requires certain sorts of return values and what the .Len() method is on, as covered as part of addressable values in Go. I would maintain that neither are obvious to a person (certainly they aren't to me without careful research), and they might or might not be easily understood by code (certainly they're the kind of corner cases that code could easily be wrong on).

Part of the bad ergonomics of contracts here is that they look simple and straightforward while hiding subtle traps in the fine details. I've illustrated one version of that here, and the detailed draft design actually shows several other examples. I could go on with more examples (consider the wildly assorted type requirements of various arithmetic operators, for example).

Go contracts do not seem designed to be read by anything but the compiler. This is a mistake; computer languages are in large part about communicating with other people, including your future self, not with the computer. If we're in doubt, we should bias language design toward being clearly and easily read by people, not toward the compiler. Go generally has this bias, preferring clean communication over excessive cleverness. The current version of contracts seem quite at odds with this.

(This is especially striking because other parts of the Go 2 Draft Designs are about making Go clearer for people. The error handling proposal, for example, is all about making Go code read better by hiding repetitive patterns.)

PS: The Go team may have the view that only a few people will ever create generics and thus contracts, and mostly everyone else will read the excellent documentation that these very few people have carefully written. I think that the Go team is quite wrong here; I expect to see generics sprout like mushrooms across Go codebases, at least for the first few years. In general I would argue that if generics are successful, we can expect to see them widely used, which means that many generics and contracts will not be written or read by people who are deep experts with Go. A necessary consequence of this wide use will be that some amount of it will be with contracts and code created partly through superstition in various forms.

Written on 16 November 2018.
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Last modified: Fri Nov 16 01:04:00 2018
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