Notes on shifting edges

When I was younger I wrote poetry. I came into a practice of building poems that echoed each other, borrowing lines and phrases from one to the next.

Each poem was part of a network of imagery, the images almost like modules that could find new meaning in a new context. One of these lines was “shifting edges and shattered light” – originally referring to the waves of the sea, which have a brief individual identity before falling back into the whole, reflecting flashes of light in the process.

I imagined this kind of poem reflected the structure of thought; ideas connecting, disconnecting, forming larger concepts and then being forgotten. This churn happens constantly within a single mind, but also through communities and cultures, indeed helps bind and fracture and dissolve communities over time, like rivers cutting through rock.

Though there were years of overlap, as I became more serious about writing software, my poetry practice receded and eventually vanished.

It wasn’t until I was deep into a software practice that I started to connect this image to writing programs. When we build software systems an analogous process is at play.

We borrow some code from this module for that one, enlist a class that was intended for one purpose into a different task. The behavior shifts slightly. Two functions become one. One function splits into several, as our mental models shift and we seek congruence between our image of the system and the written structure of the system.

The whole project is about defining boundaries so that they can naturally shift in helpful ways. We migrate to new structures with more or less struggle depending on our luck and our ability to anticipate the dynamic needs of the community that relies on this code.

The boundaries of the community, of course, shift as well. The engineering team grows, and splits into several teams. The community of users discovers different use cases, “internal” tools are built, APIs allow other software systems to bring their own communities into contact with this system.

Each shift in the community requires changes to the software, so that the mental models of the practitioners remain congruent with the tools they are using. The tools we build are just language, with its precision, its ambiguity, its shifting edges.

Ben Judson