Sunday, May 27, 2007

Art and XML: Reactions Against Complexity

Recently, I've thought about a common theme between art and computer science: the "reaction against complexity".

This phrase seems to come up a lot in art, whether it is music, architecture, or visual art. Almost all of the schools (e.g. the Impressionists) seem to come about in reaction to something. Often, it is complexity.

The Bubble

I wonder if anything sets out to be complicated. It often seems like there is an idea that is embraced, then added to, reused, refactored, and eventually pushed into an ever-expanding range of uses. Then, there is a lightning bolt that jars everyone into the realization that, "hey, we are in an era of complexity right now -- how did that happen?".

Here's some examples from art... (These may be grossly over-simplified!)


An easy, contemporary example is hard rock/metal in the late 1980s (in North America and Europe). Throughout the decade, the style had grown from its bluesy roots in Led Zeppelin to having shrill, operatic vocals, and guitar solos with amazing technical virtuosity. Bombastic looks and videos ruled the day.

Then along came a band out of Seattle, and nothing was the same. Seemingly overnight.

Cool Jazz

In the 1940's, a primary form of American jazz was bebop. Bebop was known for its fast tempos and sophisticated ideas for melody, harmony, and rhythm. Miles Davis, in his first stint as band leader, took things in a new direction with a landmark recording called "Birth of the Cool". To quote this website, "The cool jazz style has been described as a reaction against... [the excess] of bebop and is generally more relaxed". There's that phrase again.

Modern Architecture

Modern architecture is a style that began in the early 20th century. It's characterized by simple geometric lines and a distinct lack of ornamentation. Ultimately, it led the way to the skyscraper. To quote one of the founders, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe: "Less is more". (Sound familiar in the geek world?)

To paraphrase Wikipedia, some historians feel that the Modern school is a "reaction against" the excesses of the movement known as Art Nouveau (an example is here).

Convention over configuration

This is not news but we geeks seem to be emerging from an orgy of XML (aka The Bubble), where it has been used for everything. Most of this use is predicated by configuration: Struts 1.x, EJB 2, and the list goes on.

Of course, the lightning bolt has been Ruby on Rails. Most readers will know that the bumper sticker for the RoR camp is "convention over configuration": just do the natural thing with a minimal, simple set of files, and the framework will take care of the rest. Why over-specify everything all the time?

Similarly, annotations have simplified EJB 3 and JAX-WS. XML is invaluable, no doubt, but perhaps the days of excess are over? I have heard several speakers talk about the "old days of XML hell" with "legacy" frameworks (which are only a few years old).

Perhaps this is Struts 1.x?

Perhaps the historians will talk about a new age of frameworks "as a reaction against complexity"....

The Upshot

Whether it's in your own project or in the Java scene, keep an eye out for complexity and note the reactions to it. It's fun to guess what the "next bubble" will be. Based on patterns in art, my guess is that annotations themselves will be the Next Bubble. They fix a problem, are being embraced, then added to, reused -- wait, haven't we heard this before?

1 comment:

rhyolight said...

It seems like the evolution of anything operates in an exponential curve that is stretching toward an asymptote. Then just when the curve is at its greatest acceleration, it levels off into a plateau that is really just the beginning of another exponential growth.

The mindblowing thing about this is that both these curves are just "s"-shapes in an even larger curve of technological evolution, which is a curve in our own human evolution.

I think what we have to do is learn as much as we can about a type of technology until the "bubble" bursts, then jump into the newer technologies with the same vigor, knowing that there will be another bubble coming up that we'll have to escape from in the future.