You Can’t Store Meaning In Software

I’ve had some recent conversations at work which made me realize I needed to make some of the implications of my other posts more obvious and explicit. In this case, while I posted awhile ago about How Meaning Attaches to Data Structures I never really carried the conversation forward.

Here is the basic, fundamental mistake that we software developers make (and others) in talking about our own software. Namely, we start thinking that the data structure and programs actually and directly hold the meaning we intend. That if we do things right, that our data structures, be they tables with rows and columns or POJOs (Plain Old Java Objects) in a Domain layer, just naturally and explicitly contain the meaning.

The problem is, that whatever symbols we make in the computer, the computer can only hold structure. Our programs are only manipulating addresses in memory (or disk) and only comparing sequences of bits (themselves just voltages on wires). Now through the programming process, we developers create extremely sophisticated manipulations of these bits, and we are constantly translating one sequence of bits into another in some regular, predictable way. This includes pushing our in-memory patterns onto storage media (and typically constructing a different pattern of bits), and pushing our in-memory patterns onto video screens in forms directly interpretable by trained human users (such as displaying ASCII numbers as characters in an alphabet forming words in a language which can be read).

This is all very powerful, and useful, but it works only because we humans have projected meaning onto the bit patterns and processes. We have written the code so that our bit symbol representing a “1” can be added to another bit symbol “1” and the program will produce a new bit symbol that we, by convention, will say represents a value of “2”.

The software doesn’t know what any of this means. We could have just as easily defined the meaning of the same signs and processing logic in some other way (perhaps, for instance, to indicate that we have received signals from two different origins, maybe to trigger other processing).

Why This Is Important

The comment was made to me that “if we can just get the conceptual model right, then the programming should be correct.”  I won’t go into the conversation more deeply, but it lead me to thinking how to explain why that was not the best idea.

Here is my first attempt.

No matter how good a conceptual model you create, how complete, how general, how accurate to a domain, there is no way to put it into the computer. The only convention we have as programmers when we want to project meaning into software is that we define physical signs and processes which manipulate them in a way consistent with the meaning we intend.

This is true whether we manifest our conceptual model in a data model, or an object model, or a Semantic Web ontology, or a rules framework, or a set of tabs on an Excel file, or an XML schema, or … The point is the computer can only store the sign portion of our symbols and never the concept so if you intend to create a conceptual model of a domain, and have it inform and/or direct the operation of your software, you are basically just writing more signs and processes.

Now if you want some flexibility, there are many frameworks you can use to create a symbollic “model” of a “conceptual model” and then you can tie your actual solution to this other layer of software. But in the most basic, reductionist sense, all you’ve done is write more software manipulating one set of signs in a manner that permits them to be interpreted as representing a second set of signs, which themselves only have meaning in the human interpretation.

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