Friday, February 12, 2010

Form vs. Function: a Space Odyssey

I was teaching Object Oriented Design past week, and I mentioned the interplay between form and function (form follows function; function follows form). I'm rather cautious not to spend too much time on philosophy, although a little philosophy shouldn't hurt, and people who know me tend to expect a short philosophical digression every now and then.

Function follows form: that is to say, the shape of an object will suggest possible uses. Form follows function: the intended usage of an object will constrain, and therefore guide, its physical shape. This is true for software objects as well. It's just a different material, something we can't immediately see and shape with our hands.

Realizing that function follows form is a pivotal moment in the development of intelligence. You probably remember the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The apes are touching the monolith and, shortly after, one of them is playing with a bone and bang! - it's not just a bone anymore: it's a tool. Function follows form. This chapter is known as "The Dawn of Man", and rightly so.

Watch a little more, and you'll see a doughnut-shaped space station. That's a very good example of form following function (exercise for the reader :-)

By the way, if you have never seen that apes stuff till now :-), here it is, at least until it gets removed from YouTube...