Why GOO has GOO (Generic Object-Orientation)?

This message is a response to Paul Graham's: Why Arc Isn't Especially Object-Oriented. I acknowledge that GOO isn't the most conventional style of object-orientation as recently detailed by Jonathan Rees.

What is GOO?

The salient aspects of GOO are represented by Dylan's object system and comprise such qualities as: (1) objects all the way down, (2) class heterarchy, and (3) multimethod dispatch. Furthermore, GOO avoids being object-centric by providing powerful functional programming facilities that allow users to ignore the better portion of the object system if they choose and to instead program in a functional style. In other words, the base GOO provides a substrate upon which to write Scheme-style programs.

My overriding contention is that these GOO qualities are already latent in Scheme and by bringing them to the surface we exact certain benefits. Taking the various qualities one by one, Scheme already has self identification of objects as the most basic level (e.g., integer?), has a class hierarchy or abstract data types organized into a tower of subtypes (e.g., number, integer), and has protocols and arguably rudimentary multimethod dispatch (e.g., +). Unfortunately, there is no easy way to harness this latent power.

Equal rights for users

It has always been a language design principle of mine that anything that's good for the language core libraries will most likely be good for users. Now it is not always possible for designers to provide mechanisms such that user libraries can look like system libraries, but i maintain that such mechanisms will not only provide the sort of advantages that recommended these designs to language designers in the first place but will also make user code interoperate more seamlessly with system code.

Of course Scheme could be written in terms of typecase expressions, writing for example + as a big ole cascaded type case. Unfortunately, it is my belief that this is an awkward definition of + that fails on many counts, the first being that it does not allow for a factoring of code into natural categories and the second being that it creates sealed protocols.


Programmers and designers can not possibly think of all requirements on a language or library up front, so it is crucial to design for changing requirements. Guy Steele effectively articulated this point in his 1998 OOPSLA invited lecture entitled Growing a Language saying that it is potentially more (or at least equally) important that language designers provide extensibility mechanisms than to think of all possible features that might be used. Guy has said most of what I'm saying here, but the point is that it is my contention that GOO provides an excellent substrate with which to grow a language and to write libraries.

Now going back to the running example of +, if Scheme implementers were to write + as a moby typecase, it would be difficult for Scheme users to extend + to handle new types of numbers, for instance. By writing + as a generic function and a bunch of builtin methods, the implementor has written + in such a way as to allow users to extend + on equal footing.


Now say that despite what I've said up to this point, you think that GOO is a fad and you really just want to provide a lambda-based substrate like Scheme upon which users can write their own GOO. This is certainly a worthy goal, but unfortunately, the sad fact is that there are no Scheme implementations available that can do this without exacting a cost.

I also contend that implementing GOO efficiently and writing the system code in GOO forces a certain efficiency equality, that is, user code can run as fast as system code. In other words, most of the effort spent in bumming the GOO for system code will pay off for user code as well. The usual Scheme implementation trickery provides an unfair advantage to system code.


GOO provides an elegant framework with which to level the playing field giving users the power to define libraries in the spirit of the core libraries. Furthermore, users' libraries and even the core libraries can be extended without losing this original spirit. At the very least, GOO is a way to describe what is already latent in Scheme.

Scheme would be an even smaller gem if it were entirely redefined in GOO style. For example, many of the type-specific functions would be replaced by protocols. In particular, integer? and number? would be replaced with isa? and vector-ref and string-ref would be replaced by elt. I'm not sure how to measure this shrinkage, but to my mind, it would impose a certain structure and consistency that would make the overall language and libraries simpler. Of course, there would be a small increase in complexity by adding GOO itself but I think that this would be a well spent one time cost.

This self-representation advantage is only the beginning. For example, GOO protocols provide a mechanism to break free of the "use lists for everything" (ULFE) mentality that defeats the advantages of abstraction. Lisp and Scheme generally tends to encourage this practice because it is inordinately difficult to define and manipulate new abstract data types, certainly more difficult to do so than to just use a list. In GOO, new collection classes can be easily created by merely implementing a simple collection protocol. Paul Graham seems to argue (perhaps in a tongue in cheek manner) that creating new classes is busy work for mediocre programmers. I find the whole ULFE philosophy to be not too different from using raw integers for symbols or arrays for records (or objects). Sure you might get short term wins by avoiding the "busy work" of defining new data types, but don't you then create an unmaintainable code base. Even SICP encourages the creation of abstact data types. Why not make that even easier with GOO?


For more information on GOO, consult the Dylan Reference Manual and the GOO Reference Manual. GOO and Dylan both stand on the shoulders of several giants including CLOS.

Jonathan Bachrach
Last modified: Wed Feb 1 00:01:06 EST 2006