There is great power in being able to manipulate collective things as one single thing. It gives you simplicity, hence control. You can focus your attention on it and reason about it, even though behind the hood it is made of many parts. The composite thing is kept simple, therefore you can also deal with several of them at a time. This would not be possible if you had to deal with every part they are made of, because it would be overwhelming.
There exists many strategies to deal with collective things as if they were one single thing: statistics, multiple selection, groups, classifications and super-signs.
Statistics is probably the most obvious way to deal with collective things, when the things can be expressed as numbers. Historically it has been used with great results in physics, thermodynamics in particular.
It is all about extracting a few macro properties that we can reason on instead of the whole set of data:
- number of elements
- mean, deviation, moments, percentiles, etc.
- regression, clusters
- total property: total weight, total volume, total price
Many software applications enable you to select multiple elements at a time in order to apply one operation to each element:
- When sending an email, you can select multiple addresses to send to
- In a word processor, you can select several words, several paragraphs, or even all the document to copy, paste or apply formatting to each element
- In a spreadsheet, you can select multiple rows or columns to apply operations to, and you can also repeat formula for each row or column
The selected elements can be of the same kind or not. However for multiple selection to be useful, they must share at least something in common: the capability of being copied or pasted, or the fact that they are specific for a particular user.
When multiple selections are often needed, you can create groups. We can consider a group to be a multiple selection made explicit. You create a group and you explicitly add elements to it. Common examples of groups:
- Mailing lists are named groups of email addresses
- Vectors in maths
As for multiple selection, the elements in a group must share something in common. For example, they must all have a price. Elements of various kinds can be grouped if they relate to something common, for example the set of various data (name, address, phone number, preferred colour and date of birth) specific for a user is called a user profile.
A group is extensional. The elements in the group may or may not know they belong to a group.
Java packages are groups, and they are declared within the same file as the elements they refer to. Java classes also group fields and methods under one name.
The Composite pattern suggests to group objects that share the same interface into a Composite that also shares the same interface. The intent is to manipulate the collective set of objects as if it was one single object, i.e. without knowing it is collective.
You get control over multiple things if you just classify them. Given several flowers, if you classify them into categories, then you can talk about several flowers collectively without having to enumerate each of them: the category is a way to refer to several flowers with just one name.
Classifications enable intensional grouping. This means that groups are defined not by the set of their elements, but by a condition (predicate) to be satisfied. The condition can test for the category of something (is this animal a bird?), or test for its attribute (is this car red?).
Of course abstraction is one particular way to classify.
Java modifiers (private, public, abstract, interface etc.) classify Java elements, and can be used to refer collectively to them, as in “let’s generate the Javadoc for every public elements”.
There are elements that exhibit a special property when considered together as a whole. For example, the ink dots on the paper can be seen as letters. Letters next to each other can be seen together as words, which again can be seen together as sentences, and then again up to the novel. Collective arrangements of multiple things that together exhibit a property are called super signs.
This phenomenon is related to emergence, and only exists for a given observer if he can recognize the super sign.
In science in general, we use models to account for the collective behavior of several elements, typically objects with measurable properties, and forces in action.
In a Java program, idioms and patterns can be considered super signs for those who know them.
Manipulating multiple things in a simple way really matters, it is a life saver.
In software development it is paramount because it is a lever you use to manage tons of data with no effort. The art is to find the way you think about collective things that reduces the most your effort.
I already mentioned this topic in previous posts: group together things that go together, don’t make things artificially different, and my definition of abstraction, because abstraction is an essential way to refer to different things in what they share in common.