I just1 finished reading The Curse of Bigness by Tim Wu. The book is a history of American antitrust law, starting from the ideas of Louis Brandeis to how those ideas were dismantling by The Chicago School in the 1960s(??) to where we are in present day.
I learned that Brandeis' ideas of "antitrust" (as in, anti the Trust Movement) came from the belief that large businesses are market manipulators, and make promises of efficiency and economies of scale that they can't actually keep. Brandeis believed that private firms that grew too large and centralized not only weren't efficient, but they could influence government, crush competition, and squash innovation. This, he believed, was anti-American democracy, and antitrust law was the cure.
In the 1960s, the laws that originated from this idea were re-interpreted from an economic viewpoint. Lawyers with economic backgrounds pushed the idea that the question isn't "is a business too big?", the question is "is it bad for consumers?" In other words, does the existence of this monopoly increase prices?
I think the book is fascinating, but I couldn't help but connect it to software architecture.
In programming, we have the concept of a God object, an object or interface that it contains essentially the whole program. Or at leas the most important parts of it.
In Turborepo (a tool that runs your tasks), for example, until recently
was over 1000 lines of code. In a previous job, a large monorepo had a class
simply called "BusinessLogic".
I used to think "God" classes got their name because they are large and connect to everything. But after reading about the origins of antitrust, I now also see how they have undue influence over the rest of the codebase or system. We often see that monolithic pieces of code can be difficult to maneuver around.
Putting all our code in a single line script is surely more efficient up to a certain point, but at some point it fails to deliver on the promise of that efficiency.
A recurring problem for software engineers is that "too big" is not a defensible reason to refactor. It's subjective, hard to enforce, and frankly, an annoying standard to maintain over time.
The Chicago School took advantage of this Too Hard To Enforce practicality, when it suggested that the only measure of the "bigness" is whether or not it hurts consumers. Lawyers and judges love this argument because it is an easier metric to optimize for.
In the software world, "breaking up" big classes is viewed from the same lens: "does it hurt end users?" The underlying sentiment is that "too big" is a subjective measure and if it's getting the job done, then why does it matter?
I like this parallel because it gives me the vocabulary to talk about The Curse of Bigness. On a philosophical level, Brandeis, and Tim Wu believe that Trusts run afoul of the American idea of decentralized power with checks and balances. We can compare this to the Single Responsibility Principle: do one thing and do it well. This serves us well in theory.
On a practical level, centralization yields subpar products, and kills innovation. Wu explores this from the antitrust case of AT&T in 1970s. When the telecom juggernaut was broken up, Wu contends that it gave rise to whole new technology, new products, and new industries.
In software, you can see the same power dynamic with monolithic code. Monolithic code contains general-purpose logic that is so tangled with its surrounding that it cannot easily be reused. Or monolith code, just by being big, slows down anything sitting next to it (e.g. slower CI). Or monolithic code is so central to the codebase that anything that interacts with it has to play by its rules.
Note to reader: The Curse of Bigness proposes solutions to these problems too, but I've sat on this post for long enough now that I wanted to optimize for publishing instead of getting the perfect content.
- "Just" is somewhat inaccurate now. I read the book early in 2023, and started writing this post and didn't feel satisfied enough to publish. I still don't feel satisfied, but am publishing anyway, since it's unlikely that I make more progress on this.