Blog: Oracles from the Inside Out, Part 5: Oracles as References as Media

Try asking testers how they recognize problems. Many will respond that they compare the product to its specification, and when they see an inconsistency between the product and its specification, they report a bug. Others will talk about creating and running automated checks, using tools to compare output from the product to specific, pre-determined, expected results; when the product produces a result inconsistent with expectations, the check identifies a bug which the tester then reports to the developer or manager. It might be tempting to think of this as moving from the bottom right quadrant on this table to the bottom left.

Traditional talk about oracles refers almost exclusively to references. W.E. Howden, who introduced “oracle” as a term of testing art, said that an oracle as “an external mechanism which can be used to check test output for correctness”. Yet thinking of oracles in terms of correctness leads to some pretty serious problems. (I’ve outlined some of them here).

In the Rapid Software Testing namespace, we take a different, broader view of oracles. Rather than focusing on correctness, we focus on problems: an oracle is a means by which we recognize a problem when we encounter one during testing. Checking for correctness, as Howden puts it, may severely limit our capacity to notice many kinds of problems. A product or service can be correct with respect to some principle, but have plenty of problems that aren’t identified by that principle; and a product can produce incorrect results without the incorrectness representing a problem for anyone. When testers fixate on documented requirements, there’s a risk that they will restrict their attention to looking for inconsistencies with specific claims; when testers fixate on automated checks, there’s a risk that they will restrict their focus to inconsistency with a comparable algorithm. Focus your attention too narrowly on a particular oracle—or a particular class of oracle—and you can be confident of one thing: you’ll miss lots of bugs.

Documents and tools are media. In the most general sense, “medium” is descriptive of something in between, like “small” and “large”. But “medium” as a noun, a medium, can be between lots of things. A communication medium like radio sits between performers and an audience; a psychic medium, so the claim goes, provides a bridge between a person and the spirit world; when people want to exchange things of value, they use often use money as a medium for the exchange. Marshall McLuhan, an early and influential media theorist, said that a medium is anything that humans create or use to effect change. Media are tools, technologies that people use to extend, enhance, enable, accelerate, or intensify human capabilities. Extension is the most obvious and prominent effect of media. Most people think of media in terms of communications media. A medium can certainly be printed pages or television screens that enable messages to be conveyed from one person to another. McLuhan viewed the phonetic alphabet as a technology—a medium that extended the range of speech over great distances and accelerated its transmission. But a cup of coffee is a medium too; it extends alertness and wakefulness, and when consumed socially with others, it can extend conversation and friendliness. Media, placed between a product and our observation of it, extend our capacity to recognize bugs.

McLuhan emphasized that media change things in many different ways at the same time. In addition to extending or enabling or accelerating our capabilities, McLuhan said, every new medium obsolesces one or more existing media, grabbing our attention away from old things; every new medium retrieves notions of formerly obsolescent media, making old things new again. McLuhan used heat as a metaphor for the degree to which media require the involvement of the user; a “cool” medium like radio, he said, requires the listener to participate and fill in the missing pieces of the experience; a “hot” medium like a movie, provides stimulation to the ear and especially the eye, requiring less engagement from the viewer. Every medium, when “overheated” (McLuhan’s term for a medium that has been stretched or extended beyond its original or intended capacity), reverses into the opposite of what it might have been originally intended to accomplish. Socrates (and the King of Egypt) recognized that writing could extend memory, but could reverse into forgetfulness (see Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus). Coffee extends alertness and conversation, but too much of it and people become too wired work and too addled to chat. A medium always draws attention to itself to some degree; an overheated medium may dazzle us so much that we begin to ignore what it contains or what we intended it to do for us. More importantly, a medium affects us. This is one of the implications of McLuhan’s famous but oblique statement “the medium is the message”. By “message”, he means “the change of scale or pace or pattern” that a new invention or innovation “introduces into human affairs.” (This explanation comes from Mark Federman, to whom I’m indebted for explaining McLuhan’s work to me over the years.)

When we pay attention, we can easily observe media overheating both in talk about testing and development work and in the work itself. Documents and tools frequently dominate conversations. In some organizations, a problem won’t be considered a bug unless it is inconsistent with an explicit statement in a specification or requirements document. Yet documents are only partial representations, subsets, of what people claim to have known or believed at some point in time, and times change. In some places, testing work is dominated by automated checking. Checks can be very valuable, providing great precision and fast feedback. But checks may focus on functional aspects of the product, and less on other parafunctional attributes.

McLuhan’s work emphasizes that media are essentially neutral, agnostic to our purposes. It is our engagement with media that produces good or bad outcomes—good and bad outcomes. Perhaps the most important implication of McLuhan’s work is that media amplify whatever we are. If we’re fabulous testers, our tools extend our capabilities, helping us to be even more fabulous. But if we’re incompetent, tools extend our incompetence, allowing us to do bad testing faster and worse than we’ve ever been able to do it before. To the degee that we are inclined to avoid conflict and arguments, we will use documents to help us avoid conflict and arguments; to the degree that we are inclined to welcome discussion and the refinement of ideas, then documents can help us do that. If we are disposed to be alert to a wide range of problems, automated checks will help us as we diversify our scope; if we are oblivious to certain kinds of problems in the product, automated checks will amplify our oblivion.

Reference oracles—documents, checking tools, representative data, comparable products—are unquestionably media, extending all of the other kinds of oracles: private and shared mental models, both private and shared feelings, conversations with others, and principles of consistency. How can we evaluate them? What do we use them for? And how can we use them to help us find problems without letting them overwhelm or displace all the other ways we might have of finding problems? That’s the subject of the next post.

Want to know more? Learn about Rapid Software Testing classes here.

3 responses to “Oracles from the Inside Out, Part 5: Oracles as References as Media”

  1. Kristjan Uba says:

    Reading this reinforces my understanding that there is no ‘correct way’ to do anything. As long as you make a conscious decision – meaning that you fully understand the pros and cons of it – you can do anything you think is best in given situation. Be it lots of automation or completely freeform testing.
    When you are aware of the limitations of your approaches you can choose another way to compensate. When you just do what ‘everyone else is doing’ you will get into trouble.

  2. praveeen says:

    Here’s how to get a comment redacted: make sure that all you provide is a link to LoadRunner training.

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