Blackbox Vs Whitebox

This doc page is specific to features shipped in Scala 2, which have either been removed in Scala 3 or replaced by an alternative. Unless otherwise stated, all the code examples in this page assume you are using Scala 2.


Eugene Burmako

Separation of macros into blackbox ones and whitebox ones is a feature of Scala 2.11.x and Scala 2.12.x. The blackbox/whitebox separation is not supported in Scala 2.10.x. It is also not supported in macro paradise for Scala 2.10.x.

Why macros work?

With macros becoming a part of the official Scala 2.10 release, programmers in research and industry have found creative ways of using macros to address all sorts of problems, far extending our original expectations.

In fact, macros became an important part of our ecosystem so quickly that just a couple of months after the release of Scala 2.10, when macros were introduced in experimental capacity, we had a Scala language team meeting and decided to standardize macros and make them a full-fledged feature of Scala by 2.12.

UPDATE It turned out that it was not that simple to stabilize macros by Scala 2.12. Our research into that has resulted in establishing a new metaprogramming foundation for Scala, called scala.meta, whose first beta is expected to be released simultaneously with Scala 2.12 and might later be included in future versions of Scala. In the meanwhile, Scala 2.12 is not going to see any changes to reflection and macros - everything is going to stay experimental as it was in Scala 2.10 and Scala 2.11, and no features are going to be removed. However, even though circumstances under which this document has been written have changed, the information still remains relevant, so please continue reading.

Macro flavors are plentiful, so we decided to carefully examine them to figure out which ones should be put in the standard. This entails answering a few important questions. Why are macros working so well? Why do people use them?

Our hypothesis is that this happens because the hard to comprehend notion of metaprogramming expressed in def macros piggybacks on the familiar concept of a typed method call. Thanks to that, the code that users write can absorb more meaning without becoming bloated or losing comprehensibility.

Blackbox and whitebox macros

However, sometimes def macros transcend the notion of “just a regular method”. For example, it is possible for a macro expansion to yield an expression of a type that is more specific than the return type of macro. In Scala 2.10, such expansion will retain its precise type as highlighted in the “Static return type of Scala macros” article at Stack Overflow.

This curious feature provides additional flexibility, enabling fake type providers, extended vanilla materialization, fundep materialization and extractor macros, but it also sacrifices clarity - both for humans and for machines.

To concretize the crucial distinction between macros that behave just like normal methods and macros that refine their return types, we introduce the notions of blackbox macros and whitebox macros. Macros that faithfully follow their type signatures are called blackbox macros as their implementations are irrelevant to understanding their behaviour (could be treated as black boxes). Macros that can’t have precise signatures in Scala’s type system are called whitebox macros (whitebox def macros do have signatures, but these signatures are only approximations).

We recognize the importance of both blackbox and whitebox macros, however we feel more confidence in blackbox macros, because they are easier to explain, specify and support. Therefore, our plans to standardize macros only include blackbox macros. Later on, we might also include whitebox macros into our plans, but it’s too early to tell.

Codifying the distinction

In the 2.11 release, we take first step of standardization by expressing the distinction between blackbox and whitebox macros in signatures of def macros, so that scalac can treat such macros differently. This is just a preparatory step, so both blackbox and whitebox macros remain experimental in Scala 2.11.

We express the distinction by replacing scala.reflect.macros.Context with scala.reflect.macros.blackbox.Context and scala.reflect.macros.whitebox.Context. If a macro impl is defined with blackbox.Context as its first argument, then macro defs that are using it are considered blackbox, and analogously for whitebox.Context. Of course, the vanilla Context is still there for compatibility reasons, but it issues a deprecation warning encouraging to choose between blackbox and whitebox macros.

Blackbox def macros are treated differently from def macros of Scala 2.10. The following restrictions are applied to them by the Scala typechecker:

  1. When an application of a blackbox macro expands into tree x, the expansion is wrapped into a type ascription (x: T), where T is the declared return type of the blackbox macro with type arguments and path dependencies applied in consistency with the particular macro application being expanded. This invalidates blackbox macros as an implementation vehicle of type providers.
  2. When an application of a blackbox macro still has undetermined type parameters after Scala’s type inference algorithm has finished working, these type parameters are inferred forcedly, in exactly the same manner as type inference happens for normal methods. This makes it impossible for blackbox macros to influence type inference, prohibiting fundep materialization.
  3. When an application of a blackbox macro is used as an implicit candidate, no expansion is performed until the macro is selected as the result of the implicit search. This makes it impossible to dynamically calculate availability of implicit macros.
  4. When an application of a blackbox macro is used as an extractor in a pattern match, it triggers an unconditional compiler error, preventing customizations of pattern matching implemented with macros.

Whitebox def macros work exactly like def macros used to work in Scala 2.10. No restrictions of any kind get applied, so everything that could be done with macros in 2.10 should be possible in 2.11 and 2.12.

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