Let’s step back and review where this complexity comes from. In an attempt to model real-world phenomena, we made some apparently reasonable decisions: We modeled real-world objects with local state by computational objects with local variables. We identified time variation in the real world with time variation in the computer. We implemented the time variation of the states of the model objects in the computer with assignments to the local variables of the model objects.
Is there another approach? Can we avoid identifying time in the computer with time in the modeled world? Must we make the model change with time in order to model phenomena in a changing world? Think about the issue in terms of mathematical functions. We can describe the time-varying behavior of a quantity x as a function of time x(t). If we concentrate on x instant by instant, we think of it as a changing quantity. Yet if we concentrate on the entire time history of values, we do not emphasize change — the function itself does not change.
If time is measured in discrete steps, then we can model a time function as a (possibly infinite) sequence. In this section, we will see how to model change in terms of sequences that represent the time histories of the systems being modeled. To accomplish this, we introduce new data structures called streams. From an abstract point of view, a stream is simply a sequence. However, we will find that the straightforward implementation of streams as lists (as in section 2.2.1) doesn’t fully reveal the power of stream processing. As an alternative, we introduce the technique of delayed evaluation, which enables us to represent very large (even infinite) sequences as streams.
Stream processing lets us model systems that have state without ever using assignment or mutable data. This has important implications, both theoretical and practical, because we can build models that avoid the drawbacks inherent in introducing assignment. On the other hand, the stream framework raises difficulties of its own, and the question of which modeling technique leads to more modular and more easily maintained systems remains open.
Streams are a clever idea that allows one to use sequence manipulations without incurring the costs of manipulating sequences as lists. With streams we can achieve the best of both worlds: We can formulate programs elegantly as sequence manipulations, while attaining the efficiency of incremental computation. The basic idea is to arrange to construct a stream only partially, and to pass the partial construction to the program that consumes the stream. If the consumer attempts to access a part of the stream that has not yet been constructed, the stream will automatically construct just enough more of itself to produce the required part, thus preserving the illusion that the entire stream exists. In other words, although we will write programs as if we were processing complete sequences, we design our stream implementation to automatically and transparently interleave the construction of the stream with its use.
Our implementation of streams will be based on a special form called delay. Evaluating (delay <exp>) does not evaluate the expression <exp>, but rather returns a so-called delayed object, which we can think of as a “promise” to evaluate <exp> at some future time. As a companion to delay, there is a procedure called force that takes a delayed object as argument and performs the evaluation — in effect, forcing the delay to fulfill its promise.
We have seen how to support the illusion of manipulating streams as complete entities even though, in actuality, we compute only as much of the stream as we need to access. We can exploit this technique to represent sequences efficiently as streams, even if the sequences are very long. What is more striking, we can use streams to represent sequences that are infinitely long.
Streams with delayed evaluation can be a powerful modeling tool, providing many of the benefits of local state and assignment. Moreover, they avoid some of the theoretical tangles that accompany the introduction of assignment into a programming language.
The stream approach can be illuminating because it allows us to build systems with different module boundaries than systems organized around assignment to state variables. For example, we can think of an entire time series (or signal) as a focus of interest, rather than the values of the state variables at individual moments. This makes it convenient to combine and compare components of state from different moments.”