JavaScript live bindings are just concatenation

The other day I wrote an intro to ECMAScript modules, and concluded that “live bindings” are a fundamentally new magic language feature. I wrote things like:

The form import { n } from './counter.js' is like import * as tmp from './counter.js'; const n = tmp.n. But it’s not the same if a is a mutable value! Here we can truly see the “live bindings” at work:

import { n, incr as increment } from './counter.js';
console.log(typeof n);  // claims that n is just an ordinary 'number' ...
console.log(n);         // with the value 5
increment();            // so this shouldn't do anything ...
console.log(n);         // but now n == 6! Only possible with 'live bindings'.
                        // OK, so if `n` can change, can't we change it from here?
n++;                    // Nope, this throws "Assignment to constant variable"!

The above would be impossible in old-school JavaScript, a lexically scoped language. Some (unpleasant) magic is going on here.

I wasn’t exactly wrong, but there is a much easier way to understand the semantics of ECMAScript modules, which doesn’t invoke the new idea of a “live binding”: ECMAScript modules are just concatenation! Well, almost.

I realized this when looking at the output from rollup, an ECMAScript module bundler. You give it an “entry point” file with ECMAScript imports, and it spits out a bundle in plain old JavaScript, with no “live binding” magic. That bundle is basically concatenation with some variables renamed. Here’s an example input:

// counter.js
export let n = 0;
export function increment() { n++; };

// main.js
import { n, increment } from './counter.js';

And here’s what rollup spits out when bundling main.js:

let n = 0;
function increment() { n++; };


If you’ve ever seen the output from a CommonJS bundler, you’ll find this output comparatively pleasant. It’s precisely the input modules, with the import and export annotations stripped, then concatenated. A “live binding” is then just an ordinary variable at the top-level scope.

Onto the details and corner-cases. Consider a restricted form of ES modules, in which you can only write:

export { x, y, z };               // Exporting
import { x, y } from './foo.js';  // Importing

With this restricted form, executing a module basically means:

  1. Gather all of its dependencies.
  2. Sort the dependencies topologically.
  3. Concatenate all the dependencies.
  4. Execute the concatenated file.

There are just a few error cases to check for. If you find a circular dependency between modules, that’s an error. If a module assigns to an imported variable, that’s an error. These are static checks before execution.

However, ES modules have some other forms of export and import. Most can be dealt with by just renaming variables. The form import { x as y } is dealt with by renaming the variable y to x. Similarly, the (bizarre and useless) “default export” feature just amounts to giving a fresh name to the default export.

The form import * as foo causes more trouble, because it allows dynamic access to the module foo, but the concatenation method erases any runtime concept of a module foo. The calling module might call a function on it, like console.log(foo), or it might try to assign properties to the module, like foo.newProp = 42, or it might try to get its properties dynamically, like console.log(foo[i++]). To cover these cases, rollup creates an esoteric-looking new object for foo:

// Original
import * as foo from './sub.js';

// Compiled
var foo = /*#__PURE__*/Object.freeze({
	__proto__: null,
	get bar () { return bar; }
	get baz () { return baz; }
  // ...

The comment /*#__PURE__*/ can be ignored. The Object.freeze prevents properties being changed or added. And the get keyword creates a getter, which makes foo.q behave as a reference to the q variable, rather than as a copy of q.

I just released Vidrio, a free app for macOS and Windows to make your screen-sharing awesomely holographic. Vidrio shows your webcam video on your screen, just like a mirror. Then you just share or record your screen with Zoom, QuickTime, or any other app. Vidrio makes your presentations effortlessly engaging, showing your gestures, gazes, and expressions. #1 on Product Hunt. Available for macOS and Windows.

With Vidrio

With generic competitor

More by Jim

Tagged #programming, #web, #javascript. All content copyright James Fisher 2020. This post is not associated with my employer. Found an error? Edit this page.