The Power of Plain Text

 I see technology as a tool; as a means to an end. That end will vary, but seeing technology as a means and a tool invariably leads to some philosophical conclusions.

What’s Plain Text?

The words on the screen you’re reading right now are plain text. You can check it for yourself if you’d like by inspecting the source code of the page. The words are surrounded by a lot of special characters and expressions that help to format the document to something readable, but the text itself is stored as text.

Plain text with formatting symbols.

It’s probably easiest to understand plain text by comparing it to another form of text. If you try read a plain text file on a computer and a Microsoft Word document, both by opening them in a simple text editor, the former will show up as words and the latter as seemingly random characters strung together. Microsoft Word uses a proprietary format to store information, and without something to parse the content, the file is unreadable. Plain text can be read by the most simple, built-in editors on any device. If you can use the device at all, you should be able to read plain text files.


Not so plain text.

There are, of course, technical details of how plain text is stored and used by computers, but for our purposes, it’s only necessary to know what is meant by the term from a human perspective.

Why Use It?

I can think of five major reasons:

  1. It’s not proprietary
  2. It’s universal
  3. It’s easy to see changes
  4. It’s open-ended
  5. It’s used by a lot

First, plain text isn’t proprietary. If some app stops being updated and eventually disappears, as long as your information was stored as plain text, you can still read it. Maybe someday you can even use it with some new software. As long as you depend on computers for something, you’ll be dependent on a lot of things outside your control (like the factories building all the parts), but if you can reduce those dependencies, you make it less likely you’ll lose something.

Second, plain text is universal. You aren’t stuck on a specific operating system or with a certain device. Your plain text files are viewable anywhere.

Third, you can keep track of changes in plain text files very easily. There are different ways to store version history of files (I prefer git repositories; more on them later), but no matter what you choose, comparing two plain text files for differences is very easy. I like Beyond Compare myself, but there are truly free alternatives out there. Here at Big Bad Tech, we don’t avoid all proprietary software; we just make sure we only buy it when it’s the best choice for the job. That, and we naturally try and avoid the Big Bad Tech companies like Microsoft.

Fourth, plain text is open-ended. Short of binary data (think images, sounds, etc), there’s not much you can’t do with plain text files. Databases can be written in JSON and other plain text formats. Websites are effectively plain text. You can customize your own format. There aren’t really any rules unless you want to use a predefined format or you want consistency.

Fifth, and increasingly important, plain text is just used by more and more stuff. I mentioned above that databases can be based in it, which has not been the case for very long. I strongly recommend The Plain Text Projectfor more on this.

Why Isn’t Everything in Plain Text?

Long ago, at least in technology years, plain text took up a lot of space. It wasn’t as efficient to store information as, say, an efficiently architected database. You could store the word “true” in 28 bits in ASCII (a plain text format), or as a single bit of value ‘1’. When space was expensive, a reduction in size by orders of magnitude was very important.

These days, that’s not really the case. Even data transfer rates are high enough that plain text isn’t hampered by being thousands of miles away from its destination. Websites use JSON and XML, both essentially plain text files, to transmit data. Databases can be stored as plain text now, too. Storage space is cheap.

One problem with plain text is security, but the obfuscated content of proprietary formats isn’t secure either. It’s just harder for normal people to read.

For the purposes of Big Bad Tech, I’ll prefer plain text over other formats. When we can’t do something in plain text, I’ll try to explain why.

The Philosophy Behind It

All of the above is practical and good, but there’s a deeper purpose to all of this.

Computers require a lot of people working very specialized jobs, from mining the raw materials to soldering the components to building CPU’s in extremely sophisticated factories, to shipping the parts, to the power plants supplying the energy to run them.

Consider the simple pencil. There’s a classic article here talking about how complicated making such a seemingly simple appliance is.

Does anyone wish to challenge my earlier assertion that no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me?

Actually, millions of human beings have had a hand in my creation, no one of whom even knows more than a very few of the others.

How much more so a computer!

This means we are dependent upon an extremely sophisticated, virtually unknowable process to get the things in the first place. As I said earlier, we can’t control any of this, but we can control how we use our phones, computers, tablets, etc once we have them. Plain text provides a simple way to avoid relying on complicated things outside our control. It makes us independent.

This independence isn’t insignificant either. It’s been relatively easy to buy computers or equivalent hand-held devices for nearly 40 years, but software companies have appeared and disappeared at unbelievable speed. You can still get your data off a computer that’s 35 years old, but you may never be able to parse the contents.

This gets at the heart of the reason I prefer plain text when I can use it: It’s durable. As durable an electronic substance as you can get. It’s not as powerful or fast in specific applications as other formats, but it will last. This durability is critically important. If, or perhaps when, I get around to defining the general principles behind my use of computers, durability will be one of the pillars.

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