Where Plain Text Falls Flat


(Note: This article was first published, in a slightly different form, at Notes From a Floating Life and appears here via a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.)

A few years ago, I had an interesting conversation with someone about living life in plain text. I try to live as much of my digital life in plain text as I can. Most of what I do, I can do in plain text. When I say most, I mean anywhere for 80% to 85% of the work that I do. Maybe even a bit more. Regardless of what you think of my and this websites, I don’t try to push that lifestyle on anyone.

However, the person had that conversation with was adamant that he couldn’t even do a small portion of his work in plain text. He stated, quite angrily:

There’s no way I can create web pages in plain text!

I had to gently remind him that HTML (the language used to format web pages) is plain text …

But I understood where he was coming from.

I’m keenly aware of where plain text falls flat. Some of those areas slap a majority of computer users out there on the side of the head. One or two of those areas are rather specialized, but you can’t discount them. Let’s take a look at some of cases.

The first and most obvious case is graphics. ASCII art notwithstanding, text just doesn’t work with images of any sort. This might note matter to the visually impaired, but for those of us who aren’t, we need to use the standard graphics formats for diagrams and images and photos.

And if you want layouts of any kind, especially if you’re working on printed documents, then you’re not going to get them with a plain text file. It would just look too contrived. Having said that, plain text is great for writing the content that fills the layout. Yes, you can use plain text-based typesetting software like LaTeX to create beautiful documents, but LaTeX isn’t easy to learn or use.

Let’s not forget spreadsheets or any kind of tabular data. You can fake tables with plain text, but try automating any calculation and you’re out of luck. Sure, you can do those calculations by hand but what happens if you add a row or a column? Or just change a figure? That defeats one of the purposes of a spreadsheet —to automate and update calculations. Someone recently pointed out that it is possible to work with tabular data in plain text but that gets a bit techie for the average person.

Finally, math. It’s a specialized case I know. But there are more than a couple of people who need to include mathematics in what they write and publish and present. Beyond addition, subtraction, and multiplication, plain text really fails when representing mathematics. Of course, you can use TeX and LaTeX —a pair of typesetting systems that are built to handle mathematics and which rely on plain text files for input —but they’re not really an option for the average computer user. Then again, the average person probably wouldn’t need to typeset mathematics …