Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

Where Plain Text Falls Flat

Recently, I had an interesting conversation with someone about living life in plain text. As you probably realize, 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. But I don’t try to push that lifestyle on anyone (no matter what some people say).

However, this person 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 affect a majority of computer users out there. One or two are specialized areas, but they can’t be discounted. Let’s take a look at some of them.

The first and most obvious case is graphics. ASCII art notwithstanding, text just doesn’t work with images of any sort. This doesn’t matter to the visually impaired, but for those of us who fall into the other camp, 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.

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.

Presentation slides are another area in which plain text falls flat. I give a few talks every so often, and while I can get away with not using slides I find them useful as a point of reference for my audience and as a prompt for me. My slides are very visual; they don’t contain much text. Creating those kinds of slides in plain text just wouldn’t work.

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 …

Do you have any other examples of where plain text falls flat? Feel free to share them by leaving a comment.

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