Plain Text

I love text. It is both utterly simple and amazingly complex. It allows you to communicate both mundane information or heartbreaking emotion. It fills our world with language and thought and creativity. It is the basis of so much of our world, especially the online worlds we have built up. Yet, most people take it for granted, and the power of text to convey massive amounts of information in a tremendously small amount of space is sometimes overlooked.

Technology has illuminated this power through the basic plain text file. A plain text file is a bare naked file containing exclusively text that can be read by almost every computer ever made. Because it’s simply text that lacks any bloated formatting, it’s incredibly small compared to other proprietary text file formats. If you put the entire works of Shakespeare into a series of plain text files, it will only take up about 5 MB of space. To put that in perspective, that would be about the same size as a 1 minute video on YouTube. So in the same space that it takes to show a video of a cat becoming stuck in a box, you can fit the entire works of one of the greatest writers in history.

Taking that further, let’s say you want the entire western canon of literature. Lets approximate that and say it’s the greatest 1000 books ever written. If each text file averaged about 2 KB of data per page, and each book averaged about 300 pages, the entire western canon would only take up about 600 MB of data. That could fit on a single CD, not even a DVD, a single CD would easily suffice.

Now let’s take this examination to its logical end – every book ever published. Of course it’s impossible to get an accurate number of every book ever published, but you can get a rough estimate by using the entire contents of the Library of Congress. According to the Library of Congress’s website, it has a collection of around 35 million books and other print materials. Again, using the average of 2 KB of data per page, with each book averaging around 300 pages, the Library of Congress’s entire collection would take up around 21 TBs of data. In some ways that seems like a lot, however, you can currently buy a 4 TB hard drive for around $160. So, for less than a $1,000, you could buy five 4 TB hard drives, hook them into your computer, and theoretically have almost every single book ever published sitting right there on your desk. What would have taken massive physical buildings to house only a few decades ago can now be stored in the space of shoebox, all because of the power of a simple text file.

I’m slowly trying to transition to composing and saving everything I write in plain text. There are obviously some short comings to that, as more complex applications and file formats let you work with the text in a much more robust way. However, I like the simplicity of writing in plain text. The only thing you are worried about is the words themselves, not any fancy fonts or complicated designs. To me, that restriction stokes my creativity and forces me to make the text itself creative, as opposed to simply what it’s wrapped in.

I also see plain text files in a similar way to raw image files, except it greatly reduces the file size instead of greatly increasing it. Most photographers take photos in raw because it gives them an unprocessed photo that they can use as almost a digital negative to work with and shape into the final image they want to produce. Similarly, a plain text file is an unprocessed negative of your writing, and you can use that raw text and input it into any other program you want. It gives you the flexibility of being able to cut, edit, or jazz up the text as much as you’d like, while still retaining a copy of the original pure text file.

You can then save those plain text files and use them for archiving your writings. If you have most of your writings in proprietary formatted files, it might be very difficult to view them in the future, as they could be junked up with legacy formatting or simply become unreadable. However, plain text files will always be the pure text you intended, and readable on all future word processing applications. Decades down the road, I would rather have everything I’ve written saved in plain text, as opposed to a proprietary file format that could be abandoned a few years down the road.

Of course, at some point our future digital devices might not be able to read even plain text files. Yet, they have been around so long and are so ubiquitous that it seems likely they will be readable by most devices for at least the next few decades. The only other alternative to insure being able to read your writings long into the future is to actually print them out onto paper, but that’s not a very practical solution. For now, I’ll keep archiving my writings in plain text and appreciating the simple power of text.