October 24, 2014

The philosophy of word processing


More like WordImPerfect

More like WordImPerfect

Edward Mendelson recently waxed philosophical on Microsoft Word for The New York Review of Books blog, comparing its genius to Plato’s theory of Forms. But Mendelson is no Microsoft Office enthusiast, he’s a devotee of WordPerfect, a software that had its heyday in the ’80’s. His version was last updated in 1997.

It’s the mediocrity of WordPerfect that draws Mendelson, the freedom to format as you go rather than conform to the page styles and sometimes infuriating auto-formatting of Microsoft Word. In the 1980’s WordPerfect was popular for its great tech support and availability on many operating systems. Additionally it featured a second screen where you could view the “Reveal Codes” for formatting text, a feature that was added to MS Word much later.

However, by the ’90’s Microsoft was the key player in word processing (you can read about the MS Word/WordPerfect beef here). Now, other than Mendelson, it’s mostly legal offices, academics, and The United States Department of Justice that use WordPerfect. They value it for its simplicity and directness (you can use keyboard shortcuts to make most formatting changes).

But for someone whose not exactly a fan, Mendelson gives MS Word’s developers a lot of kudos:

The programmers did not think about writing as a sequence of words set down on a page, but instead dreamed up a new idea about what they called a “document.” This was effectively a Platonic idea: the “form” of a document existed as an intangible ideal, and each tangible book, essay, love letter, or laundry list was a partial, imperfect representation of that intangible idea.

Kind of like the idea of Forms, it turns out that this kind of thinking is not very down to earth. Here’s Mendelson again on that irritating style formatting we know so well. For context, the little paperclip man in MS Word took issue with the number of italics he used and auto-formatted his doc:

No writer has ever thought about the exact percentage of italics in a line of type, but Word is reduced to this kind of arbitrary principle because its Platonic model—like all Platonic models—is magnificent in its inner coherence but mostly irrelevant to the real world.

WordPerfect on the other hand, gets compared to the good old typewriter, which is only slightly more relevant to the real world.