What would a Platonic Word be like?

What would a Platonic Word be like?

Here, “Word” refers to the Microsoft Word—the software. The adjective “Platonic” applies to the software itself (i.e., to the software proper, as apart from the people developing, marketing, or even using it).

The occasion that raised this question in my mind, was an article by Edward Mendelson in The New York Review of Books. Though connecting philosophy with technology, this article thankfully was not about quantum mechanics/computing, but about the mundane “software instruments for writing.” Prof. Abinandanan of the “nanopolitan” blog highlighted this article yesterday, and I immediately found it interesting. I also wrote a rapid comment at that blog. What I will do here is to post an expanded and edited version of my comment. In fact, I seem to have already begun doing that. If you are interested, see Abi’s post (just an excerpt) and my comment, here [^]. And, do make sure to go through the original article. [^]

About the NYRB article: You can make it out, way before finishing this article, that it’s been written by someone who seemingly is quite used to writing very well, in a cultured and refined manner, even in a persuasive sort of a way. When I wrote my comment, I hadn’t checked who the author was. Turns out that he is Professor in the Humanities, at Columbia [USA]. Hmmm…

….Anyway, getting back to the issue, here is what Abi highlighted from that article:

The original design of Microsoft Word, in the early 1980s, was a work of clarifying genius, but it had nothing to do with the way writing gets done. 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.

A document, as Word’s creators imagined it, is a container for other ideal forms. Each document contains one or more “sections,” what everyone else calls chapters or other subdivisions. Each section contains one or more paragraphs. Each paragraph contains one or more characters. Documents, sections, paragraphs, and characters all have sets of attributes, most of which Word calls “styles.” [...]

This was more than enough to get me curious. But while going through the article, I obviously couldn’t even directly connect Platonism with MS Word, let alone attribute the former to the latter. So, I tried to find the actual cause—the software idiosyncrasy that might have supplied the motivation to connect the two. And, sure enough, I found this one:

Word, it seems, obeys the following rule: when a “style” is applied to text that is more than 50 percent “direct-formatted” (like the italics I applied to the magazine titles), then the “style” removes the direct formatting.

Aha! So that did it!!

So here is how the argument essentially goes: Word does something crazy (many would say “as usual”); the user can’t see how to get around the programmer’s quirky mind; and since the software wouldn’t yield to the user and since its intended usage-metaphor clearly involves a hierarchical organization, therefore, its designer must be Platonic.

The root of a technical problem like this one, lies in the fact that a software for writing must carry two classes of mark-ups: (i) those for a logical division of the write-up (e.g. that it would be a document to be hierarchically divided into parts, chapters, sections, etc.), and (ii) those for controlling the graphical look and feel of the output, or, the “style” of formatting.

The real trouble occurs because both these elements can simultaneously operate on the same textual matter. In the event that they do, then, the issue becomes: how the software resolves the conflict.

The TeX and its derivatives (e.g. LaTeX) take one extreme end of the possible positions. In their case, the logical division reigns supreme. It completely controls the graphical (or stylistic) attributes. (At least in the original design, it does. But then, Knuth also introduced a Turing-complete scripting language in it, which means you can play havoc within or with LaTeX! [(PDF)^])

Certain other packages in the past took the other extreme position: there was almost no provision for any logical mark-up at all. For instance, the early WordStar had only stylistic mark-ups: Ctrl-K+B for bold, and Ctrl-K+S for underlining, etc., but none for marking a section or a sub-section. The up-side is that you are not tied into a rigid hierarchy of document–sections–sub-sections, etc. The logical format is yours to design as you go about doing your writing, and as you wish—if you wish, that is. The downside is that the user has to make sure to separately apply the same formatting again and again to each section-heading or paragraph-heading. Mistakes are likely in performing this kind of a repetitive task.

HTML vs XML provide a later and clearer example of this logical vs stylistic mark-ups. HTML 1.0 had only stylistic markups, and XML has always had only the logical division mark-ups.

You might think that the issue is simple enough. Just begin only with the logical mark-up (say an XML document), ask the user to supply the logical-to-graphical mapping (say via style sheets), and be done with it. That is the one-way logical-to-stylistical model. Let’s call it the LaTeX model. But it doesn’t always work that way. Not in the real world.

The LaTeX model obviously fails in the humanities:  what if a poet wants to have one empty line separating the stanzas in general, but at only one special place, he would deliberately like to leave, say, two empty lines before the next line of  verse appears, just for some dramatic impact? What if he wants to have separate formatting for only some of his foot-notes, not all?

And, have you seen the kind of resumes that LaTeX produces when a common template is enforced on every one?  Have a look [^].

The LaTeX model often fails also in the S&T fields themselves, though people don’t as often talk about it. About the only place where it works well is in mathematics. But students from science and engineering always run into the rigidity of the LaTeX model while writing thesis. Suppose you want to open a chapter with a brief remark or just one prerequisite equation, before getting into the main sections of the chapter. Should you then give those opening lines a separate section number all by itself? If so, then its importance gets unduly promoted in the table of contents: here is this one-line section, and then there are those 8, 10 or even 30 page sections, and all of them get placed on an equal footing. It looks odd. On the other hand, if you don’t give that one line or brief remark a section number, then it finds no place in a quick glance, and so, you invite a suspicion about its omission. Ideally, you would like to have a minor kind of special formatting for this introductory remark. What should you do? If you apply the sub-sub-section style, it generates empty section and sub-section numbers, too, which again looks bad. Students then get away either by dropping any formatting for it, or, in LaTeX, they use the starred styles (which eliminate numbering), but going away from the standard LaTeX usage does leave them with a bit of an uncomfortable feeling. And, there is more. The part/chapter/section/etc. numbers imply a strictly linear reading order, whereas the actual connections among these elements may be more like a graph. Or, an expanding spiral. Etc.

So, the issue is not as simple as it seems. The one-way street from the logical to the stylistic mapping, as in the LaTeX model, does not meet all the usage scenarios even in the S&T fields. The software design therefore must allow additional stylistic mark-ups, and then, the introduction of this additional facility creates conflicts like the one the author highlighted.

The commercially most successful packages (e.g. Adobe and Mac products, and MS Word) therefore have chosen to explore the entirety of the space in between these two extremes, but sometimes their particular heuristics are not at all obvious to any one. The author points out one particularly bad example with certain version(s) of Word. No other package would do something like what he points out. (Not even Microsoft Bob!)

But, frankly, even though the author displays a seemingly good command of the philosophy of Platonism, I don’t quite see how it applies as an explanatory basis for this aspect of software packages.

Does the existence of a hierarchical organization in a document by itself imply Platonism? If the LaTeX model fails, then should the software designer completely do away with any logical formatting? And, if so, would an absence of any logical hierarchy thereby make it a Subjectivist software? Why is WordStar or WordPerfect not a  Hedonistic software?

Can we ascribe a general philosophy to a piece of software, simply because there seems to be some resemblance between certain features of a philosophic system and the  abstract design or mode of usage of the software?

Can we ascribe a philosophy to a product of technology?

The answer tends to become obvious when you try to place the issue in a broader context and raise questions like I just raised: Why is WordPerfect not a Hedonistic software? And, more questions:

What would an Intrinsicist Word be like? … Or to make it easier for those who haven’t studied philosophy: What would a Subjectivist Word be like?

… And, to make it easier for those who have studied philosophy: What would a Kantian Word be like? An Aristotlean Word? An Objectivist Word?

And then, what would a Mystic computer be like? An Altruistic train engine? A Collectivist vacuum cleaner?

Is it possible to ascribe a particular philosophy to a product of technology? to a technology? to a branch of engineering? to a science? to physics?

As far as my position goes, the common to answer all such questions is: “no.” … There can’t be an Objectivist Physics, for example.

Which then suggests another set of questions:

Does philosophy have any connection at all with any of the STEM fields? Can it have one? If not, then then isn’t it really speaking just an extraneous nuisance, of no practical significance?

In short, if there can’t be a Feminist iPhone charger then why would any one in California need philosophy?

Over to you, dear reader!

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