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Plaintext Files

Last updated Feb 9, 2024

Knowhow stored in Notions and Google Docs will not scale (what if you need to change something?), we can’t do a search and replace. But why not use what developers have for ages for knowledge, too?

Similar to Markdown, plaintext files are future-proof.

Every device, including ones long gone, and ones not invented yet, can read and edit plain text. Whether future virtual reality or a chip you can implant in your earlobe, plain text will be there. Will Microsoft Word? Evernote? Notion? Maybe. Maybe not.

Plaintext files are:

  1. Portable
  2. Un-Commercial
  3. Offline
  4. No Dependencies
  5. Easiest to convert

Here’s a good video on how to do that and work with a team, mainly with git and GitHub, but all with Plain text: The Plain-Text Team.

# Local First

An outstanding essay is on local first and how to resolve the best of Markdown with a local plain text file with a method called CRDT. As the article mentions, Towards a better future. As other technologies like Google Docs, Notion, etc. always lack something, CRDTs seem to solve all 7 points and satisfy the local-first ideas.

1. Fast 2. Multi-device 3. Offline 4. Collaboration 5. Longevity 6. Privacy 7. User control
Files + email attachments
Google Docs
Web apps
Thick client
Firebase, CloudKit, Realm


Source of above table from above essay

We have found some technologies that appear to be promising foundations for local-first ideals. Most notable are the family of distributed systems algorithms called  Conflict-free Replicated Data Types (CRDTs).

It seems that CRDTs are a solution to collaborative local first. Especially interesting with Markdown and Plaintext Files.

Ink & Switch has developed an open-source, JavaScript CRDT implementation called  Automerge. It is based on our earlier research on  JSON CRDTs. We have then combined Auto merge with the  Dat networking stack to form  Hypermerge. We do not claim that these libraries fully realize local-first ideals — more work is still required.

However, based on our experience with them, we believe that CRDTs have the potential to be a foundation for a new generation of software. Just as packet switching was an enabling technology for the Internet and the web, or as capacitive touchscreens were an enabling technology for smartphones, so we think CRDTs may be the foundation for collaborative software that gives users full ownership of their data.

In these experiments we tried network communication via  WebRTC; a  “sneakernet” implementation of copying files around with Dropbox and USB keys; possible use of the  IPFS protocols; and eventually settled on the  Hypercore peer-to-peer libraries from  Dat

# File over app

File over app is a philosophy: if you want to create digital artifacts that last, they must be files you can control, in formats that are easy to retrieve and read. Use tools that give you this freedom.

File over app is an appeal to tool makers: accept that all software is ephemeral, and give people ownership over their data. stephango.com

Creating innumerable digital artifacts, but most of these artifacts are out of our control. They have proprietary formats that make them incompatible with older systems:

If you want your writing to still be readable on a computer from the 2060s or 2160s, it’s important that your notes can be read on a computer from the 1960s.

All the apps will eventually become obsolete. It’s the plain text files we create that are designed to last.

Related Unix Philosophy

Another philosophy to use note taking is the Unix Philosophy which stands for simplicity, modularity, and efficiency to address the majority of needs (90%) rather than striving for perfection.

# Resources

Read more on Markdown vs Rich Text.

Created 2023-05-27