On the Durability of Plain Text

My blog is 16 years old. I've rotated through several blogging engines in that time (Bloxsom, YAWT 1.0/2.0, Pelican and finally Eleventy) but they all have one thing in common: they all process blog entries stored as plain text files.

The fact that all my blog entries are stored as plain text files on my computer is, I believe, one of the main reasons my blog has lasted this long. Text files are trivial to back up. Text files don't really crash and rarely get corrupted. Text files are readable and writable on any computer manufactured since the 1980's - hell, the 1960's if I let punch cards into this conversation. When you contrast this simple durability with, for example, a MySQL data store (used by several blogging engines, including one of the most popular ones, WordPress), with all of its attendant version compatibility and data corruption issues, the superiority of plain text becomes undeniable if you're trying to write something that lasts.

I've written before about the longevity of paper over e-books. Real books obviously don't use software. They don't have bugs (well...maybe literal ones). They don't require updates and they don't have a file format. You'll be able to read a paper book 100 years from now, something I'm pretty sure you'd be hard pressed to do with a Kindle.

Plain text isn't paper, but it's as close as you're going to get to it in a digital format. The standard is over 60 years old and odds are good it will still be around 100 years from now. You obviously need software to read it, but it's standard, simple, ubiquitous software, available on every computer platform imaginable. The tools to read it and, perhaps more importantly, manipulate it, are universal.

I'm mentioning the manipulation aspect of text files because that also plays a role in their longevity. Yes, text files are easier to back up and harder to lose then abstract rows in a database, but they are also very easy to convert between one kind of text format and another. My blog entries are all written in Markdown but there's nothing stopping me from converting them to AsciDoc or Restructured Text or even org-mode if I wanted to double down on my Emacs use.

Longevity is also the reason I avoid solutions like Obsidian or Roam Research for my notes or my GTD lists. I don't know how these pieces of software store your notes behind the scenes, but I do know that if they suddenly up and disappeared, I'd be in a bind. At the risk of beating a dead horse, it's safer, in my mind, to have actual text files that I can back up and move around. For what it's worth, if anyone's curious, I've so far settled on an org-mode based solution in this regard.

It's really a matter of how long I want my writing to last. Do I use plain text for literally everything? Of course not, but the likelihood of me using something else is directly proportional to how disposable I consider my writing to be. I'll use Google Keep or Todoist for things like grocery lists, for example, but I won't use them for my blog entries, or my GTD lists or anything meant to last longer than a week.

At the end of the day, I struggle too much with writing to lose it to ravages of changing fashions.