The curse of functionality

I would call it true irony: only a day after reading George R. R. Martin’s comment, in which he admits he has been writing the next volume of Song of Ice and Fire in WordStar on a DOS machine[1], my own word processor has failed me, effectively blocking access to an important project. Until now, I considered Scrivener (my writing tool of choice) to be almost perfect application, facilitating writing process for professionals of any kind. I’ve been using this programme for a year and until now I have storied many precious texts in its files, believing that effectiveness and functionality are keys to comfortable writing.

When a new version (2.7) of Scrivener had been revealed in September 2015 I switched from 2.6 without hesitation. The new iteration had much better user interface, designed to match Mac OS X El Capitan and finally abandoned annoying skeuomorphism. Default colourful notes background has been replaced with subtle shade of grey, menu icons have been redesigned in a flat fashion (like in iOS 7), alongside other changes it resulted in more elegant, less distractive layout. It was mostly the attractiveness that tempted me to update.

Unfortunately, the format of Scrivener files has also been updated. All projects created in version 2.6 or older had to be updated to 2.7 in order to be readable with Scrivener. So I updated my projects, all files opened flawlessly in new version. I forgot about the whole thing…

… until now. After update I’ve been working in Scrivener on dozen of various projects, but by coincidence all of them had been created after the update, in the new version of programme. Today, for the first time since September, I wanted to work on project I had created in Spring 2015. I launched Scrivener, opened project file and a moment later Scrivener crashed to desktop, with a standard bug report from Mac OS X. It was the very first time when Scrivener crashed on my computer at all. ‘It’s no big deal’ I thought calmly, and then I tried to open my project again. Another CTD. I used my backup copy–with the same result. Scrivener couldn’t open my project without immediate crash, the project I desperately needed to work on!

It’s not that big tragedy, I can always open the file manually and extract my text from the HTML code, but that’s not the point. The thing is, here I have modern, functional, sophisticated programme that has been defeated by its own complexity. It reminds me of a famous Snake game from old Nokia cell phones: when snake grow too big, it bit off a part of its own tail. I can see the analogy in modern computer systems, getting more advanced and perplexed, but also vulnerable. We expect increasing functionality but usually we are not aware that that functionality may be an obstacle one day. In context of my today’s experience I understand why George R. R. Martin uses WordStar running on a DOS computer. He prefers function to functionality. As he stated:

“(…) I write my fiction with WordStar 4.0 on a DOS machine. Stable as a rock, with none of the glitches of Windows-based systems.

(…) More modern systems have too much “functionality” for me. They get in my way, and there are so many bells and whistles I can figure out how to do the things I want them to do, and make them stop doing the ones I don’t.

For instance, I don’t WANT spellcheck. Spellcheck has fits over words like Targaryen, maegi, anything in Dothraki or High Valyrian, etc etc.”

I think that the desire to use things more and more advanced, sophisticated, complex is an inseparable part of our nature. We treat everything that is older (not even old yet) as something worse, less efficient, unfashionable, embarrassing to use. Software developers could take a big credit for that: they try to convince us every new iteration of the programme is incredibly better than the old one and we should upgrade without a second thought (by the way, do you notice the dissonance between uninhibited broasting about new version and disparaging the previous one in the same time, while both are usually the work of the same team?). It’s not that bad when update is free, but in some cases you need to pay again to receive an update (that’s the model used by Tweetbot creators). We should remember that older doesn’t have to mean worse. As you can notice in Martin’s comment, older things may be more stable and reliable, and simpler things may be more useful in particular situations.

All texts for my website (including this very article) are prepared in minimalistic Byword. It’s a piece of software that is light, intuitive and, most of all, uncomplicated. All Byword files are ordinary text files. Even if there will be twenty new versions of Byword in the future, an ordinary text file will be accessible in any of them, nay, in any text editor regardless platform or operating system. Paradoxically, after today’s problems with Scrivener I’m happy that part of my texts have been saved in an archaic form of text files.

Regarding Scrivener, I’ve decided to give it one more chance, but if the problem with compatibility of its own files persists, I might as well consider changing my word processor of choice to, say, Ulysses.

  1. Of course it is a well-known fact, yet the note mentioned above was Martin’s most recent comment on the subject I’ve found.  ↩

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