Monday, March 24, 2008

The emperor's clothes, Microsoft Word, and the folly of crowds

In the fairy tale version the impolitic child comments on the emperor's birthday suit. All the people who thought they were imaging the emperor's nakedness realize they're not crazy after all. The emperor is laughed out of town.

That's not how things work in the real world.

I thought of this recently as I revised my sister-in-law's Masters thesis*. Well, revised isn't quite the right word -- my job was to fix up a structured Microsoft Word document. In the old days in-laws typed up handwritten theses, now we repair Word documents. A much quicker job, but far more technical. Hmm. That about sums up the last 30 years of technological progress, doesn't it?

Anyway, as I adjusted styles, auto-generated lists of figures and tables from captions, set alignment styles for document objects, created section specific pagination rules, etc I recalled my 2003 rant against Microsoft Word. It's still pretty current, even though I've given up on my macro workarounds. Honestly, Word is broken**. It's been broken since 1995 or 1997, when some misguided Microsoft development team merged two different formatting models and produced the software equivalent of "the fly".

The Emperor is buck nekkid.

In the real world though, the crowd of hundreds of millions figures the child is deluded, and they must simply be doing something wrong. Surely a bazillion dollar company couldn't be producing junk - could it? Sharepoint must be a good document management system - because everyone uses it. Real estate must be a good investment - because everyone's buying houses. Global warming can't be a real problem, because our government would tell us if it were. Gmail's contact management and list functions can't be completely lousy -- because Google is full of geniuses. Crowds must be wise, because that's what the book says. Crowds re-elected George Bush, didn't they?


Either humanity has some serious loose screws, or I'm a loon.

Or both ...

PS. I don't believe in this "wisdom of crowds" stuff. Just to be clear. On the other hand, there's tons of money to be made betting on the folly of crowds.


* I think she's written a doctoral thesis, but that's another story. I hope she turns it into a book.

** Office 2007's XML based structured documents might be an improvement, but that requires a completely proprietary file format that none of my other applications can read.

1 comment:

GZ said...

Yes, Word and SP are pieces of sh*t. OC ain't that great either. But in our super-capitalitistic society, they have the primary market share, and hence have become the standard. When the tyranny of the masses speak, they go to the lowest common denominator.