Betsy McKenzie has provided the world of legal blogging a fantastic service: she has compiled a definitive list of websites trashing Microsoft Word. Bill Gates's word processor probably delivers more anger in our verbally intense profession than any other computer application. Once upon a time I named the now-extinct Ms. Dewey "Microsoft's worst product ever." Check that. Ms. Dewey is dead; Word lingers on.
XML, by the way, is to HTML as messenger RNA is to DNA. The engine beneath the beautiful world of Web 2.0, extensible markup language is our friend. Microsoft Word is not. Deviant coding turns Word into the Natasha Henstridge of software. Who is Natasha Henstridge? You can be forgiven for forgetting her appearance in the 1995 film, Species:
That's right. Microsoft Word looks pretty from a distance. When you get close to her, you find out that she carries alien-corrupted DNA. Too late! She's already drilling a hole in your skull with her tongue.
Now that I have subjected you to old science fiction cinema that is as gory as it is bad, I owe you a MoneyLaw payoff. Here it is:
Microsoft Word, for all its horrors, prevails throughout the world of computing solely by virtue of its ubiquity. We use it because everyone else does. And even though it's bad, we keep using it because it would cost us too much to switch to smarter software, both in terms of having to buy the new stuff and in terms of losing touch with the people who stuck with Word.
To make the same point in fancy jargon of the sort that makes law review editors swoon: Nearly universal adoption of Microsoft Word confers upon this admittedly defective product a powerful network externality. The marketplace recognizes the defect, but switching costs obstruct the triumph of consumer choice. As a result, a technological lock-in secures Word's dominant market share, and any power that Microsoft enjoys over the power for word processing software arguably should be vulnerable to attack under, say, section 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The world is filled with lock-ins of this sort. It isn't just technology. China clings to the horrifically misnamed Simplified Chinese writing system, and Japanese orthography still relies predominantly on kanji, even though both languages have homegrown phonetic writing systems. Some variant of the bopomofo phonetic alphabet can handle just about every Sino-Tibetan language; Hmong and Vietnamese got a little help from religiously inclined outsiders who adapted the Roman alphabet. Japanese has not one but two complete syllabaries: hiragana and katakana. At some point the Koreans overthrew the tyranny of Chinese-influenced ideograms once and for all, and as a result, to see a Korean word is to know instantly how to pronounce it.
Are there similar lock-ins in legal education? As Jeff Harrison has just discussed, perhaps teaching methods masquerading as "Socratic" number among them. Better yet, are there ways to defeat the truly debilitating lock-ins?
The example of Korean orthography is both instructive and inspiring. Lock-in is probably the way of the world; look at the number of people condemned for the foreseeable future to writing ideograms while perfectly workable phonetic alphabets and syllabaries are waiting in the wings. But the Hermit Kingdom did something truly transformative over the course of its linguistic history and adopted an ingenious, fully phonetic writing system not because of, but in spite of, the elite prestige that had accumulated in mastery of the old Chinese-influenced system of ideograms.
And that is why MoneyLaw, if it ever does decide to adopt an official east Asian language, will bypass Mandarin and Japanese in favor of Korean.