Form Versus Function: A Rants on the Evils of Illogical Thinking

How This Rant Came To Be

Feel free to skip this part. A few days ago (as of this writing, twentieth of November 1997), I was online on AmberMUSH (a multiplayer text-based game) when someone asked, "Should I wear ugly gloves when riding my motorbike or go barehanded?". My response, typically for me, was "Wear the gloves". I also added some stuff, however, that got interesting, "Function over form, always. Taking form first has given us things like anorexia and graphical web browsers", or words to that effect. This idea stuck to me: that this one little fallacy could cause so many of the things that I percieve as wrong in our society. I rambled on for several minutes at this point, but no-one cared so I stopped. Then, after a while and some stimulating discussions on this topic with my step dad, I sat down to write this rant.

The Fallacy of Form

One of the most common mistakes that humankind makes, in all it's activities, is what I call the Fallacy of Form. This is, quite simply, the belief that the form of an object is, in any way, important in and of itself. I will argue in this rant that this is yet another example of human beings' propensity for irrationality.

At this point you are probably already thinking, "Yes, but what about ornamental gardens or architecture, or art, or ...". Of course, in all those kinds of cases, the form of the object appears to be important for its own sake. Therein lies the root of this fallacy. Think about this: what is the function of an ornamental garden? To be pleasing to the senses. To look, smell, and (possibly) feel beautiful. We, as corporeal beings, are in the habit of categorizing the physical world around us using personal preference, and this is something we might as well do, since our biology is predisposed to it anyways.

The point here is that, by being beautiful, an ornamental garden is fulfulling its function. Function is driving its form, as it should be. Let us say that there is another function of an ornamental garden: to keep plants alive. It is, after all, a garden, however pretty and 'impractical' it may be (I reject the idea that hedonism is impractical, given the importance most people place on hapiness). Let us say that the designer would find plants buried upside down, with their roots in the air and leaves buried, aesthetically pleasing. Would ey do so an still call it an ornamental garden? No, and even if ey did, others would not agree with em, even if they also found it beautiful. This is because he has violated one of the functions of what he is constructing. It is no longer even a garden.

This leads to a Sun-going-round-the-Earth kind of feeling: even though all actions that the designer takes when constructing the garden are, in themselves, geared towards affecting the garden's form, the designer takes all these actions with a view towards maximizing that gardens functions of pleasing the senses and providing homes for plants. Fortunately, and ornamental garden is one of the few cases where, once the function is clearly identified, the function clearly drives the form and everyone agrees on this and that it should be this way. As I will show, there are many situations where this is not the case, and it may even be the exception rather than the rule.

I should mention here that while I firmly believe that function is always more important than form, if, all other considerations being equal, you can embody the same functionality in a design with a nicer form, go for it. This is similar to Jan Narveson's argument about laws: if there are no outstanding considerations that seem to indicate otherwise, one should assume that a law is just and follow it. Rarely, however, are there cases where changing the form of something without changing its functionality is possible.

Graphical Web Browsers

An excellent example of the fallacy of form is the very existence of graphical web browsers as they currently exist today. I will use Netscape as the canonicl example both because it is and because I don't use MicroSoft products (the reasons are enough to make a whole other rant). Graphical web browsers, and more importantly they're acceptance by people who know nothing about computers, has been singlehandedly responsible for killing the Internet, both in terms of speed degradation and drop in the signal to noise ratio.

The Function of the World Wide Web

A large portion of the web's current problems are caused by the fallacy of form, so to show its usage the function of the web must be defined. That function is simple, to disseminate information. In particular, the web is good at putting relatively static information in a relatively static location, in other words you can go to the same place and expect to find more or less the same information as was there the last time you looked, possibly with some updating. The other type of information the web is good at dealing with is interconnected information, such as being able to click on a reference within a paper to go to the paper being refered to. I have been on the 'net since before the web and can assure you that this is the type of application the web was originally used for, as opposed to "b0B's k00L NuDe CeLeBriTy M0DeLs!!!". Yes, some people really type like that. They are normally refered to as "B1FFs", as in, "Look, its B1FF, the k00l d00d!", for reasons outside the scope of this rant.

So, given that the function of the web is to disseminate information, I propose that graphical web browsers are a violation of this function in many ways, taking form as more important than function to entice users with "cool graphics". This will be a surprise to most of you, but the original web browsers were text-based. Well, actually, my understanding is that the first one was line-based, but that's _really_ ancient history. The web browser I normally use is called Lynx, and it is a text-based web browser. This means that I don't normally see any pictures , or backgrounds, or special fonts. I maintain, for reasons specified below, that this is a good thing.

Content Versus Form: An Old Web Construction Debate

Content versus form is a long-running debate in the web authoring world. All of the founders of the web and all tend to stand on the content side of the debate, with some exceptions. The debate stems from the very nature of HTML, the language that is used to describe what web pages are supposed to look like. HTML, at least up until version 3.0 or so (everything after 2.0 is just wrong), is set up in such a way as to force the content of the document to dictate it's form (content over form). For example, you would set up a large title (such as one to go at the beginning of a paper) by typing "<H1>This Is My Title</h1>". The importatn thing to not here is that this doesn't say, "Center this, place it 5 lines from the top, render it in a nice big font called [whatever], color it read, and underline it". It just says, "This is a Heading, first level. Please deal with it as you see fit". Clearly, the content (which in this case is a title) is the primary factor in deciding the form. Some browsers my do it in read in a huge font or whatever. Lynx just puts it in the center, boldfaced. That is quite sufficient to let me know what's going on.

In form over content web authoring, you would actually specify exactly how you want the title to look, as with the "Center this..." comment above. This has a number of negative effects. One is that you spend more time worrying about the form of the document than the information you put into it, which usually means you'll end up putting less information in. I mean, take this rant as an example. There is absolutely no need for me to specify fonts or colors or backgrounds: I'm disseminating information, not typesetting a book! Another effect is that it makes things significantly slower. For the properly done title above, only 10 more characters than the title itself are sent to your browser, which decides on its own what to do with that information. For a title with font and color descriptors, several lines of information might be added. When this sort of thing is all over the document, it adds up, and for what? Changing the font does not add to the value of the document informationally, unless the change is semantic (i.e. the change in type follows a change in content), in which case you should tell the browser what type of content you are currently presenting and let it deal with things. In fact, writing web pages with content-based authoring tends to result in pages that are informationally dense and well organized for easy access to that information. I submit my own web pages as an example, if not an ideal one.


A legitimate response to all of this, and a good one, is "What if the information is graphic, such as graphs or charts or screenshots?". Well, this is much like the ornamental garden issue previously: if information is encoded in a picture, then this is still about function, not form. There is nothing wrong with pictures in web pages as long as they carry information of some kind. The needless clutter of pictures on current web pages just serves to slow things down (more on this later). Once again, Lynx handles this totally differently from 'normal' web browsers (which it predates, as far as I know). Lynx, when properly configured, will respond to the user selecting (by using the arrow keys and hitting return) a graphical image, or a sound file, or a movie or whatever, by launching a program designed to deal with that type of information. Note that this means that lynx itself does not know how to deal with pictures or sound files, it doesn't need to, it passes the job over to a program (such as xv, a picture viewer) which is much more qualified to do that one particular job.

This is a lesson that Netscape would do very well to learn from. Netscape not only deals with pictures (and probably sounds, I don't know the new versions very well) on its own, rather then deffering to programs that are designed to do just those thing, it also has its own mail reader and new reader! No wonder it takes 5 minutes to load on a well equipped computer! OK, I'm exaggerating there, but not much. There are programs that read mail faster, with more and more useful features, organized in a better fashion. Same with USENET news, and believe me, when it comes to knews, you need speed. Even with pictures, Netscape could use some help. When I load a picture in xv I can do all sorts of things to it: I can use it as a background, I can run various algorithms on it (smooth, sharpen, oil painting), I can magnify it, rotate, et cetera. In Netscape I can... uh... save it or print it. If I need to do anything complex, I need to save it to a file and run xv (or similar) on it anyways. Not to mention that a dedicated picture viewer loads them faster than Netscape ever will.

The fact that programs build into huge bloated monstrosities has a lot to do with the fallacy of form, I suspect. People seem to be disturbed by a different program (with a slightly different user interface) popping up when they're doing things, even if that program is better suited for the task at hend. Even if doing so speeds up their computer overall (because single, huge programs are slower, always). They are not able to deal with the (apparent) alteration in form despite that being a natural extension of the computer's function. Feh. Idiots.

The Modern Beauty Myth: Death By Form

The modern beauty myth is, to my mind, one of the larger failures of the feminist movement. There are others, and I'll probably write about them as well at some point. It never ceases to amaze me (I'm just not cynical enough) how much puerile misogynistic insanity that western women will swallow whole in the pursuit of ``beauty''.

The most obvious aspect of this self-hatred (for that is what the modern pursuit of beauty is, just as foot-binding and clitorectomies were in other cultures) is the relentless pursuit of thinness. In the course of my life, I have had many, many conversations with many men on the subject of overly-thin females. Most men I've talked to agree with me that the boyish, anorexic women who currently grace the world's modelling industry are of indifferent beauty at best and (certainly for myself) utter turn-offs at worst. I mention this because, at least in theory, the whole point of being ``beautiful'' is to attract a mate. I'm deliberately leaving gays, lesbian, bisexuals, TGs, et cetera out of this entire discussion because those communities, as a whole, seem mostly to have the basic brain capacity to rise above the societally-imposed self-destruction so very many women (and men too, sometimes) engage in every day of their lives.

So, if being exceptionally thin isn't, in general, a turn-on for guys (and from my, admittedly anecdotal, experience it's not, but look at pornographic magazines for confirmation), what the hell's the point? I don't know, I'm asking! What really bothers me about all this is the derision currently heaped upon the whole range from slightly chubby through to Rubenesque. Beyond that I can sort of understand: as with anorexia, obesity is unhealthy, and people sort for long life in a potential mate, in general. Within that range, though, are the women who are most able to successfully bear children safely. Perhaps that is, indeed, why tastes have changed in western society over the past few hundred years: the human race needs as few children as possible, so we are unconsciously sorting for mates less likely to produce children. If so, I applaud the collective unconscious on its decision, but remind it that it appears to have failed to account for birth control (possibly because most people are incredibly stupid as of yet about its use).

There are, however, things that bother me even more about the beauty myth than anorexia. Among these are the fact that men are almost totally responsible for the beauty myth's creation, yet women have swallowed it hook, line, and sinker, and the total failure of the women's movement to address the beauty myth in a responsible fashion. To all these things I can only say, ``What the fuck?'' and let it go. My brain refuses to deal with these facts in any kind of coherent manner, and I don't want to try.

Another big one for me is high-heeled shoes. These devices, as admitted by most women who wear them, are tiny little torture machines. Yet women keep wearing them, clinging to their pain like dogs to a bloody, meaty bone, even though it's got razorblades in it that are cutting the dog's lips to shreds. ``But they make us look good!'' these massed, faceless women cry. So what? In what possible way is that kind of pain worth it? Especially since the only effect that I've ever noticed high heels (or heels period) to have on a woman's appearance is that they raise the buttocks in a way apparently intended to invite anal penetration. Hence the expression ``fuck-me pumps''. Now I'm just guessing here, but I somehow don't think this is the kind of invitation most women want to send. I could be wrong, I suppose, but I doubt it.

Last, but not least: brassieres. These absolutely blow my mind. I have yet to meet a women I was sexually involved with whom I found less attractive out of her bra (even with other clothes on), so I'm really, really curious as to the point of these. I'm guessing that they have their origin in the puritanical sexual repressions of the past, but the feminist movement was supposed to handle this (as I remember, they tried, not that I was there but I've heard). The main complaint from women supporting this lunacy is that if you don't wear a bra you'll end up with saggy breasts. My current SO has 36D breasts, and I've seen the marks her bra makes on her. If someone told me I had a choice between going through that kind of pain daily or losing an inch of penis size (which I'd guess is the approximate self-esteem hit equivalent of saggy breasts), I'd take the teeny dick, thanks.


-Robin Powell, July 6, 1998.