An Ode to Undo

It’s not what you can do with computers, it’s what you can undo

Simon Pitt
Debugger
Published in
7 min readOct 30, 2021

--

Photo by Sam Pak on Unsplash

Of all the things you can make with computers, it is perhaps the things you can un-make that I like best.

Delete. Backspace. Close without saving. Edit — Undo. These functions allow you to wipe the slate clean. To backtrack and remove mistakes as if they never happened. Almost all mediums let you make things from nothing, but only with computers can you unmake things so totally that it is as if they never happened.

In many ways, humanity has been creating tools of un-creation for decades. There is the rubber on the end of the pencil and white-out for painting over ink. There are Tipp-Ex mice that regurgitate strips of paper from their nose across errors and there are small knives for scratching the ink from thick paper. At school, I had a double-ended ink eraser that chemically dissolved ink from one end and a tip that was impervious to the chemical on the other. But none of these options perfectly removes the error. None returns the page to how it originally was. The rubber leaves pencil indentations or damages the paper. The white-out creates a crusty, painty layer. The double-ended ink eraser leaves a weird stain and only gives you one shot. “What’s done,” as Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth notes, “cannot be undone.”

These tools try to backtrack over our mistakes. A shot at the dream of reversing time and having another go. As linguist Laurence R. Horn notes, “for something to unhappen, the tape of reality must be set to Rewind. That this is a practical impossibility[…] does not make the metaphor any the less attractive.”

For years the closest we could get to this dream was to simply start over. A piece of paper could be screwed up and started again. A sandbox or an Etch A Sketch could be reset, but this was a nuclear option. It was all or nothing. To throw out the mistakes, you had to also throw out the successes.

Now the days of permanent errors are over. We can undo. We can backspace. We can select all and delete. With pinpoint accuracy, we can remove errors or mistakes from our work, like a surgeon’s scalpel, leaving no scars or marks. When I backspace through my text, there is no ghostly trace of the letters I annihilated. When you read this, you have no idea how…

--

--

Simon Pitt
Debugger

Media techie, software person, and web-stuff doer. Head of Corporate Digital at BBC, but views my own. More at pittster.co.uk