I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it
November 6, 2014 10:27 AM   Subscribe

If you've ever typed anything into a Google Doc, you can now play it back as if it were a movie — like traveling through time to look over your own shoulder as you write.

This is possible because every document written in Google Docs since about May 2010 has a revision history that tracks every change, by every user, with timestamps accurate to the microsecond; these histories are available to anyone with "Edit" permissions; and I have written a piece of software that can find, decode, and rebuild the history for any given document.
James Somers (previously) introduces Draftback.

Engadget: Draftback finds the hidden history of your Google doc epics
Imagine your favorite writer, and visualize how well there arguments and suggestions and ideas flow together. Got it? The fruits of their talent are what ultimately wind up on the page, but all the agony and frustration that goes into each of those gems is lost to the sands of time. Until now, anyway.

Just keep this in mind as you start playing around with it: Draftback is more a passion project than it is a polished product, don't be surprised to stumble across a few hiccups. They're not too numerous now (the neat analytical graphs that highlight when and where changes were made don't seem to work), but its core seems to work as well as us word nerds would like. Well, for now.
Draftback is the latest in a series of similar Google Doc programming projects, including Etherpad (previously, previouslier) and Somers' own Jimbopad.
posted by divined by radio (21 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
I would be unable to compose anything remotely serious on a system with this dubious "feature." Trust me, if I highlight a paragraph and hit Delete, there's a reason.
posted by localroger at 10:36 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's down at the moment due to traffic, but I can't wait to try this. I'm always looking for the opportunity to luxuriate in the minutia of my writing process instead of doing any actual new writing.
posted by brookedel at 10:40 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh my god, that's like my worst nightmare: every typo preserved, forever.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:44 AM on November 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yeah, releasing this during NaNoWriMo is a cruel sabotage.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:53 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Congratulations, you've reinvented version control.

I think this could be good for writers; it makes a bit more sense than saving drafts as new documents, e.g., Lorum_Ipsum-01, Lorem_Ipsum-02, etc. But, as a plain-text fanatic, I'm still leery of using Google Docs for serious writing. So for version-control purposes, I'm rather fond of flashbake.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:01 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

Wow, so instead of hiding secrets in draft emails, you'll hide them in document histories?

Version control has been there all along since May 2010 - this gadget just made it human-friendly accessible.

I was hyper-aware while typing out this post, and I made even more homonym-related mistakes than usual.

posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 11:04 AM on November 6, 2014

They found a use for Wave after all!
(I still want to set up a Wave server at some point).
posted by symbioid at 11:11 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is not a good news for someone who likes to write what they actually think, before deleting and writing something civil in it's place.
posted by Gratishades at 11:53 AM on November 6, 2014

640gits should be enough for anyone.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:56 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, it's funny to have this appear directly below the post about smart TVs and privacy. I had to double-check to see which one I was reading. I know at least one person who will find this considerably more horrifying from a privacy perspective than anything to do with smart TVs.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 11:56 AM on November 6, 2014

Interestingly, for a long time, for different reasons, I had pondered/proposed a micro-blogging platform called Imperma.net... The idea there was basically the inverse of this. Instead of capturing and storing all changes ever, so you can play it all back in reverse. Over time "bitrot" would set in. Things that were typed would fade and decay.

Snapchat ended up being a vulgar (no pun intended) interpretation of this idea.

My idea was more a conceptual art experiment thing where impermanence and the lack of a need for something as trite (no offense Twitterheads) as Twitter to be permanent.

I'm a fan of archive.org, so I think there's an interesting dichotomy there between the two concepts.

I think technology has always presented interesting questions regarding human attention and memory. In this case memory... Not just due to over-reliance on technology to reduce our need for a memory footprint in the brain, but what it says about cultural memory - the storing of data for ourselves and others... Who controls that information? Who has access.

There are a lot of things that can be discussed with this.

Personally, while I love the idea of having this as an option - having it be a default setting on a service is fucking creepy as all shit. The problem is the world runs on default. It's why we deal with shitty technology like oil. It's why we let companies just invade our privacy. I suppose running on default is a corollary to the principle of energy conservation. Making an effort to change out of default requires an investment of energy (time, matter, space) that people don't want to deal with. Whether that be on a personal level, commercial, regional, national or global level.
posted by symbioid at 12:08 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

If they'd had this while I was in high school, Mr. Sala would have had a few more adventerous papers to discuss at parent teacher conferences besides the fake compare and contrast paper I put on top of my real paper. In the fake one I compared and contrasted my mom and an axe murderer. Pro tip: make sure you know your teacher's sense of humor intimately before you try a stunt like that - especially these days.
posted by Nanukthedog at 12:14 PM on November 6, 2014

MetaFilter: The problem is the world runs on default.
posted by Buttons Bellbottom at 12:18 PM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

having it be a default setting on a service is fucking creepy as all shit.

This. Infinite undo isn't really all that useful; unlike version control, which is usually committed either when you've added a bunch of code or done a successful test, nearly all the "saves" are at an unstable intermediate state and there really isn't a way to recover the document at a much earlier state of development (say, before you rewrote a paragraph which you rewrote before adding a bunch of other material, which then made you think the first way might have been better).

Recording every keypress with a timestamp transcends mere uselessness and reaches into the realm of fetishization. Yeah, storage is cheap nowadays we get that, but it doesn't mean we need to record everything. Just because you can doesn't mean you should, etc.
posted by localroger at 12:43 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I would note that the article explains why Google does this in the first place:
It’s worth noting for a second that Google probably wasn’t thinking of playback when they built this system for storing documents as a series of minute changes. They probably did it for the same reason that Etherpad did it, which is to power real-time collaboration. The only way you can do that quickly and reliably is by shooting small changes back and forth across the network; if two changes differ, you can just reject one of them, thereby ensuring that everyone has the same version of the document.
A case can certainly be made for deliberately removing this information after the fact, once it's no longer needed for that purpose, but doing so would presumably add more complexity, and I'm not sure I see the need for it.

(For now, if for some reason you want to share a document via Google Docs and you don't want to include the revision history, it should be easy enough to cut'n'paste the entire document into a new file and share that.)
posted by Shmuel510 at 12:49 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

+1 for the title.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:57 PM on November 6, 2014

Oh, lordy. We had this under VMS on our company VAX 11/780 back when... well. back then.

VMS had the best versioning - each time you saved your file, a new version was created thus - fred.doc, fred.doc;1, fred.doc;2 and so on. While you were editing, each keystroke was also saved in a separate file. The main reason wasn't infinite undo, but so that if you crashed you could open your editor, load in the last saved version and do a restore - at which point, the editor opened the keystroke file and basically shoved it into its own keyboard buffer. You-the-user sat there and watched it all happen. There wasn't any timing information, so you missed out on pauses for thought, phone calls and so on, but it was fascinating to watch.

Editing the keystroke file itself before doing a restore was seen as a high-wire act, which it was. But you could do it. However,and as hard as it is to credit, while a VAX 11/780 could and did support a company of around a hundred people doing office stuff, it had the processor with the grunt of a mid-80s PC. Anyone doing a restore basically slimed everyone else one the system for the duration, so you could get very unpopular. As the serial links to the VT-100s and VT-220s were 9600, there's no way that typing could approach that state...

I guess that won't happen with Google Docs. Shame.
posted by Devonian at 3:12 PM on November 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Huh, wow. Reading the post I initially assumed this was some Tom Scott-ian hypothetical presentation, because the idea of storing all of that seemed mad, but on second blush it's all jarringly reasonable. Angry but quickly deleted drafts are my current outlet of choice, so the idea of all of that being studiously saved somewhere gave me a frisson of, how do you say, shitting my pants.
posted by lucidium at 6:18 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

A case can certainly be made for deliberately removing this information after the fact

Actually a very good case can be made for never committing it to a permanent database, since the timestamp info is never needed for more than a minute or so at most. Committing it permanently is just expensive, and to what purpose?
posted by localroger at 6:54 PM on November 6, 2014

Imagine Kickstarting your book, writing it with Google Docs, and then using Draftback and recording your commentary about the writing process as a reward.

It would probably go something like this.
posted by charred husk at 10:08 AM on November 7, 2014

Draftback has been reintroduced as a browser extension:
Note to folks who used the hosted version of Draftback: I rebuilt Draftback as a Chrome extension because the hosted version was slow, it was becoming quite costly in terms of computational resources, and I was worried about protecting the data folks were generating—people's docs are awfully sensitive, and I didn't feel comfortable being the steward of so many of them.

With the Chrome extension, your Docs data never leaves your own computer, and the extension never communicates any sensitive data with any server—it just fetches it over a secure connection from Google. Plus, this way, all the computation for rendering the playback is done by your own computer, and it's stored there, too, so I don't have to pay a giant bill each month :). As a bonus, the playback is way faster, since it doesn't have to fetch data from a server. No doubt this is how I should have designed it from the start.

(Out of an abundance of caution, I've cleared everyone's Google tokens from the existing Draftback database, so even if I became malicious overnight, I wouldn't be able to use my database to access anyone's Docs account. Even my database backup, which has the revisions generated for Docs imported to Draftback, doesn't have anyone's Docs tokens.)
posted by divined by radio at 11:25 AM on November 11, 2014

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