Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Undo Button

Anyone who works with computers with any regularity these days is likely familiar with the ubiquitous "Undo" button.  It's a button, usually found somewhere on the tool bar of whatever application that you're working with, that reverses or "undoes" the last action.  Often, for the benefet of those of us who really tend to "leap before we look", as it were, you can click the button repeatedly, thereby undoing the last several actions.  Sometimes the button actually sports the word "Undo" but, more commonly of late, it's adorned by a simple graphic that looks like a bent arrow, pointing to the left (which, since we in the Western world tend to read from left to right, generally implies going backward.  I wonder whether Arabic word processor users ever mistake it as meaning "tab").

The idea dates back to the mid 1970's, when a research report with the riveting title of Behavioral Issues in the Use of Interactive Systems, written by Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas of IBM (who else?) noted that "it would be quite useful to permit users to 'take back' at least the immediately preceding command". 

Implementing an "Undo" button isn't necessarily as simple as one might think.  You have to be able to restore things to the state that they were in just before the undesired action was executed.  If that involves restoring a deleted paragraph in a document, no major issue.  However, I'd be really surprised if the Pentagon computers that control the launch and guidance of nuclear-tipped ICBMs featured "Undo" buttons, though I must admit I'd feel a whole lot safer knowing that they did.

If I was to write a research report entitled Behavioral Issues in the Process of Everyday Living, (and believe me, I'm planning no such thing!) I would be inclined to add a similar note; "it would be quite useful to permit people to 'take back' at least the immediately preceding action or comment."

Who among us hasn't wished, at one time or another, that they could reverse a disastrously ill-advised action or comment as though it had never happened?  Drinking and driving, hurting a close friend or loved one with an uncaring remark, voting for George W. Bush or Stephen Harper, getting a "Mohawk", swinging a golf ball retriever around "Darth Maul" style in front of a video recording device ... all of these could be neatly taken back as though they'd never happened, and their consequences erased.

Politics would become a lot more interesting. Elected politicians would have an incentive to actually keep their election promises knowing that, if they didn't, their constituents might just "undo" them out of office.

Of course, the real power of the "Undo" button goes beyond simply fixing mistakes.  When working with computers, the "Undo" button gives us the boldness to try things that we might not otherwise risk, safe in the knowledge that, if it all goes south, it can quickly be reversed.  By encouraging us to take risks, the "Undo" button helps us to be more creative.

Imagine if life were like that.  Afraid to quit your safe, predictable but hum-drum job as a life insurance salesman so that you can pursue that life-long dream of squid jigging?  Go for it!  If you later find that wrestling with ink-spewing molluscs on a rain-pelted squid boat day after day inexplicably isn't as appealing as it at first seemed, just hit that "Undo" and, before you can say "I'm just too cranky without my silk hanky" you'll be back in your comfy little office with your tentacle-free actuarial tables, and you'll have a whole new appreciation for your formerly "crappy" job to boot.

Unfortunately, for reasons of His own, the Great Programmer has not seen fit to outfit our lives with the safety net of an "Undo" feature.  Maybe He lacked the cosmic RAM to store the state of things before making changes, but I doubt that's the reason. 

Some computer game developers refuse to allow the player to save their progress any time they want to.  Saving your game before venturing down that dungeon corridor with nothing but a +1 short sword with which to protect yourself, and then restoring your save point after you end up getting nostril raped by Foozle for your trouble, has the same effect as the "Undo" button.  However, some game developers intentionally prevent you from doing this because they feel that taking the risk factor out of the game ultimately makes it less fun.  Perhaps the Designer of the Game of Life likewise felt that a life without risk wouldn't be as rewarding and that taking the occasional chance is good for us. 

Whatever the reason, we must forge onward without the benefit of a reassuring "Undo" button on the toolbars of our lives,  meaning that we must ponder the possible consequences of our choices before acting on them, and pray that the program doesn't unexpectedly hang.

1 comment:

George said...

Interesting post Andy.

Speaking of undo with regard to games... have you ever tried a game called: Braid? (available on steam). It actually requires a player to "undo" their current action to complete each level. It's a fun game and requires a player to "think differently".