On Draftback

by Matteo Pericoli

On March 4th, the site FiveThirtyEight published a telling review of Draftback, an application that “treats writing like data.” In its current form, Draftback is a Google Chrome extension, which basically records in real time not only all of the keys that are pressed while writing a text (thus all the letters, spaces, returns, deletions, ctrl+Zs, cut and pastes, etc.), but also the time intervals between keystrokes. At the end, Draftback plays everything back to us with a kind of animation of the actual act of writing, which can be replayed at either “normal” speed, i.e. at the exact pace with which the text was written, or fast forward.

Before Draftback, the programmer (and writer) James Somers spent several years trying to develop a program that would do what Google Docs had always done: record and archive all of the keystrokes in all of the documents that were saved on its servers. After hacking Google Docs, he was able to view all of the animations of his texts.

The idea of an application that shows the trail that the act of writing leaves behind during its laborious journey is noteworthy.

On the one hand is the effect of progress: for those still accustomed to using paper and pen, and are aware of the existence of the typewriter, the possibility of seeing the passage from one draft to the next, from one idea to another, among mistakes and missteps, represents the norm, nothing new. Yet for many, technology instead marks an inexorable disconnection between cognitive and perceptional experiences that were fairly common until recently. Thus the time often comes when some kind of technology is invented to satisfy the curiously resurfacing desire of filling the void between the digital and the analogical experience.

On the other hand, there is also a great pleasure, common to many, of being able to peek into someone else’s creative process, perhaps in the hope of being able to extract some secret.

However, the reviewer’s argument unmasks a fundamental misunderstanding. The programmer tells the reviewer: “We know how to make a violinist better,” but “we don’t know how to make a writer better.” The idea is that by viewing a text while it is being written one can better understand the technique or the process with which it was created, and therefore correct or improve it. But writing is not a performing discipline as playing the violin is; it is a compositional one. And contrary to the execution of a piece of music, the composition of a text can only be analyzed at an advanced stage of the work. In fact, it is only in front of a completed sentence, or paragraph, that a hypothetical teacher can intervene to improve it.

Ultimately, and more unexceptionally, by watching an “animated” piece of writing with Draftback we might feel somewhat reassured by someone else’s mistakes, afterthoughts, deletions, and hesitations. It is quite true that, when facing, alone, a blank screen or a plain sheet of paper, we are all being tossed by the waves on the same, fragile boat and it is futile to seek rescue from elsewhere.

Original piece in Italian here: https://st.ilsole24ore.com/art/cultura/2015-04-29/la-storia-miei-filedoc-181300.shtml