Emacs undo

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The ability to undo changes is relatively new. Undo didn't exist before digital text editing, and it is now present in even the most basic text editing software along with cut, copy, and paste (which are conveniently bound to Ctrl-Z, X, C, V in most programs).

The earliest programs to support undo only allowed the user to undo the last change, due to the limitations of computers at the time. You could undo a single change, and if you wanted to redo the change, you could undo again.

As computers grew more powerful, multi-level undo emerged naturally. The most common way this is implemented is as a partial linear history. After making some changes, you can undo those changes one at a time, and also redo them one at a time. However, if you undo some changes and then make a new change, all of the changes you undid are thrown away and your new change is put at the top of the history. This has the unfortunate side effect of making it possible to lose changes that you want to restore later, but it works well enough most of the time and it's easy to understand.

Another way to implement multi-level undo is using a tree. This is less common; one program that does this is Vim. Like with partial linear history, you can undo and redo changes. Where tree undo differs from partial linear history is when you undo and then make a new change. Instead of throwing away the undid changes, Vim will create another branch in the undo tree. This makes it possible to restore those changes later on, but you need to use obscure commands to jump across undo tree branches or use a visualization tool.

Undo trees can be used like partial linear history by ignoring the other branches of the undo tree, and the basic usage is easy to understand. Taking advantage of the other branches of the undo tree is possible but harder to do and understand; it's out of reach of the casual user.

Emacs has a different, unique implementation of undo. Changes are put onto a linear history, and when you undo, the undid changes are also put onto the undo history. Therefore, you can redo undid changes simply by undoing again.

This is how undo in Emacs is usually explained, and it sounds more complicated than it really is. Basically, undoing in Emacs lets you return the text to a previous state, no matter what sequence of undos, redos, and other changes led to and away from that state. Undo in Emacs shares the advantage of undo trees of not throwing away history without requiring the user to recall the exact series of steps the user made, in order to jump back to the right branch of the undo tree.

The way undo works in Emacs also makes it easy to do things like undo changes within a specific region of text. In partial linear undo and undo tree, implementing undoing within a region is difficult: does that count as an undo? What happens if you redo or make new changes? What happens if you undo again? But in Emacs it is trivial. Any time the text changes, that becomes a point on the undo history that you can return to.

As digital information grows more and more pervasive, information is becoming easier to copy, modify, restore, and destroy. Undo was critical when people first began to adopt computers, for it is all too easy for a novice to delete pages of text with a single movement of a finger. Even now, it is not uncommon for users to inadvertently destroy data in a way that undo and other backup mechanisms cannot help them recover. Emacs's implementation of undo is a small oasis of comfort; if you keep pressing undo, you can always get back to what you had before.