Before we get carried away, though, let's keep in mind that Graham's announcement was 663 days ago -- an eternity in software time -- and that you probably know precisely zero people who use Etherpad or, for that matter, anything like it. What's going on?
For one thing, nine months after Graham's post, Etherpad was acquired by Google and folded into the Google Wave team, another project that, while no doubt a high-caliber technical achievement, is now basically defunct. If you go to etherpad.com you'll see that the service has been shut down.
But really that shouldn't matter. Etherpad's "Time Slider" was an afterthought, something they hacked together at Graham's request. It's fairly simple -- as a matter of fact, when they released it there were already several other tools that did the same thing. What's more, before closing up shop Etherpad open-sourced their entire codebase (a fantastic public good, by the way), making it trivial for just about anyone to make an exact replica.
So something else must be going on. We must not want to write using a tool that tracks our every move. Because when people want something, and the tech to make it happen is readily available, it tends to happen.
I have a few theories, but they all start with the fact that writing is fundamentally about the final draft. It's not like writing code, say, where recording one's every change is standard practice. (Ask any coder worth her salt whether she uses a "version control system." If she says "no," well, she's not worth her salt.)
That's because code is so fragile, and simple changes can propagate in complex and unpredictable ways. So it would be stupid not to keep old versions -- i.e., versions that worked -- close at hand.
Writing is different. A writer explores, and as he explores, he purposely forgets the way he came.
I'm reminded of how the word "essay" derives from the French "essayer," a verb meaning "to try." It was coined in the late 16th century by Michel de Montaigne, in many ways the father of the form. Montaigne wrote as a kind of maieutic exercise, a way of drawing his thoughts into the light of day, of discovering what he wanted to say as he said it.
No need, then, to drop so many breadcrumbs along the way. Especially when such a trail could do more harm than good. Readers could use it to find places where you massaged the facts; they'd be able to see you struggle with simple structural problems; they'd watch, horrified, as you replaced an audacious idea, or character, or construction, with a commonplace.
This is not to mention the legal ramifications (teasing out someone's "intention" just got a whole lot easier...) nor the mere fact that working under this kind of surveillance could drive you crazy with self-consciousness.
I should know: I wrote the article you're now reading using Etherpad's software. You can watch how I fumbled along, start to finish, by clicking the big "play" button on this page.
Main Eliot source: Rainey, Lawrence S. "Eliot Among the Typists."