Archive for March, 2006

Why are people arseholes online?

Friday, March 31st, 2006

The other day someone sent me an email that was jeering, mean-spirited and pompous all at once. This had in fact been intended for publication, but the newspaper to which it was addressed declined, so the writer sent it on so I would know just how he felt about me. My works were "sleazy", nothing I wrote could be trusted at all, and so on, and so forth. The person writing this grumpy green-inked rant was in his everyday life a rather distinguished philosopher, with whom I had had a perfectly civilised conversation about the book he was signing for me not two days before. What is it about email that makes highly intelligent adults behave like arseholes as soon as they sit down to a keyboard?

Whatever the magic stupidity potion may be made from, it’s powerful. Intelligence, education, and respectability in the real world are no protection. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury said last week that "parts of the internet are the preserve of bigots and maniacs"; and he should know if he reads Christian discussion sites. The internet is a matchless incubator of religious hatred. But then again, it is a fantastic generator of hatred of every sort. Even where "hatred" is too strong a word, the amount of small-minded arrogant rudeness that goes on out there is quite astonishing. It is nicely encapsulated by one of the most famous laws1 of online behaviour, which states that the first person to drag Hitler into an argument online has lost; it has a corollary which states that as any online argument continues, the more certain it becomes that Hitler will make an appearance.

This is funny, and obviously true, but it is also, when you think about it, very odd. Normal arguments, even drunken arguments, don’t degenerate nearly so fast into mutual accusations of Nazism. On the internet, people who met only five minutes ago can be trying to exchange bodily fluids, while people who met six hours earlier are screaming a whole lifetime of hoarded hatred at each other like the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

One popular explanation is that we can type much faster than we can think. If even first thoughts are too slow for email, what chance is there for second thoughts? There is something in this. If I want to write a postcard to someone to express my loathing of their latest book review, I have to find the postcard, write it by hand, find a stamp, walk out and post it – all of them time-consuming or troublesome moments which give me plenty of time to wonder whether I really mean to do or say these things and to conclude that I probably don’t. Responding by email, on the other hand, is almost frictionless. It is the equivalent of shouting at the Today programme and being heard. But the sheer ease and speed of internet communication, while it might explain why there is so much of it, and why so much is vacuous, does not explain why it should so often be nasty.

Another explanation is that it costs so little to have an opinion on anything online. Recreational Typing is a recognised pastime now. There are conversations on a million subjects going on all over the world right now where you know just enough to irritate some expert, and all of them are only a few keystrokes away. All your future enemies are out there, waiting to be made. In normal life, it is easy to forget it when someone say something stupid; but a message that arrives on the screen in front of you seems personal and important. Once that has happened, nothing is too trivial to quarrel about. When I was stomping about and imprecating about the rude email I just had my fifteen-year-old daughter told me she had been playing on a collaborative role-playing board devoted to the fantasy universe of Anne McCaffrey where telepathic dragons play the role of ponies in traditional teenage fiction. The whole board was consumed in flames for three weeks after a dispute over which end of a dragon’s tail it has its anus at.

Once an enemy has been made online, they will be yours for life. Before the internet, you had to live with someone for years before you had at your fingertips every repulsive little thing about their personality and every ghastly unforgivable thing they had ever said in an argument.

But as soon it became easy to quote email, everything that any adversary said could be thrown back in their face at once, and they could retaliate with your quotes, and so on endlessly. Complete strangers could bring to bear on each other the obsessional hatred only otherwise found in marriages gone sour. The tactful forgetfulness which alone makes civilised life tolerable now required an effort of will; things have only got worse as the net expands and grow easier to use. Now, with Google, and with programs that search whole archives of email, you can look up exactly what he said and she said, and they said over ten or fifteen years, and all this can be done in seconds, before your anger cools. Then you can hurl another reply on the flames in the hope that they will illuminate forever your enemy’s bestial stupidity – and copy your witticisms to all your friends.

It’s that last keystroke, the one which brings your friends in there as an admiring audience, which is the most dangerous and maddening one. Technology alone can’t really explain the madness of the online world. It is the social aspect that turns it into a playground full of gangs of angry eight year olds. Above all, it is the sense – the hope – that we have an admiring audience out there. You can have this without technology, if you’re drunk enough: I remember as a very young man in Vienna getting into an argument with a German friend which concluded with me, whooping with laughter, reeling around on the pavement, shouting "Wer hat den letzen kreig gewonnen" – and I thought I was laughing precisely because it was such a mindbogglingly stupid thing to say that all my friends would laugh approvingly to see me, the cultured lover of Goethe and Schnitzler, pretending to be an ordinary English drunken yob. God, it was hilarious. I staggered to the side of the house, hanging on to the wall, laughing until I nearly threw up. Even funnier was the fact that nobody could see the refined intellectual student inside me. They were all so stupid – so stupid! – that they could only see the red-faced, staggering drunk.

Email offers all this pleasure in your own cleverness without the nausea or subsequent self-knowledge. The choir invisible of your friends hymns your praises at every devastating blow of the keyboard. You know this because you have copied them on the exchange.

But the remarkable thing about email is that it can make perfectly sober people appear as aggressive and stupid as if they were drunk. Drink is an analogy, not an explanation for the way the people behave online, and there are other influences which might better explain it. The most obvious is television. Many people online think they are being witty and wit, on modern television, is almost always signalled by a laugh track. George Meyer, the most admired writer on the Simpsons — and so one of the funniest men alive today – said in a New Yorker profile some years ago that television comedy has got meaner and nastier because it is now taped in front of a live studio audience. If the laugh isn’t immediate, it goes; and what’s recognised as an immediate laugh is something cruel. The participants in American sitcoms routinely say things to each other which in real life would have the recipient running from the room in tears – and yet, on television, they are greeted with roars of sycophantic laughter. The Internet gives everyone a studio audience in that sense. We are all among Friends when we type.

None the less, I think that the real explanation for online manners is even less flattering, at least for people in my trade: people online are such arseholes because they write like journalists are supposed to. Almost all the really popular forms of modern journalism consist of licensed scorn, and invective of the sort that would never pass in fact to face transmission. This has been true for a long time – in British journalism, Bernard Levin first made his name by insulting people in the Sixties, then there came Bron Waugh and Private Eye, and after them, Julie Burchill and her endless successors. All of them had in common that their schtick was to be more offensive than anyone would have thought possible in print before they did it. American journalism is a rather different case, but even there Hunter Thompson was not just famous for his heroic consumption of drugs and production of expenses, but for the force and clarity of his hatred.

1 named after one of the rudest and most tireless controversialists I have ever come across online.

Incest and journalism

Friday, March 31st, 2006

About three weeks ago, I was asked (along with others) to contribute questions and suggestions for Alan Rusbridger’s interview with Rowan Williams. This morning I was talking to Paul Handley, who is to interview Rusbridger for the Church Times. Do I have any questions to suggest? Apart from “Don’t you think it’s a scandal that Andrew Brown is paid so little?” and “Wouldn’t it be great if Andrew Brown had a big weekly column in the paper as well as on the web?” But if I ever get asked to interview Paul Handley, I know who I will ask for suggestions for questions.

online transciption service

Friday, March 31st, 2006

Could this (found through John Naughton) be an actually useful Web 2.0 app? I can’t see the use, if you have learned to read and write, of private podcasting, which is the main selling point — essentially, this service is a kind of Flickr for voice recordings; but then the world is obviously full of people to whom reading and writing remain unnatural skills, and who far prefer sound and preferably moving pictures.

There is one useful service here for the command line types. The company does transcriptions, at 80¢ a minute, of any recordings sent in and promises to have them back within 48 hours. (Note how literacy here becomes a skill to be outsourced to the poor). I reckon that works out at about £30 an hour, which is a sum that I and others might well pay for decent transcriptions — they do, after all, take maybe five times as long to transcribe as they do to listen to. The only question is the quality of the results. I am spoiled now by the excellent BBC transcription service, but I have known some frightful typos and brainos appear when ordinary audio secretaries transcribe interviews.

Wednesday random letter

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

I’ve just thought of this: sort your music alphabetically by the first letter of the artist. Now choose one letter to take to your desert island. Without much thought, I vote, from my collection, for “R”

  • Rachmaninov, Sergei
  • Randolph, Robert & the Family Band
  • RatDog
  • Ravel, Maurice
  • Richard Burnett, piano (on original instruments)
  • Richard Thompson
  • Robert Johnson
  • Robert Schumann
  • Robin Canter, oboe, with the London Baroque (on original instruments
  • Roger McGuinn
  • Rolling Stones
  • Roosevelt Sykes
  • Rory Gallagher
  • Roxy Music
  • Rudolf Serkin
  • Rufus Wainwright
  • Ry Cooder

There are a couple of these I could well do without, and much from elsewhere that I miss. Then I think of B

  • B. B. King
  • BBC Philharmonic conducted by Gianandrea Noseda
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult
  • Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra under Georg Singer
  • Bamberg Symphonic Orchestra under Jonel Perlea
  • Be Good Tanyas
  • Beethoven
  • Bernd Glemser
  • Bert Jansch
  • Bert Jansch And John Renbourn
  • Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill
  • Big Jack Johnson
  • Big Jack Johnson With Kim Wilson
  • Big Sandy And The Fly-Rite trio
  • Bill Evans
  • Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings
  • Billie Holiday With Teddy Wilson
  • Billy Joe Shaver
  • Blind Boys of Alabama, The
  • Blind Faith
  • Blind Willie Johnson
  • Blind Willie McTell
  • Bob Dylan
  • Bob Marley & The Wailers
  • Boz Scaggs
  • Brownie McGhee And Sonny Terry
  • Bruce Springsteen
  • Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young
  • Bruch
  • Buck Owens / Emmylou Harris
  • Buffalo Springfield

and realise that my previous choice was ludicrous. But it’s a silly, cheering game.

Rural excitements

Wednesday, March 29th, 2006

Supper with Michael Ruse on Monday evening, at which I did not shine, since I had a cold whose unpleasantness, fortunately, was almost entirely internal. Got back about quarter to midnight; spent the next day in bed, reading variously To Kill a Mockingbird,_ forced on me by daughter, for which I am grateful, Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters from Sweden, Dennett’s Intentional Stance and a bad book by Robert Silverberg.

Thoroughly refreshed, I fetched the papers this morning, and on my return noticed that all four tyres on the car had been punctured. This is the rent we pay for living on a road that runs up from the pubs of central Walden to the chavlands on the hills behind. Three or four other cars down the road had also been done, but only one or two tyres each. It had to be mine that was really expensively screwed with every tyre pierced by what the police believe were darts. The RAC breakdown service that I used to have has now been transformed into an insurance policy with, I discover when I ring, a £250 excess. This is still cheaper than four new tyres.

Wait in all day for the breakdown truck. The garage supposed to be sending it rings at 4.30pm to ask me when I am bringing the car in for an estimate … So I get to wait in tomorrow as well. In the meantime, I was chasing down a bureaucratic glitch at the Guardian in an attempt to get actually paid next month. We’ll know soon enough if that is successful.

Oh, and David Aaaronovitch wrote a cross letter claiming to have been traduced in the last Wormseye column and demanding an apology. So we have been exchanging email all afternoon without reaching any conclusion.

I suppose there are about 26m people in Iraq for whom this represents unimaginable luxury and security. But it’s hard to remember that when you are in the middle of it.

Louise and the venomous snails

Sunday, March 26th, 2006

This is wonderful! Our learned commentator has finally got her snails on air. These are carnivorous beasties which live on coral reefs. Now, if you’re a snail, there is not much hope of running your prey down, or even following it if it is wounded. So you need poisons that will drop your victim dead at once, and these, delivered by a dart, are what cone snails have evolved. They are the most deadly and sophisticated neurotoxins imaginable. Because they attack so many different pathways in the victims’ nervous systems, they can be disassembled to provide ingredients for all sorts of useful drugs. But enough of the grave and serious science. Killer snails are quite wonderful in themselves.

I would urge you all to listen to the programme when it goes out tomorrow. It might be nearly as much fun as hearing her tell the story in a pub.

The Onion and the neocon

Friday, March 24th, 2006

OK — here are two quotes. One is from the Onion this week, and the other is from Charles Krauthammer’s column in today’s Washington Post. The hard thing is to decide which is which. Vote in the comments, please.

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side — the Sunni insurgency — [has been] fighting it.
Now, all of a sudden everyone is shocked to find Iraqis going after Iraqis. But is it not our entire counterinsurgency strategy to get Iraqis who believe in the new Iraq to fight Iraqis who want to restore Baathism or impose Taliban-like rule? Does not everyone who wishes us well support the strategy of standing up the Iraqis so we can stand down? And does that not mean getting the Iraqis to fight the civil war themselves?
Hence the gradual transfer of war-making responsibility. Hence the decline of American casualties. Hence the rise of Iraqi casualties.


Over the last month, the Iraqis have been fighting like you wouldn’t believe … New Iraqis are joining the war every day—so many, in fact, that we don’t know where they all came from. It’s almost as if they came out of nowhere.
Critics of this war who said we couldn’t inspire the Iraqi people to stand up and fight for themselves have been proven wrong. There was the stubborn perception that after greeting us as liberators, the Iraqis had no fight in them, and couldn’t effectively defend their interests. Without our presence on their soil, I doubt most Iraqis would ever have lifted a finger or picked up a gun at all. Now, there’s almost no stopping them.

Thanks to Ros Taylor for spotting them both in the Wrap’s weekly roundup.

Mac advice needed

Friday, March 24th, 2006

Dear lazyweb, (may I call you lazy?) When I hook my mother’s imac up to a broadband connection next week what kind of security measures should I take? I assume there is a built-in firewall in OSX, which will be fairly efficient. I don’t propose to waste money on anti-virus software. Her email is a closely guarded secret, which has so far preserved her from phishery or spam.

Ideally, I would like a VNC connection to be possible, but only from named domains (mine, but they’re both on dynamic IP). I know how to do that with linux — at least I have done it, which suggests that I did once know. I can’t find a Windows firewall which will let me do that — they all want an IP address, rather than a domain name. Is there a simple, idiot-proof1 way to do it on a mac?

I worry about this because I get about ten attempts a week to connect to the VNC server on this machine, and I don’t want my mother even to have to think about security of that sort.

1 my mother is not an idiot. But she is closer to ninety than eighty.

Rowan, PZ, creationism

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2006

Very interesting piece of decontextualisation over at pharyngula. PZ picked up on a Register piece claiming that ABC “put the smackdown” on creationism. This was indeed the lead that the rather desperate Guardian put on the news story of their interview with Rowan Williams, who talked coherently and at length about the successes of the Church in East Kent, which are, strictly speaking, the concerns of the Bishop of Maidstone; much less coherently about any of the problems facing the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Leading on Creationism was the kindest thing the Guardian could have done and the only way to suggest to its readers that Rowan was still intellectually interesting and on their side. So PZ asks why he should care what an Archbishop thinks of evolution, and what authority the Archbishop of Canterbury has; lots of people in the comments riff in entirely predictable ways about Henry VIII; no one notices that the ABC actually controls about a quarter of the primary schools in England. In all there are 4,700 Church of England schools in the state system, educating more than a million pupils. In London, especially, they are hugely over-subscribed and popular among the middle classes. For the ABC to reject the teaching of creationism is actually an important educational story in a British context. It should be a matter for rejoicing and graceful congratulation from atheist evolutionists.

All downhill since Hume

Tuesday, March 21st, 2006

I was brought up to suppose that Western philosophy is just a series of footnotes to Plato — not that this led me to learn enough Greek to read him. But Hume had the taste to write in English; and everything I painfully learn nowadays seems to me a series of footnote to him, The most recent discovery was his rules for conduct on the Internet:

Among well-bred people, a mutual deference is affected; contempt of others disguised; authority concealed; attention given to each in his turn; and an easy stream of conversation maintained, without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness for victory, and without any airs of superiority. These attentions and regards are immediately agreeable to others, abstracted from any consideration of utility or beneficial tendencies: they conciliate affection, promote esteem, and extremely enhance the merit of the person who regulates his behaviour by them.