Comments, Cool Certainty and Candlelight

By Michelle Martin
Published January 31, 2011

All the back-and-forth about combox behaviour following Ryan's recent post on the topic have called to mind, well, some nineteenth century fiction, of course. You were expecting something different?

A lit candle serves as a metaphor in George Eliot's Middlemarch (one of the best books ever written in English), as she describes the self-centredness of one Rosamond Vincy.

Rosamond's inability to see beyond the end of her own nose, her complete confidence in the justice of her motives, and her cool certainty regarding the correctness of her own behaviour all contribute to the near-ruin of the man who eventually becomes her husband:

An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent - of Miss Vincy, for example.

The glow of a computer screen is hardly as romantic as candlelight. But the glow of a computer screen can have the same effect as the lighted candle described by Eliot above. It can create the illusion that myriad unrelated events revolve around me: that everyone in a comment thread, for example, is particularly concerned with what I have to say, to the exclusion of other people involved in the conversation.

After all, there's no one else physically present when I am online: just me, the computer, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.

Last word to twenty-first century non-fiction writer Jaron Lanier, in You Are Not a Gadget:

It would be nice to believe that there is only a minute troll population living among us. But in fact, a great many people have experienced being drawn into nasty exchanges online. Everyone who has experienced that has been introduced to his or her inner troll.

I have tried to learn to be aware of the troll within myself. I notice that I can suddenly become relieved when someone else in an online exchange is getting pounded or humiliated, because that means I'm safe...

I've also found that I can be drawn into ridiculous pissing matches online in ways that just wouldn't happen otherwise, and I've never noticed any benefit.

Michelle Martin lives in Hamilton. The opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own.

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted February 01, 2011 at 08:13:56

well said.

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