So I found myself chuckling over the Slate’s Space Invaders article, and was about to post it to Facebook with some snide remark, until I hit the usual story about typewriters.
I’m a one-spacer. I was a two-spacer for most of my life until a friend of mine said one space is the standard, and may have mentioned typewriters. To me, it looked better, and hey, I could save countless picoseconds of my life that could be better spent drinking away huge chunks of my life, had I not immediately spent all those picoseconds sitting down at my computer and running search and replace a couple of times.1 The truth is, one-spacers will win, and not because of any new standard or old technology, or anyone’s opinion on the matter, but because 99.99 percent of all the writing in the modern world is displayed with HTML, and HTML ignores extra whitespace. You have to go out of your way—or use a publishing platform that went out of its way—to create two spaces between any bit of text. I love the em-dash, but I have to type — every time I want to use one, and not many people even know that’s how to do it, so it will slowly turn into - or —. If you want two spaces, you or your web tool must insert or other absurd code after each period.2 Most people don’t bother, and fewer will in the future.
But the typewriter story bugged me, mostly because of the mouseover text in this xkcd. It also didn’t make sense because I did a lot of typing on old typewriters in my day,3 and it’s totally obvious where the sentences end.
So I dug not particularly far into the issue and found this excellent article on why the typewriter story is false. I got to the end and felt a profound relief that somebody else had written a meticulously researched article that debunked some nonsense and allowed me not to care.
This relief was immediately replaced by comprehending the absurdity of the thought that allowed it. Why on Earth did it take 5600 words to relieve me of burden of caring about something that I don’t actually care about? Why did I almost post the first article? Why was that guy so angry? Why am I even part of this debate?
The answer is it was never meant to be a debate. It’s bar conversation that spun out of control in the vortex between anonymity and public record, and the endless cycle of mindless fuckery is taking everybody down with it.
Such ado, much pointless
I spend a lot of my time trying to unravel irrationality. Part of the reason I stay on Facebook is to hunt down some of the more egregious examples and study them, attempting to find chinks in the armor of irrational dialogues.4 Most people are not actually schizophrenic, but many of them react to keyboards the way normal people react to PCP. Any discussion about feminism, racism, government, evolution, guns, or climate usually gets to the Hitler/Jews/Aliens/Satan/Illuminati stage within the hour. But you expect that from such topics, because the people involved have incompatible world views and first principles, and “facts” tend to be fundamentally different forms of knowledge for the arguing parties.
Only recently did I make the connection between that kind of argument, with all its linguistic violence, and the kind of arguments people have about spaces after periods, hipsters, the merits of living in a given city, and other things that matter the same way bricks float. These arguments are not divided by first principles, and they usually don’t descend into death threats the way some disagreements do, but they still reach insane levels of condescension and name-calling. These issues don’t start wars or protests, but they consume people in surprising ways, wasting a dull roar of digital breath in a canyon of triviality.
So we know this, right? It’s the internet’s fault and everybody’s stupid or the nerd wars bled out into public discourse or something. But there’s a nasty set of mechanisms in the nature of the discourse that’s got everybody on edge.
The internet is a poor venue for an argument
So: bar conversation. Doesn’t really need to be in a bar, but that’s where I first heard that double-spacing was a relic of the past. I had unquestioningly followed double-spacing for two decades at that point, but hadn’t really thought about it, and since the person telling me the story was a professional editor, I said, “Right on,” and got back to my pool game, which I lost.5 Moments like this are how I got most of the information I remember from college: somebody said, “Oh, you know this thing?” and I said, “Oh, no I didn’t, thanks.” Some of those things were true (Michel is pronounced like Michelle, not Michael), some were false (LSD stays in your spine forever), some were not even wrong (the only good music is free jazz recorded between 1996 and 2003). Once I hear this thing, it becomes knowledge. If it invalidates a thing I didn’t care about, it’s easy to take it in, but regardless of how it fits into my worldview, the process of pushing old information out makes the replacement information mean a little more to me. Not much more, but enough. I’ve corrected a false belief and now I can correct others. The importance of the new information goes up incrementally every time you pass it on to someone else, and exponentially each time it’s corrected, since correcting it means admitting that all the incremental benefit you thought you were doing for the world every time you passed on the incorrect information was actually harm.
On the information super-swamp, all that harm is public, and we start to feel like politicians, pressured to somehow defend the record of everything we ever bothered to say publicly if we presume to voice an opinion.
Righteous rant versus snide remark
I was taught, and I assume others of my ilk were taught the same, that when writing, remove prefacing like “as far as I know” and “I think” from our written assertions. Good practice, unless prefacing sentiment is true. What they should have taught was “remove unprovable assertions of fact or deductive chains of logic missing key elements, and if you have what you believe to be a solid inductive claim, preface it as such so it’s not mistaken for a factual claim.” This, like all the good lessons, is too long to be pithy, so we remember lessons about surety and pretending unto confidence we neither have nor deserve.
This false sense of confidence leads to the righteous rant, as demonstrated by the original slate article, or this, or this, or this, or these, or, to be fair, half this blog. It could be about a big, socially important thing, usually rights of some sort; it could be about which side of the sidewalk to walk on.
Sometimes the rant is authentic, sometimes it’s trolling, but both are meant to give the appearance of authenticity. Since authentic emotion is all but sinful in every topic that doesn’t involve dead children, it will invariably attract a bunch of snide remarks from people who think being cool has some unfathomable connection to posting comments on web pages. Being snide is moderately acceptable among friends, but once it hits the internet, somebody, somewhere, reads the snide remark and it hits a personal weak point, and the war begins. In person, saying something dismissive or offensive has consequences: if you’re a human being with a sliver of compassion, you have to see you’ve hurt someone, and even if you’re a sociopath, you have to risk getting punched. The internet disconnects empathy and minimizes physical risk, yet does nothing to mitigate the effects of words on the vulnerable.
The debates about rights and war and economic disparity are going to raise heckles because they’re difficult subjects. But it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is in this environment. In fact, the more trivial the point being discussed, the worse the problem. Meaningless debates that are unresolvable due to lack of any substance to resolve are breeding grounds for opinions that don’t matter, held by people afraid of more complex topics. The argument is their opportunity to be right about something, and since there’s nothing to which to apply a useful notion of right and wrong, it spins off into an infinity of personal attacks and baseless assertions.
The real world
Basically all of my conversations with my heterosexual life-mate Jake devolve into screaming matches, because we have fundamentally different opinions about the human condition. Yet at some point, we have to remember that there are other people around getting uncomfortable, and that we have many more decades to go in our ridiculous relationship. We take each others’ emotions seriously.
Many of our screaming matches are about minor semantic details, often not remotely related to the initial topic. Once the temperature rises, it doesn’t matter what the actual words are: every tiny point becomes integral to the overall structure of our egos. The actual subject matter has no logical relationship to the manner in which it is discussed. Any given point is an incidental feature of the rhetorical diatribes we shout at each other over our drinks. At some point, we remember this, take a smoke break, and go back to showing each other YouTube videos.
As a species, we’ve been pretending for centuries that the content of our conversation is the important thing. There is an intense form of conversation where this is true, but it’s a taxing way to relate. The better part of our dialogue is a way to get to know people, pass time, and feel closer to each other, and this is the bedrock upon which to have the taxing kind of conversation, the occasional argument, and exchange complicated or sensitive information. The internet wars remove this bedrock, to better document the fragility of our egos, and their volcanic responses to challenge.
1 I don’t know if anyone seriously makes the “save time” argument, but if you do, stop. You’d have to type non-stop at 100 or more words per minute 16 hours a day for this to possibly impact you. Humans are not so efficient that things like this matter.
2 There is a CSS way to do this. You probably don’t care, but I don’t want to lose any nerd cred in case a programmer stumbles across this.
3 After commuting twenty miles to school through ten feet of snow. Uphill both ways. Barefoot. Fighting Nazis.
4 A number of people have pointed out to me that this is itself an irrational quest. They’re not wrong, but I get to call it quixotic and sound cultured.
5 She wasn’t that invested in the typewriter thing either; her precise words were, “Single space is standard in most places, something about typewriters, I don’t know if it’s true.”