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Tracy Danison, Paris correspondent

Trollus ex machina: It’s mine and I’ll do what I wanna [by Tracy Danison]

The culprit
The eye of the storm

“That is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”  

                                                                            - Lesley Gore, 1964

Last Spring, in the aftermath of a social media harassment incident involving some of my students, I was chatting about internet trolling and trolls with one of the victims, Ariadne – an aptly-named and particularly bright star in physics. Ariadne has developed a trollus-ex-machina theory that explains internet trolling’s inelegant peevishness, as well what seems to be an increasing number of internet users who adopt a troll posture – a sort of diffuse pugnaciousness, she means.

She says that we usually think that when we yell at, for instance, a malfunctioning coffee maker, we are anthropomorphizing – imagining the metal and plastic thing as if it were another human to whom we could transfer our pain or whom we could hold responsible for our pain – you know, like our favorite human punching bag, souffre-douleur, scapegoat. There’s no such anthropomorphizing going on, she says. Whether we know it or not, when something is a machine, we treat it as a machine, we treat it as we do other, less developed, stuff and things; we’re yelling at the coffee maker because it’s something people do.

She goes on to say that because we access the internet with machines the “hardware” behavior there is shaped by an (unacknowledged) belief that internet activity is machine interface, not a form of human interaction. In other words, while users tell themselves their pithy “tweets”, or however we call verbal sallies these days, are bits of human-human interaction, their mental mode is machine interface: yelling at the coffee maker.

In respect to trolls and trolling, the upshot of Ariadne’s theory is that internet behavior owes more to internet users’ belief about their relationship to “stuff” and “things” than to an individual user’s poor grasp of successful human communications. 

Ariadne’s theory has terrifying implications, though as I opened my eyes increasingly wide with dismay as I listened, it wasn’t clear to me she really understood why.

Likely, she isn’t yet fully aware that contemporary humans mostly believe the “things” and “stuff” of the world  are almost entirely survival tools put at their disposition by some sort of cosmic IKEA.

Nor is it likely she has yet realized that, as a practical expression of this belief in the nature of the world around, no doubt with an exception somewhere, human societies operate value systems that dispose all stuff and things in terms of their utility for humans and human goals. “Utility”, when it comes to things and stuff, spins down to individuals as life in a system of ownership/non-ownership: behavior in respect to stuff or things is entirely determined by whether you or somebody else “claims” them. As long as some stuff or some thing has no other “claimant” or if the “lawful claimant” is “I/we”, we can do what I/we feel with it. 

She probably hasn’t fully grasped that, in our particular society – the one that has been pretty good to her so far and probably will continue to smile as she goes along –  there are some distinctive twists and turns in the ownership idea that set a rather unsettling background tone.

For instance, we must always first make “thing” the “other” we wish to dominate or eliminate. As Ariadne notes, no anthropomorphizing is involved in yelling at the coffee machine, it’s just a machine, a thing and that's what things get. When one human yells at another human, however, the yeller is “otherhooding” the yellee – symbolically transforming the other human into a thing as other things.

The danger of getting “thingomorphized” is why we humans are so touchy about getting yelled at: thingomorphism demonstrates just how great our dependence is – spouse, child, employee – that is, how much of our humanness depends on the quality of personal relationships, social place or social utility. It is no accident, for instance, that Ursula K. Le Guin’s “propertarians” spend a great deal of time theorizing about “natural differences”.

In terms of the background tone of our lives, a constant need to establish an appropriate level of otherhood before summarily dominating or eliminating another human lends a peculiar violence to our political struggles for equality. Think of the cold hand of a Dementor bearing down on Harry Potter’s shoulder. Forever.

The inherent cruelty of our, let’s call it, “ownership management system” not only installs a universal nervousness about our status, it also seems to generate a vague awareness of the shame of such a social disposition.

In some jurisdictions, demonstrating one’s right to do as one pleases with one’s stuff and things must be done out of sight. As well, destruction of potentially shared resources must sometimes be blessed by a majority or, at least, the processes of the local legal system. For instance, we may certainly kill our pets or our livestock, only not, for example, by public hanging; you may very well need a government permit before you can dump poisons into your watershed.

In light of the operation of contemporary society’s “ownership management system”, if an internet troll is, as Ariadne says, ex machina, then the troll’s psychological point of departure – indeed, all internet users’ psychological point of departure – is pure, unadulterated, megalomaniacal “I/we, mine, it’s-my-party-and-I’ll-do-what-I-wanna”.

As if the universe is intent to send me to my therapist for depression, a couple of weeks after my chat with Ariadne I was trolled! Of all things, on The Best American Poetry! This forced me to think about trolls and trolling in light of Ariadne’s theory and its somber implications.

It seems to me, then, that trolls of old and trolls today are, structurally at least, recognizably both trolls a trolling. If there are more trolls doing more trolling, it’s not due to some moral change in people but to technology, commercial policy and practices and cost. Together, these factors lead to an increase in the volume of the practice. Volume in turn intensifies feedback loops which then intensify certain qualities, which in turn inspire new-type responses, and on and on.

I was trolled in pre-internet times from time to time, by a scorned love, by a professional rival, by a cracked & peeling brother. Through them, I accumulated years and years of long long, unsigned letters full of pained reproach and venom, hushed swirls of untraceable but plausible lies about myself spilled into the ears of, especially, those most capable of dashing my hopes, along with laughable but dangerous denunciations made to those most able to hurt me in the moment. There’s story in those old trolls, bottom born of the risks of human interaction.

The retrospective drama of it, the sincerity of my old trolls and the inventiveness of their old-time trolling seems not to compare with a couple utterly generic lame-brained one-word insults from these utterly anonymous new-fangled internet trolls – “dink”, “asshole” – and a half-witted attempt at what I think is meant as parody.

But on consideration, circumstances and degrees eliminated, past and present trolls share two formal characteristics.

The first characteristic is obscure malevolence – a will to do ill. Why otherwise would anyone invest even a moment in such an exercise? Malevolence manifests according to the intensity of the troll’s natural disposition – like everything else in us, it follows some sort of distribution curve, I guess – and immediate feeling. Manifested malevolence ranged in pre-internet times and ranges now, from low-feeling disagreeable remarks, insults, and threats to harassment such as dog-shit on the doorstep to spamming and unarmed stalking right on up to really-strong-feeling physical assault and murder.

The second characteristic of pre- and internet trolls is manipulation of anonymity or other social distance to free the troll from responsibility for trolling. In the old days, not signing a poison-pen letter, a target’s reputational considerations and a general indifference or hostility of authority to anybody who shouldn’t be whining usually gave the troll free reign.

Nowadays, the titans of social media have made “anonymous, free communication” – Encrypted from end to end! – the cornerstone of a commercial strategy for harvesting personal information and selling it on to the highest bidder. This means troll empowerment: the potential for casual irresponsibility on the internet is, like the propagation of Nazi race theory and pedophile conspiracy theories, now in easy reach of even the most palsied will to obscure malevolence.

And, so far as I can tell, the economic structure of trolling has not changed from pre-internet to our times, either.

Trolling still requires only that a troll is able to make a small investment of money and time. In the old days, the investment was a deal of stamps, envelopes and paper and, maybe, a few muffled phone calls from the local booth. Investment in trolling was dissuasive, surely, for low-feeling malevolence, but certainly no bar to a mid- to strong-feeling troll with functional writing skills and an easy job.

Thanks again to anonymous-free-communications, initial and running costs today are close to zero in both money and time – tapping “dink” or “asshole” or a couple of bootless lines is a but a minute’s work. Virtual costlessness enables trolls of all feeling intensities to troll, to troll more often and troll more widely than was possible before.

While it may seem that the troll’s ability to hurt a target must diminish as less time investment in content diminishes its quality, nothing to could be further from the truth. Even if it may be gratifying for the troll to personally wound a target, the whole part of trolling is actually to enable, among others, doubt, contempt, anger and/or hatred about or against the target.

Given that lies or lie equivalents always fly,  simply repeating “dink” or “asshole” or a couple of bootless lines ad infinitum, therefore, is the most cost-effective way of doing the core job, even if the sting of personal malevolence may sometimes be less felt by the target.

So, if, in the pre-internet trolling experience, I could name, along with the trolls themselves, concrete motivating emotions such as anger, jealously or hate, trolling then and now actually requires only an abstract will to obscure malevolence, a flimsy cloak to operate irresponsibility, minimal wherewithal in time and money and, of course, a target. That’s why trolls use ‘bots to do the job where they can and why, also, trolling itself is professionalizing as well as increasingly common as an internet posture.

In light of Ariadne’s Trollus ex machina and the empowerment of obscure malevolence by “anonymous, free communication”, it takes no feat of psychosocial insight to see enormous trolling growth and development potential in our ownership management type society.

With It’s Mine! and an I’ll do what I want shaping the trolling potential of kids who know themselves right to flush their turtles down their toilets, of entrepreneurs pouring heavy metals into their rivers because they may and farmers enslaving migrant fruit pickers because they can, expect more troll-like behavior to spread more widely.

It should be no surprise that as trolling develops steadily, tweeting and suchlike increasingly reads and feels more like trolling: bumptious smugness laced with diffuse put down, insult and even threat. It should be no surprise that a man on trial for saying a public official was going to get “the noose and trapdoor he deserves” says he was “misread” – one needn’t pull one’s punches when yelling at a coffee maker.

Expect worse.

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