Michael A. Charles is a jerk.

My name is Michael A. Charles. I have a blog: you’re reading it.

In all probability you arrived here, like most of my visitors, through a Google search. Most such visitors, I believe, skim only the first few lines of whichever article they land on, before clicking away in quest of less long-winded sources of information. If you are one of those visitors, no hard feelings, thanks for dropping by.

I’m grateful for my obscurity. I have little conviction that most of my arguments are true or, if true, useful, and a real fear that they might do someone harm. Nevertheless, some narcissistic mania compels me to share them. Luckily I’m boring enough that there’s little chance of their infecting too many strangers.

My boringness isn’t entirely accidental. I tend to deliberately avoid subjects that might have mainstream appeal. This is mostly defensive. If I ever became interesting enough to attract a wide readership, I might feel pressured to go on being interesting, which would involve a lot of hard work. As a habitual bore I can go on idly amusing myself, and the ten or a dozen people out there who share my esoteric interests, without feeling like I’ve let anybody down.

And yet some part of me wants to be noticed. Among my many posts about forgotten old books and movies you’ll sometimes find me blethering about hot-button political and social issues. Most of my blethering is, by online standards, fairly polite. Not coincidentally, it has been almost completely ignored. I’ve been lucky so far.

If you’re reading this on a computer you’ll notice in the right sidebar an automatically-generated selection of my most popular posts. (On a mobile device the list appears, I believe, at the bottom of the page.) This list varies from day to day, and from year to year, as different search queries cycle in and out of prominence, and as Google tunes its mysterious clockworks to elevate or deprecate certain responses to those queries. On quiet days a mere handful of visits is enough to raise a post into my top ten.

My most popular posts are generally pretty old. It takes a while, sometimes years, for a post to accumulate enough incoming links for Google to deem it worthy of a high ranking. As I write this – but not necessarily as you read it – one of my top posts concerns the science-fiction writer Peter Watts, whose novel Blindsight I commented on, quite favourably, almost a decade ago. This item regularly appears among my top ten, and has become a regular source of embarrassment to me.

You see, at the time I wrote it, it seemed a good idea to give that post the inflammatory and unkind title “Peter Watts is a jerk”.

If you read the whole thing you’ll find that it’s less about Watts’s abrasive personality (as exhibited in his blog; I’ve never met the man) than it is about how my awareness of his abrasive personality affected my response to his writing. (To wit: despite enjoying Blindsight a great deal, after ten years I still haven’t attempted to read another of his books.)

As when I occasionally refer to myself as a crank, I had in mind, when choosing that title, a certain light-hearted, even affectionate colouration to the word “jerk”. But I can’t blame readers for failing to detect the subtle undertones in a phrase which seems pretty black-and-white. The vast majority of those who see the title in a web search, or in the sidebar of my blog, will never click through to the essay. They’ll simply conclude that there is a guy named Peter Watts who is a jerk; or, if they’re more skeptical, that some random blogger, not necessarily reliable, thinks that some guy named Peter Watts is a jerk; or, if they happen to know already who Peter Watts is, that some random blogger is making a jerk of himself by hurling insults at a perfectly harmless Canadian sci-fi writer.

I wasn’t thinking about any of that a decade ago. I realized that my title was a little overbearing, yes, like a blinking neon sign on the side of a hotel; but I figured customers would forgive the sign once they got inside and saw how tasteful the lobby was. I didn’t consider the effect on passersby – how my blinking neon would contribute to the increasingly tacky and low-class appearance of the whole neighbourhood.

Granted, I didn’t kick off the descent into tackiness, and tearing down my sign will do little to reverse it. And if I did tear it down, the nature of advertising being what it is, I might get somewhat fewer customers. But do I really want the sort of customers who’d respond positively to such a vulgar inducement?

On the other hand, while we should certainly be cautious about blighting our neighbourhoods with eyesores, perhaps once they’re in place it’s better to let them stand, to commemorate the fashions and ideologies that erected them. I believe that there’s value in being constantly reminded that our notions of good taste change from decade to decade.

Besides, if we tear down yesterday’s blunders all at once, we’ll inevitably end up replacing them with a whole new set of blunders, which the next generation will have to deal with. Rather than demolishing our eyesores we should recontextualize them by gradually assembling around them new, hopefully more attractive structures that complement and soften their ugliness.

That’s what I’m trying to do here. I could go back into my archives and blot out my past misjudgements – but only at the risk of propagating my current misjudgements. Better to keep on adding to my cityscape, while hoping that the whole amounts to more than the sum of its ungainly parts.

I realize this seems an absurdly grandiose justification for not changing the title of an old blog post. And I’m not even finished! To abandon my elaborate metaphor, I don’t approve of people going into old webpages and editing away their mistakes to make themselves look better.

One of the things I hate about the internet is how it has not only muddled chronology (often it’s impossible to figure out when a webpage was published, let alone how often it’s been edited since then) but made chronology irrelevant by overwhelming us with the transient and immediate. While it’s a pain in the butt schlepping down to the library to scroll through old newspapers on microfilm, at least when you head home you know the contents of the spools will be in the same order when you resume your search tomorrow, or fifty years from now.

Whereas the modern-day spool-keepers shuffle their contents from day to day based on what other people are scrolling, what you’ve previously chosen to scroll, and what opinions the spool-keepers have determined should no longer be scrollable. Under these conditions it’s hard to reconstruct the arguments people were making as recently a decade ago. Most of us no longer bother to try. There are plenty of brand new controversies to get excited about today, and there’ll be a whole new set tomorrow.

Well, damn it, my contributions to the intellectual climate of 2010 might have been asinine and destructive. But I made them. Therefore I shall, as far as I’m able, preserve them under their original titles and at their original URLs, so that future internet historians can find them, read them, and shake their heads at what a jerk their author must have been.


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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

Michael isn't on LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter and won't be on whatever comes along next. If you need to reach him here's his contact info.

Garson Hampfield, Crossword Inker