Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art
(Simon & Schuster, 2016)
Virginia Heffernan gained some notoriety in certain media circles in 2013, when she published an article titled “Why I’m a Creationist” on Yahoo! News. The title, combined with her dismissal of the theory of evolution as “just a theory” (conflating the word’s popular meaning with its scientific one), and her treatment of the Bible and scientific reasoning as equal narratives (“I was [. . .] considerably less amused and moved by the character-free Big Bang story (‘something exploded’) than by the twisted and picturesque misadventures of Eve and Adam and Cain and Abel and Abraham,” she writes) effectively obfuscated her intended message. She later clarified it in an interview with Canadian radio show Q, explaining that she does not, in fact, dispute natural selection or spontaneous mutation; her argument is not with the Galapagos finch’s beak. Rather, she is dissatisfied with the proposed answers to two of science’s fundamental questions: the origins of the universe and how consciousness came into being. “I see God in two places where science sees a void,” she says in the interview. “Hard science and I are at a standstill. They see a mystery and some of us see God.”
Heffernan’s perception of technology is informed by this mindset. The closing chapter of her new book, Magic and Loss,places her relationship with the internet within a larger narrative of her lifelong search for ontological meaning. She quotes Arthur C. Clarke’s rule that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and it is magic or grace or something unnamable that Heffernan sees at work in/on the internet. It is not that Heffernan is too lazy to learn or understand the mechanics of the internet, how ones and zeros combine into bytes and information packets (I hope my own ignorance is clear). Instead, she marvels at how these lines of code become representations of humanity. The internet is a human creation whose existence depends on our continued participation and engagement with it, but it can also be a “fathomless and godlike medium that doesn’t suffer, that knows everything, that shows no mercy or compassion.” We ourselves are the subjects of the internet and yet we are apart from it. The gap between the code and what we understand as the internet is as difficult to fathom as the chasm between neurons and consciousness. Whether you see in that space a void or magic or God is a question of semantics.
The existential questions the internet provokes for Heffernan are fitting. For her, the story of the internet is not the story of technology or of business, but of a milestone for humanity, “the great masterpiece of human civilization,” an immense work of realist art. She places the internet on a continuum with previous cultural practices and divides the book into five sections—design, text, images, video, and music—whose digital iterations she analyzes using the same critical tools normally applied to their analog equivalents. Her goal is no less than the creation of a “complete aesthetics—and poetics—of the internet,” with a corresponding analysis that demonstrates how the internet fits into existing paradigms and how it is contributing to shifts within: the absence of a physical keyboard on the iPhone, for example, and the quality of its camera, have contributed to a shift from communication based in text—which the Blackberry enabled in digital form—to communication through images.
Heffernan opens with the assertion that the internet “becomes more deeply meaningful and moving when ‘read’ as an aesthetic object than lived or reported on as firsthand human experience.” This statement, coupled with publicity materials that present Heffernan as the Marshall McLuhan of the internet, led me to expect the authoritative voice of traditional critical analysis. Instead I found a strong authorial voice: she inserts her personal experiences throughout the text. Her writing resides somewhere at the intersection of the personal essay and the critical one. There is some McLuhan, but it is liberally sprinkled with Klosterman and Dunham. So, yes, Heffernan does read the internet as an aesthetic object and she does the descriptive work that that approach entails. She takes the time to articulate the effects of various Instagram filters: “the hazy jaundice of Slumber. [. . .] The austere fade of Valencia.” And her reading is a deeply subjective experience. Given the nature of her relationship with the internet, this attitude is not surprising. Moreover, her presence adds warmth to the text. She lovingly portrays the synesthetic effects of the iTunes synthesizer: “I feel as if I have tasted its grooves, slept in it, and inhaled every note of every song.” Though Heffernan is obviously writing for an internet-literate audience (though she claims it is a how-to manual to “show how readers might use the Web and not be overwhelmed by it”), she isn’t lazy about putting into words the internet’s practices when she could easily refer to them and expect her reader to know what an Instagram filter looks like. Not only does she depict the internet, she does so with great love for its spontaneity, idiosyncrasy, and “wackiness.” In a discussion of how to properly quote text from the internet, she brings up the classic Yahoo! Answers question: “How is babby formed? How girl get pragnent?” and concludes that it’s “funny. Who wants to deny readers a chance to laugh (by correcting the spelling)?” It is unfortunate, though, that she doesn’t discuss Tumblr at all—its comedic ecosystem merits analysis.
Her critical treatment offsets a fresh perspective on the internet. She observes that most websites are “a graphic mess” that ignore the design principles developed over the course of the 20th century. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t occur to me that the internet could look any different. Similarly, she points out that we are engaged in a constant state of reading. She calls this phenomenon hyperlexia and it is apt, yet I had never considered reading texts or emails real reading. Heffernan explains and contextualizes my perspective:
Separating real from false reading [. . .] has been a power proposition with sinister consequences since the first century AD when sofers argued that reading the then-new codices (books with separate pages) wasn’t really reading. Until you’ve found your way in a maddeningly disorienting Torah scroll, went the argument that safeguarded the scribes’ elevated status, you haven’t really read at all.
That said, at times Heffernan applies critical methodology liberally. She argues for Twitter as a new form of poetry, writing, “Asking what’s to become of poetry in the age of Twitter is like asking what’s to become of music in the age of guitars.” Certainly the character restriction enforces the kind of semantic choices that define poetry. Still, I would think that author intent matters: can you call something a poem if the author wouldn’t?
The internet is thus a continuation of existing and long-standing polemics, an heir to a vast cultural conversation and tradition. And yet it is also something different because it is immaterial and eternal. Before the internet, immortality through the arts was dependent on the material existence of the object. The internet, however, “turns experiences from the material world [. . .] into frictionless, weightless, and fantastic abstractions” that are not subject to mortality. A book can burn and so can celluloid. But what of the Facebook profile of someone who’s died? What of the cloud? What’s lost, in fact, is impermanence and evanescence: landline phone voices and photo albums. We are left with representations of our mortal lives: an online video is a permanent record of a moment suspended in time. On the internet, mortality and immortality coexist, like a soul and its body living side by side.