Reading on the internet, according to the early web adopter and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, is like “drinking from a fire hose.” It’s too vast, aggressive, and fast-evolving to fully account for. If we’re fundamentally afraid of the internet — and many of us are — it’s because it’s more expansive and ambitious than we are. We could never accurately chart it; it literally contains multitudes, whereas we only aspire to. “To keep pace with the Internet, we’d have to forfeit our souls,” journalist Virginia Heffernan writes in her fascinating new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. “But that would only be step one.”
Keeping pace with the Internet is precisely what Heffernan has been attempting to do for over three decades, from her years as a preteen regular on early ‘80s web communities, to professional stints as a technology writer for Yahoo! News and, most recently, a columnist for The New York Times Magazine. In Magic and Loss, she offers a corrective to a generation of pop-sociology books that depict the internet as a dystopian instrument dismantling our attention spans, relationships, and cultural production — books with alarmist (and funny) titles like The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains; The Future of the Internet, and How To Stop It; and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
Heffernan’s approach, which is nuanced and refreshingly counter-intuitive, is to approach the internet not as a technological cure-all (or a weapon), but as a work of art. And not just any work of art, but “the great masterpiece of civilization.” She doesn’t concern herself with its potentially destructive effects on teen dating rituals, and doesn’t seriously entertain the notion that it’s deadening our appreciation for nature or beauty. She’s interested, instead, in what she calls “the trippy, slanted, infinite dreamland of the rapidly evolving Web,” its native forms and hallucinatory aesthetics. The internet she’s grown up with is “a massive and collaborative work of realist art,” she writes, and as a critic, her goal is to explore and explain its surface textures and mysteries. In this respect, the book is a necessary contribution to the literature of digital life.
How did you come to see the internet as a collaborative work of art rather than, say, a tool designed to destroy human civilization as we know it?
Often, I think, how we first come to a new form or new experience determines how we understand it thereafter. Kind of like how they say that when you first meet your spouse, in that first hour, you form all the impressions that will later come up in your relationship. So lots of people come to the internet as a productivity tool, as something mandatory in school or at work. Some people, even really early on, used it for dating — getting data and using it to match people with each other. But I came to it initially as a game, and a social game in particular. It was via this thing called Conference XYZ at Dartmouth College that I lucked into in the late ’70s. By then, systems programmers who’d been around networked computing for a long time were already using code names and had all kinds of insider lingo and games.
And one thing I sort of tacitly say in the book is that there is no internet without digital culture. There has always been an element of fantasy and gaming. And making up that world, the ambiance and protocols of that world — figuring out whether you type in all caps or small, cute lower-case letters or mixed, proficient sentences — those are things that everyone figures out for themselves. We know that it’s a faux pas to “reply all,” for example, and those were the things that we were all figuring out already in ’79, ’80, ’81, before the internet was even called it the internet. Those were cultural moves that have been kind of invisible. There’s this idea that, like, first some tubes were laid down and some coders made this very complicated, patchwork code and created this thing called the internet — and then all of a sudden Google and Facebook followed. But that commercial space of the web, the Google and Facebook part, is really only a piece of the story. The fact is that a lot of culture was already there. So I came to experience it first as a civilization.
I talk in the book about how Steve Jobs initially just wanted bootleg Dylan tapes. He wanted music from computers, so he made his first mobile device, the iPod, as a music box. Now it’s used for a lot of other things, obviously, but the iPhone remains a sort of artsy device for that reason. Edison, by contrast, wanted the phonograph to be a dictation device, so he invented something that could play music by accident. He meant it as a productivity device. He was all about work ethic, and Jobs was this blown-out mystic.
You write about the time he dropped acid and conducted an imaginary Bach performance in a wheat field.
Right! That memory of Jobs hearing Bach in the wheat field is very important in the book. That idea that music could come from somewhere it didn’t belong. And now you can listen to Bach on your iPhone and stand in a wheat field, if you want. His fantasy has been realized. And that’s a cultural development, not an engineering story.
In the book, you say that “a cloud of guilt is good for art” and that “an art form or cultural practice thrives to the degree it is considered poisonous.” I’m pretty sure I agree, but could you expand on that?
There was an article in the Times several years ago about kids with attention span problems, and they cited this one kid with a really stunted attention span. He had refused to do his summer reading, which was to read a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, and instead had spent the summer obsessively making these digital movies. And they showed him sitting there in the photo like he’s supposed to be some sort of criminal, and he had this giant camera and lighting set-up behind him. But that kind of cultural activity is just invisible to us apparently. He’s not reading Kurt Vonnegut so he’s screwing up. He’s a truant!
And the same is true of so many other things. You’re told not to do it or you’re told it’s ruining your mind, and then you get consumers who become obsessive about whatever it is, and that creates a lot of demand for the form, and drives more people into the field. And the form gets better and better. That’s how you go from Howdee Doody to House of Cards. All of a sudden we have these super sophisticated TV shows that are almost overshooting the mark of sophistication, certainly on par with anything in Hollywood, and most novels. Newton Minow [a former FCC chairman] called television a "vast wasteland," and by doing so he put this curse on the form that made it stronger and better.
I love the way you write about the aesthetics of websites. What are the most beautiful websites — living or dead — in your opinion?
I have a sort of perverse aesthetic. So I can sometimes feel resentful when I look at a site like Medium or The Guardian that people love. Because people looking at Medium might think that’s what all media websites should look like, when really that’s only what media websites look like if there’s no imperative to make money. There’s a reason that the Yahoo and AOL homepages look like Victorian newspapers, with junky little things that are supposed to catch your eye, and make you unable to tell the difference between advertising and content. It’s like a souq, or an open marketplace, where your pocket could be picked at any moment. And not everyone likes an open marketplace — some people prefer the vibe of a very high-end Dubai mall, where prices aren’t always being negotiated and you’re not always being taken advantage of. But other people do like that kind of crazy, ad-hoc world.
I also like app design that takes advantage of the fact that it’s a refuge. One of the things that’s unfathomable about the internet is that the population of the Earth and the number of cell phone accounts are almost at parity. And so it’s really, really hard to think about how many people’s consciousnesses are around all the time. So as much I talk about loving that more urban, chaotic design, I also love when someone invites me to their McMansion in Dallas, with air conditioning and huge portions of food and tons of floor space. Who doesn’t? The first time I saw that kind of suburban living I was like, where have you been all my life?
But mostly I like the super abstract, cold, kind of modernist designs. I always want to simulate the feeling that mathematicians sometimes describe, when they talk about the elegance of a good proof. I don’t really understand what they mean, but I feel like I can get close to it with really good digital design.
Defending the artistic value of YouTube videos or tweets seems worthwhile, even overdue — but it’s ultimately the platforms themselves that seem increasingly sinister. Are you worried at all by what feels like the tightening grip over the internet by fewer and fewer corporations?
Well, you know, if there’s a monopoly — if Google and Facebook become like social utility providers — it doesn’t change the great variety and heterogeneity of the content. There are certain ways that we’re programmed to use Facebook and Twitter, and then there are the ways we do actually use them. And they’ve been surprising. For instance, the exodus of a lot of young people from regular Facebook use has just accidentally caused this evolution of the place from an area for college kids to date or whatever to what I think of now as this sort of Sunnyside retirement community. There’s a lot of talk on it that Facebook probably isn’t eager to acknowledge, because it isn’t the totally sterling market that millennials are. But there’s some really beautiful writing there now. And if you follow interesting writers, you end up getting this crazy free content. Michael Gilmore, the author of Shot Through the Heart, is on Facebook and posts regularly about suffering from cancer. I’ve never met him, but I love that book, and I can’t believe he’s writing for us in this super intimate way, as if we were all friends. There’s a way in which people over 40 have a certain willingness to be vulnerable, and people laugh at that sometimes, but it can be incredibly moving.
That’s just one experience, but even seeing some of the polarization and fractiousness among my Facebook crowd around Bernie Sanders and Hillary has been really illuminating. We’re in this really dynamic political time, it feels like Trotsky-Stalin or something. I’m on a bunch of secret Hillary groups now, like we’re taking it underground — I’ve never been part of something like this before. All that political discourse, that essay writing, that’s not something programmed by some evil incorporated group at Facebook. Content is never really king, you know? The king is the algorithm, and content is more like the court jester. It’s always in this sort of subversive relationship to the empire.
You write, “In the days of newsprint and broadcast we used to fear the disposability and ephemerality of our communications. Now we fear their indelibility and susceptibility to interception.” Would you rather your work lived on the web forever, or disappeared? Are we doing enough to archive the Internet, or too much?
One of the things I only hint at in the book is the rise of anti-digital culture — live music, vinyl. I was sort of playing with that idea and trying to figure it out, and I settled on the notion that non-digital things die and decay. I love abstraction and fantasy and the cloud, but sometimes I’ve lived up there too long. I don’t think it’s an accident that there’s been a rise of secular mindfulness and meditation and American Buddhism, with a focus on yoga and the body.
Probably as a young woman I wanted immortality and was super afraid that I would just be extinct and not make any mark on the world. But now I definitely fear that less. And I like having a lot of plants in the house, and things that are imperfect and don’t look like well-designed apps. I even saw recently that there’s a return of clutter happening — that we’ve reached peak “de-cluttering,” and now the new thing is just to leave your shit everywhere. Which is not really a surprise. The culture is just wily that way. And I like that tension between people swearing off screens and then secretly looking at them again, or posting to Facebook and then pulling down their Facebook profiles. It just seems to make the whole thing more interesting.
Your argument that the internet represents a never-ending cycle of “magic and loss” reminds me of something the writer Paul Virilio said, that for every museum of innovation, there should be a museum of accidents. Do you agree? Is the internet more a museum of innovation or a museum of accidents?
Accidents are a great thing to bring up because something that plays really well on the internet — something the internet has become a home for — are, for instance, YouTube videos of things that shouldn’t have happened. Like the opposite of perfect, MTV videos. Especially in the beginning, when it was so raw, and when “fail videos” were huge. So I think accidents and human frailty and vulnerability, even though we’re participating in a system, the internet, that aspires to immortality, on a micro level there’s a lot of celebration of things going wrong.
And then of course there are typos. Years ago I was writing about typos and message board comments for the Times, and looking for an example of a typo someone might make, the one I used was “teh.” Which showed a profound ignorance on my part, and, believe me, everyone immediately schooled me that “teh” means something very particular among the 4chan crowd. And that meaning is very hard to articulate, but once my attention was called to that world, I got it. And now I love everything about that. How could you explain to your parents exactly what “teh” means? Or Lolcats. All of these things that begin as accidents and then calcify — and there are so many examples like that. Accidents are a big part of this culture.
The book ends on a surprisingly spiritual note. You write that on the internet we’re “elsewhere, in a fathomless realm channeled through our phones and laptops that we can but dimly intuit.” Can you talk about what you see as the spiritual aspect of the internet?
I’m so self-conscious talking about that chapter, even though it meant a lot to me to be able to write about it. But I’ll just focus on one thing. When I first got into the internet, or networked computing, it was on a phosphor screen with a black background. Those green letters set against a black screen. And like a lot of people who looked at those screens, I just had this sense that my brain was supplying a kind of meaning to the deep space behind the letters. Apple did a pretty good job of shutting us out of that rich, exciting vertigo of deep space when they coopted the bitmap display from Xerox and made this more user-friendly screen. It was like you couldn’t see beyond the screen anymore.
But I think most of us have this obscure sense that something is behind the applications that sit on the surface of our screens. They talk about “stacking” and “layering” in engineering. And that kind of engineering is with us; there are times when you see it. When I first had [Verizon] Fios installed, they tore up my road to put in the fiber optics. And underneath I saw all these wires. The subway system had its own intercom system, and there were forgotten wires from a streetcar set-up that had once been there. It’s that crazy sense of electronic circuitry that Marshall McLuhan and others tapped into. In some ways that’s an effect of computing.
In in the book I talk about Erich Auerbach's book Mimesis, in which he talks about different types of prose. There’s one kind of prose that really fills you out and does your thinking for you — airport thrillers are like this, where there’s all kinds of exposition and subordinate clauses that tell you what you should be noticing. The alternative is that Hemingway-style of prose where, in the spaces between the sentences, the reader works to supply and imagine a whole world. And Auerbach says that’s the way the Old Testament functions. This gets very mystical, but he says you start to see the face of God because there aren’t so many distractions. And I think every now and then, there are these gaps in the internet that suggest this deeper world. We sort of try to shut it out, but when you see how many people have active Facebook accounts, it’s like an unfathomable number. But you try to contain it, because it’s like looking up at the night sky. It’s too hard. But every now and then you get a glimpse of it.