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"Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art" by Virginia Heffernan (Simon & Schuster, $26, 263 pages)

The last time you opened Safari or Google Chrome to purchase a book on Amazon or checked in on your Facebook or Twitter feed, chances are you weren’t devoting much thought to the underlying ethos of the incorporeal construct that allowed you to execute those tasks. But if you have any curiosity about what it is that makes our digital life so fascinating and so maddening, Virginia Heffernan, in her new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, has come along to satisfy it, offering an exciting, at times unsettling, glimpse behind that electronic curtain.

Heffernan’s infatuation with computers and the online world long predates any professional interest. In the late 1970s, in Hanover, New Hampshire, where her father taught at Dartmouth, she was one of a group of “townies” who haunted the college’s computer center. There she learned the computer language BASIC while accessing the nascent technology of that age’s crude version of social networking. She worked for 10 years as a television critic and columnist at the New York Times and later at Yahoo! News and has written for publications that include Harper’s, The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal. To her experience as a journalist, Heffernan also adds a Ph.D. in English from Harvard that gives her critique depth and context.

Heffernan’s “central contention” is that the Internet is a “massive and collaborative work of realist art,” and she aims to examine that creation in the same spirit as esteemed cultural critics like Pauline Kael approached movies, Greil Marcus analyzes rock music or, in the acknowledgement most appropriate to this project, communications scholar Marshall McLuhan dissected electronic media. In successive chapters, she considers each aspect of the Internet’s form and content: design, text, images, video and music. As one would expect of a writer with Heffernan’s nimble and well-stocked mind, she’s comfortable discoursing on Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James one moment and at the next playfully deconstructing the homemade YouTube video guitar, a brilliant rock arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon (now viewed more than 92 million times) performed by a young man known only as Funtwo. In developing her argument, Heffernan’s prose happily tilts toward the journalistic side of her résumé.

At first, her claims for the Internet are nothing short of breathtaking. She calls it the “great masterpiece of human civilization,” and for her it’s much more than a technological accomplishment, as she likens it to landmarks of humankind’s advance, like the nation-state and agriculture. She is even so bold as to assert that “as an idea it rivals monotheism.” But she quickly dismisses as “propaganda” any claim that fails to acknowledge that the Internet’s “transformation of everyday life includes moments of magic and an inevitable experience of profound loss.”

That sense of well-tempered enthusiasm pervades the book.   Heffernan is  disappointed, for example, by the “entrenched inelegance” of the Web’s design, comparing its aesthetic to “late-stage Atlantic City or early-stage Mall of America,” but she enthusiastically embraces the mobile device apps that “have offered a way out, an orderly suburb that lets inhabitants sample the Web’s opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff.”

When it comes to text, however, Heffernan derides critics like Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, who, along with others relying on what she dismisses as pseudoscientific studies, argue that digital culture is altering our brains in harmful ways. That same sort of criticism, she points out, was leveled with equal passion and no more legitimate scientific foundation at activities like novel reading in the 18th Century. Heffernan revels in what she calls the “hyperlexia” of the Internet age, rejecting any hierarchy of reading based on digital or analog sources. “Codices, scrolls, leisure, work, epic poetry, tweets: lets call it all real reading,” she argues.

Moving from lively stories of our insatiable appetite for video (most notably on YouTube) to Heffernan’s encounters with the “immersive, transporting, revolutionary” virtual reality world of the Oculus Rift to the “extremely persuasive and pleasurable illusion” of MP3 music, Magic and Loss glides on breezily, blending academic sources with material gleaned from Heffernan’s deep and (mostly) satisfying engagement with digital culture. She lightly seasons this mix with dashes of memoir. That’s especially prominent in the book’s concluding chapter, where Heffernan movingly recounts a spiritual and professional journey that brought her to a place where “my religious life and my technological life had become one.”

No doubt intense arguments over the subjects considered in Magic and Loss will continue and shift shapes without end. Anyone who’s been swept along in the explosive growth of the Internet over the past quarter century probably has difficulty recalling life as it existed before it and almost certainly can’t imagine life without it. Whether we love it, hate it or merely tolerate it, Heffernan has done a stimulating job of helping open the eyes of anyone who wants to see the digital world in a refreshingly clear light.

Email Harvey Freedenberg at hfreedenberg@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HarvF.

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