The Great Masterpiece of Human Civilization

It’s the internet, argues Virginia Heffernan in Magic and Loss.

Illustration by Matt Cummings

There was once a time, not very long ago, when you went on the internet. You went on it, that is, in more or less the same spirit as you went on a Ferris wheel at a carnival, or a trip to the seaside: You went on it, you stayed on it for a bit, and then you went about your business again. This seems an improbably quaint idea now, when being online is more an existential condition than a thing you might or might not choose to do with your free time. (Consider the terms logging on and logging off, which read now as weird linguistic curios of an era long passed, when to fire up your modem was to undertake a kind of notional passage, a voyage into something called cyberspace.)

But if the internet is no longer a place we go to, how do we conceive of it in terms of our everyday lives, and in the context of history? It’s not a transformative technology, in the manner of the steam engine or the telegraph or the personal computer; instead, it’s broader and more diffuse, the mechanism by which a dozen or more transformative technologies have been introduced. And yet it’s not a cultural paradigm shift either, on the order of the spread of Christianity or the Enlightenment.

So what is it, then, this medium in which so many of us spend so much of our waking lives—this vast and unknowable realm of Snapchats and smart thermostats and pop-up ads and Japanese tentacle porn and streaming music and Donald Trump think pieces and 4chan shitposts and photographs of avocado-based brunches? In her new book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, the critic Virginia Heffernan argues against a reductive view of our online lives—against the kind of monotone lamentations and exultations that present the digital revolution as either the greatest or the worst thing ever. As her title suggests, Heffernan wants to take the measure of the cultural transformations, both good and ill, wrought by the internet over the last couple of decades. She focuses more on the magic side of things than the loss and begins by throwing some light-to-medium shade on books like Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Mark Bauerline’s The Dumbest Generation, with their dour insistence that the internet is rotting our minds. “Alarmist tracts,” she writes, “that warn about how the Web endangers culture or coarsens civilization miss the point that the same was said in turn about theater, lyric poetry, the novel, film, and television.” She wants instead to demonstrate “how readers might use the Web and not be overwhelmed by it; how we might stop fighting it, in short, and learn to love its hallucinatory splendor.”

Her approach to the topic is, in this sense, a humanistic one, informed by her training as a literary critic. Heffernan spent much of the 1990s doing a Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard University, and some of the most engaging parts of the book are the broadly autobiographical sections in which she reconciles the apparent contradictions of her own dual identity as both an early adopter of networked technology and a literary academic. And as someone who went from having Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a thesis adviser to writing clickbait for Yahoo News—work she memorably refers to as “Go-Gurt journalism”—she seems pretty well-positioned to write just this sort of book.

Her intention is to examine the internet as a vast cultural artifact, one that she believes challenges the pyramids, the novel, the nation state, even monotheism—looming above them all as “the great masterpiece of human civilization.” This is an extravagant claim, made in the spirit of storming the long-crumbling barricades between high and low culture. Ultimately, its a claim that Heffernan never succeeds in justifying—mostly because she doesn’t seem that concerned about trying—but her book is at its most satisfying when it’s letting the air out of inflated rhetoric about the death of this or that cultural form. She dismisses the New York Times’ fretful questioning about whether Twitter has “killed” poetry, for instance, with the following breezy aphorism: “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.” It’s a comparison that only really holds if you define poetry in the broadest possible sense, as the creative and aesthetic employment of language. But she’s right to point out the problems with claiming that the form’s built-in brevity amounts to a necessary shallowness: “As night follows day,” she writes, “the shortness of tweets conjures the standing sophistry around our ‘attention span,’ an occult feature of the mind that in theory is as fixed as a boxer’s reach. But the attention span is always invoked as a thing deformed and on closer examination surely does not exist, except as always already julienned.”

Virginia Heffernan.
Virginia Heffernan.

Francis Hill

Heffernan writes about online ephemera in a way that recalls the spirit (if not the critical intensity) of Susan Sontag’s long-running argument with the policing of boundaries between pop culture and “serious” art, about what does and does not merit serious attention. (“If I had to choose,” as Sontag memorably put it, “between the Doors and Dostoevsky, then—of course—I’d choose Dostoevsky. But do I have to choose?”) She’s bracingly open-minded about the kinds of technologies that a lot of liberal arts types receive as portents of the apocalypse. She describes the reaction to Spritz—a smartphone app that trains you to read faster by feeding you e-books one flashing word at a time—as “near-hysterical”; before the app was even launched, the Atlantic and the New Yorker were condemning its promotion of a shallow and inauthentic engagement with texts, more suitable, as Heffernan puts it, for “subliterate business types who have to read” than literary minds who do so for pleasure or self-enlargement. And this is nothing new, as she points out: “Separating real from false reading, and real from false readers, 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.”

Against this notion of reading as a morally serious and intellectually strenuous activity, and an irreducibly analog one, Heffernan finds her own deepest pleasure in the activity precisely when it’s undertaken in the most “truant” of fashions—“taking gross liberties with traditional books, savoring the rule breaking, skipping forewords, concordances, and boring chapters, while lavishing prurient attention on jacket copy, dedications, and acknowledgements.” She views reading as less a “moral virtue, to be tirelessly promoted by teachers, parents, and first ladies” than “a bad habit, like binge-eating or sleeping all day.” (Speaking of bad reading habits, this particular section of my copy of Magic and Loss is sloppily scrawled with all-caps pencilings of words like “YES!” and “TRUTH!” I didn’t realize quite how sick I’d grown of the moral interpretation of reading until I read Heffernan’s pithy refutation of it.)

Five of the book’s six chapters are devoted to various aesthetic facets of the internet—design, text, images, video, music. The book moves briskly from one brief engagement to the next—from smartphone games like the Hundreds and Angry Birds, to Twitter hashtags, to YouTube comments, to Instagram, to the Oculus Rift, to the “Joycean density” of Beyoncé’s music videos. Heffernan’s enthusiasm for the whole digital panoply is often infectious, but the experience can at times seem less like reading criticism than browsing an exceptionally well-written series of product reviews. (I’ll confess I was tempted, here and there, to follow Heffernan’s model for truant reading.) In this sense, the book never really gets close to fulfilling its stated aim of understanding the internet “as an integral part of our humanity, as the latest and most powerful extension and expression of the project of being human.”

What Heffernan does come to an understanding of, and writes wonderfully about, is the internet as an integral part of her own humanity, or at any rate her own history. The book’s final chapter—a wide-ranging account of her own rejection of scientism and embrace of an ambivalent kind of Christianity—is its most personal, and its most absorbing, moving as it does gracefully between discussion of religion and rationality and technology. We see Heffernan, as an undergraduate, taking ecstasy and sneaking into the college computer room, where she logs on to “one of the massive terminals” to spend the night “in a solo orgy of logical proofs.” Majoring in philosophy, she is drawn to the Jewish intellectual tradition, rejecting the “supremely silly logical positivists” for the near mystical reticence of Wittgenstein, whose work becomes all she needs “to part from the atheist chumps with the monologues about sense data and mind-body nonproblems.” But for all the liveliness of this material, and for all the easy pleasures of Heffernan’s erudite prose, there is a lingering uncertainty as to the underlying critical intention, as to how her fascination with Wittgenstein and her embrace of religion, say, connects with her defense of the Kindle reading experience or her excitement about the Oculus Rift—let alone larger claims about the internet as the great masterpiece of Western civilization. What exactly is Magic and Loss? As with the internet the book describes with real wisdom and critical insight, it’s a fragmentary and elusive creation.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan. Simon and Schuster.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.