JULY 28, 2016
MY MOTHER HAD SOLD the house. On a Saturday morning in May, a dear friend accompanied me on the Long Island Rail Road to help me go through my childhood bedroom. It had remained a shrine to me: the same flower-patterned fabric wallpaper, which matched the flower-patterned bedspread; the old clarinet under the desk; the stuffed animals crowding the shelves; the plastic pot of flowers that, when you pushed a button, rotated in time to tinny music.
I hadn’t lived in the house for 13 years, or been back much in all that time. Yet I felt this acute sense of loss: my parents had divorced in my early 20s, and this seemed the nail in that coffin, a final acknowledgment that childhood had passed. It also marked the death of an old fantasy: that one day I’d show my own children around my old room. Back in high school, I’d saved three ChapSticks in a slim drawer of my desk — cherry, mint, and original — and they were still there. I’d imagined brandishing them, relics of my past, proof for my kids that I once was a kid, too. But now I was 30; I have no children, not yet; and the house was no longer ours.
My father had visited a couple days before, for perhaps the first time since the divorce. It wasn’t about the physical space, he told me — it was about the era that space had contained. “The rooms themselves are meaningless,” he said over the phone.
He must be right, I thought. The place was meaningless. It was just shingles and carpet and stagnant air. My sense of loss was natural and expected, but the house was just a symbol. The memories existed independently: they didn’t belong to that flower-patterned wallpaper or the bag of old cassette tapes or my Bat Mitzvah dress, still hanging in the closet.
But didn’t they? a little voice gnawed. Don’t things hold meaning?
On the train ride back to Manhattan, as my friend napped, I reentered Virginia Heffernan’s new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. For someone who is technically a millennial (I was born in 1985), I would classify myself as unusually elegiac, wistful, perhaps even curmudgeonly about the dawn of the digital age. A friend who knows me well recently got me a Susan O’Malley tote bag: “Less Internet, More Love.” I am as enveloped in the antics of my iPhone as anyone else, as inexorably trapped in cyberspace, yet I feel a persistent resentment that the internet was invented and that I am required to live ensnared in its tentacles.
I had begun Heffernan’s book, which promised to critically analyze the internet as “a massive and collaborative work of realist art,” hoping to be disabused of at least some of these sentiments. It is neither convenient nor pleasant to fight the web. As Heffernan puts it, “The Internet is entrenched. It’s time to understand it — and not as a curiosity or an entry in the annals of technology or business but as an integral part of our humanity, as the latest and most powerful extension and expression of the project of being human.” Boldly, she asserts early on: “The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization.” Perhaps, I thought, Heffernan could help me to acclimate, to see the beauty in what I’ve been so reluctant to give in to.
But with this last visit home, Magic and Loss turned out to be more resonant even than that. Change is almost always accompanied by mourning. Even change we desire requires an acknowledgment of what we are leaving behind. In many senses, my mom’s decision to sell the house was an important and freeing step: we could all, finally, move on. Yet to blindly rejoice, to forget or blow past the sorrow, would be inhuman. Heffernan understands this to be true about the transition from analog to digital life too. “This transformation of everyday life includes moments of magic and an inevitable experience of profound loss,” she writes. “Any discussion of digital culture that merely catalogues its wonders and does not acknowledge these two central themes is propaganda and fails to do it justice.” And just before that she says:
The magic of the Internet — the recession of the material world in favor of a world of ideas — is not pure delight. It seems we are missing something very worthwhile and identity-forming from our predigital lives. Is it a handwritten letter? Is it an analog phone call? Is it a quality of celluloid film, a multivolume encyclopedia, or a leather-bound datebook? Is it a way of thinking or being or even falling in love?
Between two discourses, two languages, two regimes, something is always lost.
Magic and Loss is a slim book, but jam-packed. Heffernan is a brilliant thinker — though her language is clear and bracing, I found myself churning hard to keep up with the pace of her extremely intelligent mind. In line with its mission to “build a complete aesthetics — and poetics — of the Internet,” the book is divided into five sections: design, text, photography, video, and music. Each of these chapters, in turn, comes in snappy sub-headed snippets. (In this way, the book itself bridges the distance between the winding narratives of analog culture and the bits that characterize the digital world.) And each moves between defining what the internet is and how it came to be — which, at times, feels like a very well-written guide for generations of future humans — and breaking down our assumptions and imputations of moral value. This is, in other words, excellent criticism: Heffernan explains, and then she debunks. Throughout, she tries to tease out the magic and the loss in a balanced way.
In her chapter on design, for example, she explains the game “Frisbee Forever,” which “self-levels” so that it’s never too hard or too easy. In the process, what is lost is an opportunity to practice “the all-important patience and tolerance for boredom that are central to learning” — an admission that brings to mind Sherry Turkle, the MIT professor who has argued for a return to certain virtues the digital world obstructs, like in-person conversation. (Notably, not much about Heffernan’s book dovetails with Turkle’s far more elegiac work.)
In her chapter on images, Heffernan chronicles the cultural exchange of the BlackBerry and its words for the iPhone and its visuals as “a profound psychic shift, from symbol to image. From word to picture. From verbal language to visual language, including emoticons, emojis, and photographs.” There is wonder to behold in this “glorious renaissance,” and Heffernan reminds us that “the 35mm ideal of photographic fidelity to life’s light and shadow” were actually no more “real” than the filtered photos we post on Instagram: “Those prints fade and distort. They were posed and produced to start with.” Yet the chapter ends on this gut-wrenching anecdote:
My own son’s first word for laptop, when he saw a woman plugging away at one at Starbucks, was the word he used for himself: baby. What else could the woman be doing so intently at a screen but what he saw me do: paging through picture after picture of him?
At her best, Heffernan calls into question the snobbism and classism that have fueled some of the most derisive anti-internet strains. In her chapter on the text of the internet, she spends a lot of time on Spritz, a reading app that shows one word at a time to speed up your reading. “Juxtaposing a moral line on a class line, Spritz, several reviewers argue, is not for virtuous people who like to read. It is for subliterate business types who have to read,” Heffernan writes. She bows to certain valid Spritz detractions, but refuses to cop to this “hierarchizing of reading,” as she later calls it, and even to the moralizing of reading in the first place:
What makes reading, beyond baseline competence, a moral virtue, to be tirelessly promoted by teachers, parents, and first ladies? I can’t fathom. The way my children and my mother and I read it’s closer to a bad habit, like binge-eating or sleeping all day.
These lines had me sputtering with ill-defined ill feeling. I felt hatred toward Spritz and defensiveness about the moral good of not only reading, but reading real books, on paper, line by line, in the way I was taught and continue to do — but in trying to figure out why, I clawed at air. Who was I to judge? Preference and personal history do not a moral make.
Heffernan extends this point, discussing the baseless dismissal of tweets as anything but poetry, or of texting as “addictive, subliterate, distracting, and dangerous,” in comparison with reading “thick, bound books,” which “is considered exceptionally challenging, uncomfortable, and noble.” Most remarkably, she points out something that had never crossed my mind, yet rings with obvious truth: “As words have proliferated hypertrophically on the Internet, we’ve become a population of overreaders, of hyperlexics.” How could I not have seen it before? We bemoan the death of reading even as we do practically nothing but read.
Similarly, in her chapter on video, Heffernan points out that it is quite ridiculous to view television as, in comparison to other arts, a waste of time and a moral ill. “Read any book you like, no matter how silly; watch any movie, no matter how violent; see any play, no matter how boring or bawdy — but if you watch even fifteen minutes of TV it’s doing damage to your body, mind, and soul,” she writes. Arbitrary and meaningless. Yet, “[…] in every period there is an art form — satirical poetry, commedia, Hollywood movies — that is disreputable,” she writes. “And that people can’t stop consuming. Like Shakespeare. Like Whitman. Like Nabokov. I knew that a cloud of guilt is good for art.”
Earlier, she distinguishes between “bibliophilia” and literacy, between the love of books as objects and the love of reading. Yet she does not fully account for the meaning that the physical object — the actual book — can hold in relation to its intellectual content. I am not a person who cares about first editions or autographed copies, yet there is a visceral element to reading — to “literacy,” as Heffernan terms it — with which I cannot part. The way the book feels and smells as my eyes move across the page does matter to me. The object does hold meaning in and of itself, and as it relates to the stories within.
Heffernan, meanwhile, is willing to concede that,
many writers — myself included, if I’m honest — are perfectly happy to read ebooks and don’t care if the whole Western canon goes digital, but we want our own books Moroccan-bound on good paper in a nice Garamond typeface, engraved, ideally. And naturally produced in vast, vast quantities and then lovingly shelved in venerable libraries. […] Writers like printed paper. Value to them inheres in commodity that is paper, made more valuable still when inscribed with words and thereby coined like a gold ingot.
This feels flippant and cursory to me; it’s a moment when the admonishment that we’re simply stuck in our arbitrary classist judgments fails to carry the requisite weight. Despite her attempt to counterbalance the magic with the very real loss, the former comes through much more strongly, at least to this very mournful millennial. In certain places — like this one — she breezes past the loss without requisite analysis.
More deeply, though, I struggle with the definition of the internet as art. As a jumping-off point for Heffernan’s critical reading and argument, I welcome the conceit. Ditto the reminder that the internet is of life, and a commentary on life, but is not life itself. But I kept snagging on phrases like “every citizen of the Internet” and “Internet civilization.” Is the internet art, or is it a world that art inhabits — in which case the line between the internet and life becomes that much more blurry? For example, Heffernan writes:
The music that we hear on mobile devices is not music, exactly, but a representation of music, in bits. Like other representational arts — realist painting, journalism, photography, film — MP3 music is an extremely persuasive and pleasurable illusion. The MP3 representation is so seductive, in fact, that we regularly take it for the thing itself.
This is a fascinating analogy but, on reflection, not a persuasive one. Realist painting, journalism, photography, and film are all created by humans. The conversion of a live performance into a lossy MP3 is not a human act. Does the fact that the MP3 is a seductive representation of a piece of art transform it into a piece of art? Is “art” simply anything that isn’t exactly life, but is rather a replica of the real thing?
The final chapter, “Even if You Don’t Believe in It,” is a gorgeous meditation on Heffernan’s background, including her relationships with, in turn, atheism, philosophy, literary criticism, God, and, finally, her “pragmatic technospirituality, which is made of intimate and comforting language games that somehow work for me.” This is a wonderful section, and I’d hesitate to ruin it by paraphrasing or dissecting. But these meditations did leave me with further questions. Is the internet art to Heffernan, or is it religion? Does it matter?
By far the most wistful section of Magic and Loss is the one on music. “To those who love it music is often thought to contain an intimation of deathlessness, or immortality,” Heffernan rhapsodizes. “Music can offset death. That’s what we’re all saying, isn’t it?” To this tune, she writes of the loss:
Yet in the name of being fast, portable, cheap, and extensive, digital music forfeits depth. Just as a photograph of a painting, however dazzlingly ultra-high-def, can’t convey the density of paint, of paint under paint, of canvas under paint under paint, neither does the MP3, with bits that paraphrase a piece of music, suggest the echo of the chirp of the bassist’s sneakers on the wooden stage as he nervously kicks his foot or the sound of the backup singer’s lungs still metabolizing pot smoke. For that multidimensional soundscape, you need to hear music live.
In an equally vivid passage, Heffernan mourns the decline of the analog telephone. Which I found very interesting. Because as indignant as I felt at her dismissal of real books as unrelated to their contents, I practically shrugged at the intimations of musical losses. There is certainly some nostalgia to be had here, for me — I wouldn’t have recently invested in a turntable otherwise — but the comparative sense of mourning doesn’t come anywhere near Heffernan’s, or toward the mourning I feel about books. For one thing, I have a landline, and still spend hours using it to talk to my friends, much as I did in high school. As for MP3s, I am so accustomed to their sound that I truly cannot hear what is lost. Besides, one of my greatest pleasures is walking down the street, headphones in ears, to a sweet little pop beat, like I’m in a music video.
Where we find magic and what we mourn turns out to be personal. Magic and Loss is part cultural criticism, part ethnography, and just as much personal essay. Heffernan’s dismissal of certain culture-wide laments often rests on incisive analysis — but, at other times, it has to be acknowledged that we all care about different things; we are all differently sad.
During that final afternoon in the house where I grew up, in lieu of showing the ChapSticks to my children, I showed them to my friend. She crinkled her nose, as if I’d brandished an old tissue.
“You’re really going to save those?” she asked.
“Yes!” I said, indignant. I placed them gently at the bottom of a cardboard box. They now stand upright on my dresser, in direct view of my bed. They are my totems, only mine — artifacts of the dreams I once had for myself and, at the same time, a very real connection to my past, like I’m reaching back through the decades to hold my own hand.
Heffernan is in love with computers and the internet in a way that I, and perhaps other reluctant denizens of this world, will never be. So while it helps to have my most classist assumptions challenged, and to be reminded of the internet’s pleasures — and it most certainly helps to be reassured that real life exists alongside its internet representation and always will — unlike Heffernan, I am not artistically or spiritually moved by the internet! I am, therefore, still in deep mourning over its presence and pervasiveness. And that’s okay, too.