Just as Susan Sontag did for photography and Marshall McLuhan did for television, Virginia Heffernan (called one of the “best living writers of English prose”) reveals the logic and aesthetics behind the Internet.
Since its inception, the Internet has morphed from merely an extension of traditional media into its own full-fledged civilization. It is among mankind’s great masterpieces—a massive work of art. As an idea, it rivals monotheism. We all inhabit this fascinating place. But its deep logic, its cultural potential, and its societal impact often elude us. In this deep and thoughtful book, Virginia Heffernan presents an original and far-reaching analysis of what the Internet is and does.
Life online, in the highly visual, social, portable, and global incarnation rewards certain virtues. The new medium favors speed, accuracy, wit, prolificacy, and versatility, and its form and functions are changing how we perceive, experience, and understand the world.
Thanks to the author for gifting me this book for review!
To say, “All that is old is new again,” is that same as saying the inverse: “All that is new is old, again.” Note the comma. For Virginia Heffernan, the author of the highly-cerebral Magic and Loss, the critical characteristic of new technologies that supplant their predecessors is not whatever category by which they are categorically different from their parentages. Instead of committing the intellectually lazy act of declaring that a boundary separating incrementalism from interspectralism has been overcome, she presents the compelling thesis that our tech does little to change what is fundamental to our social consciousness. For all time, our technology has been an imperfect mirror.
From the invention of controlled fire up to the present, that mirror has become increasingly exacting in the image of ourselves that it produces. In the United States alone, this mirror now employs over 110,000 miles of heavy fiber-optic cable, and millions of miles of regional and local cable lines. It promotes the easy, pervasive distribution of photos, videos, and alarming, clickbaiting articles. It provides no built-in buffer time for public expression or reactive thoughts and feelings. Pariahs who would have lived in the shadows a generation ago now enjoy the warmth of like minds. Together, they take their seats at the table of public discourse. If we look different today than we did before the internet, it’s because we can see ourselves my clearly. The mirror changed. We did not.
This point, and many others which are related and equally profound, are trotted out in Magic and Loss with language that is never more vigorous than the subject matter seems to warrant. There is a maturity in the voice of this book that lends extra weight to sentences that contain a blow, that serrates the edges of words that cut. Early on, she quotes author Bruce Sterling: “Poor folk love their cell phones.” Heffernan comments: “Connectivity is poverty, eh? Only the poor, defined broadly as those without better options, are obsessed with connections… The connections that feel like wealth to many of us – call us the impoverished, we who brave Facebook ads and privacy concerns – are in fact meager, more meager even than inflated dollars.”
Every word cuts, and especially so if she’s describing you. She’s not cutting for the sake of cutting. She cutting so that you’ll understand that you’re involved in the issues she’s talking about. Heffernan cuts sparingly, but when she does, no word is chosen arbitrarily. That you are more meager than the inflated dollar that pays for your eyeballs should remind you that you aren’t even the consumer. You’re the product.
Finally, Heffernan’s writing is dripping with only the best influences. She quotes Walter Benjamin multiple times, and the structure of the overall work feels like what part of The Arcades Project might have been like had Benjamin lived to finish it. She drops series of short sentences here and there that taste like passages of Theodore Adorno’s Minima Moralia. What an intellectual joy to read this book was!
Want your own copy? You can pick it up here.