Virginia Heffernan

The Internet as Art

Air Date: June 11, 2016

Author Virginia Heffernan discusses her new book Magic and Loss

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Magic and Loss, those words, the title of our guest’s debut book, encapsulate more poignantly than any other juxtaposition, the internet’s promise and peril.

Among the founding mothers of the digital revolution who have joined me- Sue Gardner of Wikipedia, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, Louise Dubé of iCivics, author Astra Taylor- today we add a luminary to their ranks. Digital chronicler Virginia Heffernan- a long time critic for the New York Times and Times Magazine. Today we discuss her Magic and Loss. The internet as a seductive, all powerful and mighty art, and how the digital realm rewires our circuits. Heffernan’s intimate voyage through the digital world, its social networks and innovators, is intellectually gratifying, eliciting perplexing questions: is tweeting poetry? Is Netflix consumption a drug-inducing binge? How do you upgrade education for the digital age? And what about literacy? What does it mean to read too much? And she said to that- we’re about to find out. Ethically and biologically. Do explain, Virginia.

HEFFERNAN: How we’re going to find out ethically and biologically? Well.

HEFFNER: And it’s a pleasure to have you here.

HEFFERNAN: Thank you. Um. I will start with are we reading too much. Um. And the- the book’s answer to that question is a resounding “Yes.” I think we’re at a period of Hyperlexia. We’re accustomed to saying that the culture is coarsening and that we’re becoming less and less literate. In fact, this is the first time in history that we’ve been willing to risk fatal car accidents in order to keep reading and writing. Keep texting. No one can keep us away from it. And yet, the old guard- the producers of books like that one- codex books on paper- tell us that we are illiterate. Why is this true? That we’re not reading enough? Texting seems to be invisible as reading and writing. As opposed to the reading of books like that. And that is, in a nutshell, a parable about the digital revolution. That certain art forms that now take- now take digital form- are almost invisible to the canon of art that preceded it.

HEFFNER: So we’re just ignoring the chaos and we’re not valuing it in necessarily the way we should.

HEFFERNAN: Well, I saw an …an article that asked the question, um, is poetry dead in the age of Twitter, and it occurred to me that this was like asking is music dead in the age of guitars? That Twitter is one of the first … is the first form I know of since possibly Confucianism to make 140 characters the um- the … the the trademark- the um absolute paradigm of self-expression. Um. So. The great epigrammatists like like Emerson, like Confucius, like Pascal- would have embraced this form. And yet for some reason, we read tweets as this short form, uh- let’s see- let’s say like- it’s something for attention deficit disorder, troubled, shallow, reading public. Um. I sometimes work harder on a tweet than I do on a whole article for the New York Times. You want to get it exactly right.

HEFFNER: Getting it exactly right in the digital age is a challenge because we are overpopulated in uh muck, to some extent. Right? What gets attention is uh- the contradiction, the paradox, but even more so- like you say in the book, and ugly comment. So is it that we don’t want to value the 140 characters because we see it so frequently hijacked in that way?

HEFFERNAN: I think trolling is less of a problem than we think it is.

HEFFNER: Why?

HEFFERNAN: It- well- it’s a little like um- mugging in the in the 70s. Or the or the false institution of wilding later on that there’s got to be some crime going on in a world so densely populated as the internet. And we- when I was first uh part of uh the what was then called the Cyber Law Seminar at the Harvard Law School- the great fear was that the internet would make the distribution of child pornography easier. Um. And we had- we had the Assistant Attorney General come and talk to us about the internet- this is the early 90s- the internet and child pornography was the only thing that anyone cared about. Now sometimes the only thing it seems we care about with social media is cyberbullying or trolling. I think that that’s because you need a paradigmatic crime in order to express our uneasiness and our queasiness with how packed the web feels. How- I love that you used the word muck because I sometimes liken the web- by which I mean the commercial part of the internet- the part with, you know, a URL, WWW, as opposed to the use of apps which is another, obviously, digital experience. I sometimes liken that web that many of us came of- came of age with to uh New York in the 70s. Or Chicago in the 70s. When the- it was an article of faith that these were broken cities, that they were ungovernable. That the design was messed up. That there were- there was- malware- the equivalent of malware- or trolls, let’s say- you know, cruising the streets. And that may have been true enough. That there was- that crime was- that there was more crime, that there was more racism. But the other fact was some people thought the 70s was the most exciting time to be in New York. Was the most Reformist. Was the most interesting musically and artistically and and I think those of us who still hang out on the open web still see it that way. Still see it that way and didn’t flee entirely for what I think of as the suburbs, namely, the app store and, the and, and and mobile devices that basically decant the like huge reservoir of information that’s available on the web- decant it in to those perfect little apps that sometimes when I look at them on a phone- on an Android or an iPhone- look very like little Levittown houses. Little- perfect little houses. Couldn’t be more different from Yahoo when it launched. The junky, kind of non-design of Yahoo- which I really identify with that teeming city that, yes has crime like trolls and cyberbullying, but also has all- is fertile ground for the production of a whole new vocabulary.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s certainly true that when I was in elementary school and introduced to Google, there was some- there was something magical about the simplicity of it. Having gone from Encyclopedia Britannica to Google and now seeing this next generation- I’m an old millennial, if I can be called that. Embracing the multiplicity of uh engagements- whether it’s social media or other ways to get their information. But I want you to- to focus in on Magic and Loss and the context of equity. Because I think what you wrote about Levittown and the App Store- and also the sleekness of the web- speaks to this question of a digital divide and how salient that is in in in configuring our perception of the web.

HEFFERNAN: You mean the fact that the- that the mobile web- and let’s- let’s just say, call it, Apple’s internet-

HEFFNER: …Yeah.

HEFFERNAN: Is more expensive, it’s better designed, it appeals to our highest aesthetic. Um-

HEFFNER: And lost- literally, when I hear loss I hear lack of access. I think there’s a lost generation without the accessibility to the new forms of media to which you allude in the book.

HEFFERNAN: That’s right. Well. Early on when I was writing about the web and when I- when I really before I had sort of put my finger on the loss and the grieving I think that we all feel in the digital revolution- when I was really living on the web and thinking, like so many of us, this is so exciting, this is so interesting, um, what is this- you know- it was like being in a whole new um civilization that, you know, had somehow sprung up overnight. So while I was there and so excited about it, one of the things that interested me was how populations that- had- that had had seemingly been invisible in the, in the popular media, in in, in paper newspapers um and glossy magazines, suddenly were showing up in huge numbers. So one of the first big boards- so these are the message board, the heyday of message boards that I couldn’t stay away from was something called Prison Talk, which is um, a site for the loved ones of um incarcerated people. And um this dramatized in a thousand ways- or I should say almost a million ways because this got so many posts it was an extraordinary- Dickensian would be too small a word to describe how elaborate this was. It was, you know, a sense of um- uh- how extensive this “sea to shining sea” penal colony that, you know, that the U.S. has become- is. And that incarceration- that- um- the ideology around that and, and- I will say the poetry around it because there was a lot of poetry um smuggled out um by people visiting and then posted online by prisoners that, you know, there’s a long tradition- literary tradition of writing by prisoners. Including from Socrates and the Jack Henry Abbott. This partook of that. And you could have put your finger on the um emotional, sensory, and then also the ideology around incarceration – reading that big board in 1992- which was started by a federal prisoner- better than I would argue- some of the reported books that were exposés of this system after the fact. And I could not believe that there was a map online- a symbolic map of this world and what it was producing, you know, in ‘91.

HEFFNER: It was- it’s almost like Orange is the New Black two decades earlier, right?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. It was amazing. And I do think some of the fiction, like Orange is the New Black and and maybe Oz before that- but Orange is the New Black really gets to it because it’s uh, it’s, you know, it’s a literary work, manages to dramatize um- that experience as well as Prison Talk did. Um. To my mind.

HEFFNER: And that’s an example of the opposite effect in the sense of empowerment- the internet not only as art but artistic empowerment. How important are these questions in dictating the future of society, given the fact that the internet- and streaming in particular- dominates what we do today. And I’d like you to reflect on the binge questions-

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Because I think that watching a series from start to finish where you had to anticipate- The West Wing, for, for instance.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: You had to anticipate and remember what happened-

HEFFERNAN: Ah. Yeah.

HEFFNER: What transpired. And I think that the cult-like following of some of these shows- it’s like- the loss aspect of it is the loss of memory.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: The loss of- it’s not just attention span, it’s actually- you’re more- it’s like a drug. You say it very well in the book, right?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: So what, what does it mean and is that drug-like phenomenon a problem?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. Well, I um- you know- the other problem of the 70s inner city was drugs and once again we’re worried about drugs. I um- I think what I did there was pick up on Netflix’s embrace of the word binge um and um some of the other- uh- you have some of the other producers of streaming television deciding that a binge was a good thing um, and trying to sort of play around with whether that um- where the connection to health came in that. Um. I um. I don’t mean to not acknowledge any loss, but it is important to think about how- well first of all- how literate the shows are- everyone has said that. Um. I just had a- you know- finally had my Downton Abbey binge and there’s something in the, um- well, there’s something in the redundancy of that show that uh uh really appeals to me. The like, constant um- peril and um tragedy that the characters are subjected to and then always the stoic resilience of the British. Um. That it has to happen over and over again for you to sort of see it. But in any case, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make those connections had I watched it episodically or week by week and um- there’s a long tradition in the arts- because you’re bringing up the language of health and I um I- and this is maybe my bias. I wrote forever about television. Television was the only art at the New York Times- and it was in the Arts Section- that was considered at once an art on par with dance, and and film, um, and architecture- worthy of critical study- on the other hand, a public health hazard. A neurotoxin. Something that was killing our children. So walking the knife’s edge between is this an art or is this bad for us has always been something I’ve embraced. I think the sign- the- putting something under the sign of ‘bad for your health’ – is always a great goad to creativity in the field. So. The beginning of the novel, I write about this- that it was- um- that it was um-you know, that it would, um, was- that it- it could poison the minds of young women- novels and point the way to female depravity- novels were said to be like that. Now novels are the highest sign of literacy. Binging is something Flaubert talked about. He said you should lose yourself in literature as in a perpetual orgy. What is another word for binge but orgy? This is an interaction with art and an interaction with art with plenty of precedent- your parents don’t- if your parents don’t like you doing it, and don’t think you’re doing it, it probably falls in that category.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s a question of, I think it goes back to the beginning, is it rewiring us in a way that’s antithetical or inimical to our long term health. Um. But you say here like all new technologies, the Internet appears to represent the world more faithfully than the technologies that preceded it and the Internet is an extraordinarily seductive representation of the world.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. Well. Um. Part of the evidence of how seductive it is, is that we tend to talk about it as a- as closer to a science or a business- in other words, as reality- instead of talking about it like we might talk about a Harry Potter novel or a set of novels- where people are playing a game- a massively multiplayer online role playing game. There’s nothing in my avatar on Twitter or yours- they don’t even bear our own names- I think think you’re heff… heffnera. I’m page88. And um, and they are characters that we invent. Do you think that I say the things on Twitter that I would say to you in person? No. I say very specific things because I’m creating a character.

HEFFNER: Depends on whether you’re on television or not, right? [LAUGHS]

HEFFERNAN: [LAUGHS] Yeah. That’s right. But we we we- are accustomed to how we create characters when we appear on television or even in social space. But for some reason we constantly make the mistake that we are actually showing up in digital space. Um. A.

HEFFNER: Why- how- why are we not? We are showing up.

HEFFERNAN: Well. We’re showing up, but not quite as ourselves. So. You know. One thing I like- I’m not very good at creating characters on the page- I can’t write fiction- but I do like to talk to fiction writers about how they actually write a character like Philip Roth did- a character called Philip Roth that does all these things. I’m sure that you, off camera, out of makeup, are a different man than you are right now as Alexander Heffner. Um. And.

HEFFNER: Survey says, after the interview.

HEFFERNAN: And I …I …I would- like-

HEFFNER: But that’s- that- that is the origin of the harassment problem that people- if you want to believe in our better angels showing up in real life.

HEFFERNAN: That’s right. That’s right. We’ll here’s- so, I, yes. Real life. This is a wonderful, perfect distinction to make. In real life- sorry, I want to go back to one other thing. When I first started playing the internet in the 1970s as a child. Um. I happened to get in to network computing. The danger in those days was that we would all get in to Dungeons and Dragons and start believing it was reality. The- like- fear was that we would lose ourselves in it. We have lost ourselves in the internet. Remember the line between what happens on the internet and what happens in real life? For instance. The- I had a day where Reddit- the um- site that sometimes inspires trolls- led with me, meaning they had a story- it was the very first story about me. On- in some ways, worst day of my life. Because on Twitter, everywhere else, people were just like you’re an idiot, you know, you’re ugly, you’re bad. Um. In fact, I was in Florida. And once I shut down- once I decided that in that strange realm that is the internet, this is gonna be a bad day- closed my computer, put down my phone, had one of the greatest days. Because me- page88- was taking sniper fire for me. pagee88 was getting dumped on by people- by “people”- by symbolic representations of people who’d never met her. And I was hanging out with my cousins. So once that day ended and I heard from lots of real life friends- oh that must have been such a bruising day for you- incidentally, it’s not like I didn’t go read everything that was written about me and suffer a little pain over it- but bifurcating myself- realizing I am not my Wikipedia page, I am not my Twitter feed- and this is something-

HEFFNER: You can forget but the internet never forgets. And it’s something Jeffrey Rosen has discussed at this table in the context of the law because unlike in Europe where you can forget- because the laws allow for pages to be deleted- or at least some laws-

HEFFERNAN: Yep.

HEFFNER: Here, no. So I don’t know if this line of demarcation is exactly the state in which people think about the internet because they think they’re mic’d up and ready to go.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. This is actually a conversation I’ve had with Rebecca Goldstein- the writer who wrote uh- Plato at the Googleplex. That it depends on- if you think reality lives in history- so you think that the most important fact of your uh- your um- your existence online is that it doesn’t- that it doesn’t die- that it’s seemingly immortal- we don’t know what’s going to happen to the cloud and the databases in Austin. But let’s say you last forever on the internet. Every bad thing said about you is on the internet. Does that make it somehow more real than our flesh and blood selves? Right? Just because it lasts forever- just because it lasts a long time- just- even because- even if you imagine the worst thing in the world that our descendants and our, you know, all the people that we egotistically imagine are going to think about us-

HEFFNER: I’m not- yeah- I’m not talking about after the- the grave. You know? I’m not talking about the afterlife per se, I’m talking about the fact that-

HEFFERNAN: It will dog you.

HEFFNER: It’s it’s like that quote from Up in the Air. Right?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. What is it?

HEFFNER: It’s “What we modern women do in this age, to Google a man. When we’ve got a crush.”

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. Right.

HEFFNER: So it’s- it’s a living embodiment, too. I mean it’s living as an analog to you.

HEFFERNAN: It’s absolutely living as an analog, and you have a reputation there and you have all these things to do. All I would say is, it’s not you. Something I say to parents- and parents are very concerned about their kids on the internet- is work with them as artists or, you know, if you like character creators, to create a durable and interesting online identity and make sure you know that it is not you.

HEFFNER: So there are two more things I want to highlight. One is at the- at the conclusion of the book, I think again in drawing this dichotomy and then realizing well you can reconcile the Magic and Loss, you cite William James, one of my favorite philosophers or sociologists, whatever you want to call him. Varieties of Religious Experience, as well. Talk about analog- that’s an analog to the way we view the internet because you just have more experiences than one can count- and and I thought that you might- expound on that, while informing your answer to this question.

HEFFERNAN: OK.

HEFFNER: The A.P. Stylebook

HEFFERNAN: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Just decided that the Internet should go from capital I to lowercase. Lower initial. Internet was capitalized, and now it’s lowercased.

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. I think it’s capped in the book.

HEFFNER: So. I. Right. So. All caps, right?

HEFFERNAN: Yeah. Yeah. [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: But I- I think that- I think about it in that context of Williams James, because- because of God. Lowercase, uppercase, what say you about internet and the AP Stylebook’s decision.

HEFFERNAN: This is a great question. Yeah. Absolutely. Well, first of all, this is the first I’m hearing about it. So thank you. As usual you’re informative and bring as much to the interview as anyone. Um. I um. Off the cuff will say that I have been interested in this with the word “Cloud.” Um. “The Cloud” was invented in, um, in an exurb I think of- of Dallas. Or possibly Houston. Sorry- the- yes. Houston. The uh- with the Compaq- a set of Compaq executives. These executives were, independently of their work, extremely religious. Um. You know, unlike the Buddhist Steve Jobs or the sort of Progressives- Jewish Progressives at, at Google- these guys were, um, these guys were, you know, on the boards of what would become megachurches. They invented “The Cloud”- a place where information could survive bodily death- as the- you know- if your computer died, it could live forever in “The Cloud.” I mean that is an analog for heaven if I’ve ever heard it- and it was always capped. The same way that you rightly suggest that the capitalization of internet suggests that there’s something worthy of um a certain kind of deference and awe. And um. I personally- although I could be talked out of it- would argue that I’d like to keep it that way. Um. But- web, by the way, has gone up and down too for some people. Um. Uh.

HEFFNER: Why would you keep it that way?

HEFFERNAN: Why would I keep it that way? Because I think that we um complain about the uh- complain about the smallest details of our experience online- one time that you didn’t get a “like” on something or you know, a lot of social media problems that basically are just our problems with other people generally. People have the same complaints about traffic- traffic, or being in a crowd. But we lack the proper awe for this thing that we have all created- that we are all collectively working to invent. With every Instagram picture. This is just photography. Our- you know- our kids are involved in photography and self-portraiture- it has a long history. Obviously it hasn’t realized itself yet in, in truly beautiful Instagram photography, although some people think it has. But. You know, we’re at the like, Birth of a Nation stage in film with Instagram photography. You know? What can we expect from this, except for, you know, people playing around with semi pornography, which is- you know, film started with a lot of that too. Um. The novel started with a lot of that, too. And you know, all kinds of other ways that we explore ourselves in the form of photography. That’s just one part of it. But we need to give ourselves a little credit. I mean, you know, even like- even my, you know, my father has a HuffPo blog! My, you know, my brother has a website. People who describe themselves even as luddites have, you know, met some of their best friends on a message board or- or- have a- you know, right now my favorite social network is Venmo. Every time you even use Venmo, the online payment system, to pay someone, you make a contribution, because through social media, it shows up when someone pays someone else- to this like, strange world of commerce. Those are all contributions that we need to give ourselves credit for. We’re not doing nothing. We’re not wasting our time. And we are certainly not poisoning our brains when we uh- when we look on Facebook.

HEFFNER: Finally. Last question. What would William James say of the Internet?

HEFFERNAN: [SIGHS] I. You know, I’d hope he’d see it as an occasion for um, for- you know- for a certain amount of faith. Um. The um. One of the contexts that I speak about him in is is- is immortality because he gave a really interesting lecture on immortality that was- the thread of the needle- it wasn’t totally um, New Age before its time. Um. But, you know, people like Ray Kurzweil that were OG internet figures are working very hard now at Google to try to um try to uh- try to treat mortality as a bug in the human, you know, human hardware. Or a problem in our hardware that mortality- meaning they are trying to game human biology to create an immortal body. This is on a natural continuum with thinking about the internet. Because there’s something- as you say- that lasts so long about it. I think James would have seen in it an analog for um- for a very um- interesting model of self-transcendence. I also think he would have um I also think he would have been very cautious to not consider it- reality- but to consider it a symbolic order with its own beauty and its own problems.

HEFFNER: Virginia. Thank you.

HEFFERNAN: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion in to the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.