Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art by Virginia Heffernan
The back cover of Magic and Loss immediately compares author Virginia Heffernan to Susan Sontag and Marshall McLuhan. While admirable in its ambition, these comparisons set rather high expectations that may cast Heffernan in an unreasonable shadow. This isn’t to say that Heffernan is incapable, only that invoking such massive figures is unfair. Magic and Loss is an excited love letter to the internet, to art, innovation, and also an impassioned rebuttal to some elitist ways of thinking about, for instance, what counts as reading, or any other fuddy-duddy complaints about how we’re being ruined by the internet.
Author Nicholas Carr, while offering a comprehensive genealogy of information consumption in his book The Shallows, seems to perceive the Internet in its most abstract sense – or at least emphasizes abstract effects of new technology, like whether or not we are rewiring our brains to absorb information in new ways. Heffernan, by contrast, imagines the abstract as concrete – the Internet is like a city, an image which is both compelling and stunningly accurate. It is, of course, a big city wherein some inhabitants are more versed than others, and if some inhabitants have good intentions, others are much more insidious. The idea is demonstrated nicely:
“The Web is haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed, and urban decay abounds in broken links, ghost town, sites, and abandoned projects. Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies, hucksters, and trolls roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble dominates major sites.”
This description should seem familiar to anyone who has been online for more than 15 minutes.
Heffernan also shows great poise in defending forms online that most of us are content to either suffer the constraints of, or to otherwise ignore the outpouring of criticism. The Tweet, tolerated by some, brandished by others, enjoys a venerated treatment in Magic and Loss:
“Tweets are not diseased firings of glitch minds. They’re epigrams, aphorisms, maxims, dictums, taglines, headlines, captions, slogans, adages. Some are art, some are commercial; these are forms with integrity.”
Aphorisms. Like Nietzsche, like Kafka, like Confucius. The abuse or misuse of a form by bad actors doesn’t negate their worth. In the reality of high speeds experienced on the Internet, the aphorism, ancient if not perfected, becomes one of the perfect mediums imaginable. This whole thing about the Tweet is part of a larger discussion of what constitutes reading. If you’re reading Buzzfeed articles all day, are you really reading? Are you reading in the same way that someone dedicating their time to Dostoevsky is? Heffernan says yes, attempting to liberate the guilt that some may have for not engaging with classic literate, for books more generally.
For all her progressive thinking, it is sometimes difficult to tell who this book is for. Is it for people who need to be convinced that the Internet is more boon than bane? Or maybe it is for those who already accept the boon, giving them ammo against naysayers. Is it for tech blog nerds? The obscure discussion on MP3 files might suggest so, except that the conversation within that community happened ages ago. Many examples given are well dated already, such as the use of “teh” and “pwned”, or even watching soaps when you’re sick at home, and while it may be impossible to write a book about what the internet is doing without it being dated before or shortly after publication, it still merits pause. Interestingly, too, Heffernan will sometimes make the same misstep she is trying to correct, such as in statements like this:
“Worse still, for those of us interested in phenomenology, the claims of neuroscience rarely enrich the human experience they set to elucidate. In fact, they flatten it. They make it unrecognizable.”
It’s striking that this claim didn’t immediately resonate with Heffernan as being categorically similar to repudiations of the Internet’s magic – as needing reframing against detractors rather than falling prey to the same sort of progress-paranoia dismissed elsewhere in the text.
Magic and Loss is engaging, creative and interesting. It’s chock full of (mostly) good arguments, clever phrases, and imaginative analogies. It sometimes struggles to maintain these positive attributes consistently, making it difficult to give the same focus to each chapter and each idea. The worst element is undoubtedly the weird anti-science attitude that slips in every once in a while Still, any slogging is well worth her keener insights and demonstrations of the breadth of Heffernan’s interests and skill. For any flaws Magic and Loss has, they are overcome with an ease of prose and a palpable exhilaration for the subject matter.