Magic And Loss: The Internet as Art, Virginia Heffernan: Book Review

magic and loss virginia heffernan book reviewSimon & Schuster / Michael Nagle
Magic and Loss Book Cover Magic and Loss
Virginia Heffernan
Social Science
Simon & Schuster
June 7, 2016

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.

This is going to sound dramatic, but reading Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art was like having a religious experience. A razor-sharp, stunningly written examination of the Internet and its many iterations and implications, this book would be enthralling for any reader—but as someone who grew up watching technology evolve at an increasingly rapid pace, and by extension evolved with it, it held an additional electric charge.

Heffernan sees the Internet as art—something that will one day define humanity in its utility and design—and uses her incredible intellect and dexterity with words to reveal exactly why Twitter should be considered poetry, or why Kindles don’t signal the end of books, but rather the endurance of reading. And as the title suggests, she not only beautifully elucidates every aspect of the Internet’s intangible, indelible magic, but also what’s been lost with its rise. There’s a distinct nostalgia for the past—handwritten letters, uncompressed audio, landline calls—but as she points out, transformation is not possible without some kind of sacrifice.

Heffernan’s writing feels like an extended lecture by the absolute best college professor you could ever imagine. First of all, she’s scary smart. This will become evident on the first page of the preface (which you shouldn’t skip!). Raised by Dartmouth college professors, she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard, is a former staff member of The New York Times, and has been called “America’s preeminent cultural critic,” as well as one of the “finest living writers of English prose.” Almost every single page contains an off-hand reference to a writer, philosopher, theorist, painter, or poet. She sprinkles quotes by Foucault, Proust, and Nabokov into her paragraphs the way other people sprinkle cilantro onto their tacos al pastor. Her vocabulary is also formidable, and though I usually consider myself to have a pretty expansive vocab (please email me if you would like my SAT Reading Comprehension scores), I actually had to start keeping a list of words I didn’t know.

“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. We’ve never seen a work of art like it. That is this book’s central contention: that the Internet is a massive collaborative work of realist art.”

— excerpt from Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

But here’s the thing. In other hands, these kinds of heady, erudite references could come off as hugely inaccessible and a deterrent to readers. But Heffernan is not just smart—she is also funny, sarcastic, enthusiastic, and engaging. She draws you in with her expressive writing style, and by never censoring her own intellect, makes you feel smarter by association. She’s not dumbing anything down. She’s simplifying complex topics, yes, but her own personality—masterful vocabulary included—comes through naturally on every page, and deflates any sense of possible haughtiness or condescension.

The book is separated into six main chapters: “Design,” “Text,” “Images,” “Video,” “Music” and “Even If You Don’t Believe In It,” a more existential approach to tech. Within these chapters are shorter essays or vignettes that tackle everything Internet-related: what goes into making the perfect app game? What are the semiotics of hashtags? Why has Instagram surpassed every other social media platform in popularity? How did YouTube contribute to the rise of cinematic, detail-packed music videos like “Pretty Hurts”? How did the introduction of iPods fit into the greater political context of the early 2000s?

As I mentioned before, I am a millennial. You probably are too. I was raised on AIM and Myspace and went through puberty around the same time Facebook did (you know, that period of time when there was a new version of the news feed every couple weeks?). Technology and I grew up side by side; therefore, I feel like my generation knows the ins and outs of the web better than nearly anyone else. So I’m always skeptical and hyper-critical whenever adults try to explain the Internet or social media to a younger audience.

“In Angry Birds, as so often in life, the material world seemed to have conspired to favor the jerks […] Those gross, smug, green pigs stole my flock’s babies, and they’re sitting pretty in stone fortifications that they didn’t even build themselves […] You have your elaborate forts and your snorting equipoise. I have nothing but my sense of injury. My rage. And so I take wobbly aim at them, the pig theives, in Rovio’s world without end, in which there are hundreds of levels to master and the game gets bigger and bigger with constant updates.”

— excerpt from Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art

But Heffernan is the rare exception—an adult who actually is really, truly “with it”—and I bow down to her. She knows her sh*t. She understands the dynamics that exist between YouTube commenters, and the experience of getting lost down a Twitter thread K-hole. She’s been sucked in by the iTunes Visualizer for hours and was once on the global top-1000 leaderboard for Angry Birds. And even though I often feel like an expert when asked to explain Facebook to my grandparents, back in 2006—a watershed year for modern technology—I really only saw the Internet as means to have awkward conversations with my middle school crushes. Heffernan, on the other hand, was a young adult looking at this new technology with a critical eye. And she’s never stopped since.

This book is not only expansive and riveting, but it feels vitally important. It will likely prove to be an essential text as we try to make sense of our future as a society, especially considering that the leader of the free world has a supremely disturbing Twitter fixation (and in fact, that is the only place where the book seems slightly dated or out of touch. In her excellent chapter on Twitter, there is only a very implicit mention of Trump. If this book was being written today, I doubt it would be possible to omit some kind of analysis of his usage, although an academic look at his Twitter use—parsing word choice, punctuation, context—would have made the book about 300% more depressing).

In short, please read this book. When it comes down to it, the best description is already in the title—it’s simply magic.

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Justine Goode
the authorJustine Goode
Contributing Writer
LA-born reader. English major. Liberal with em-dashes.