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The Meaning of Online Life

Virginia Heffernan's new book argues that the internet is a work of art.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images. The first visualization of the World Wide Web from 1999, with colors representing individual websites, by artist Lisa Jevbratt.

In an era of great techno-anxiety, the premise of Virginia Heffernan’s Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art is deeply appealing: the internet, increasingly the architecture and infrastructure of our everyday lives, is “a massive and collaborative work of realist art.” This is a fresh perspective on today’s technological landscape, which has yielded rehabilitation centers for internet addiction, digital-detox vacations like Camp Grounded, a Wikipedia entry on the dubious composite “technostress,” and a galaxy of well-documented moral-panic narratives (as old as the web itself, from Time’s infamous 1995 “cyberporn” cover story to Mark Bauerlein’s contentious recession-era polemic, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future) about the ways technology has gnawed into community, romance, labor, and selfhood.

Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $26.00

Heffernan’s view of the internet as an artwork—with its suggestion that time spent online is creative, for participant and spectator alike—is not TED Talk hypothesizing, nor is it freshman-dorm-room, accidental-inhale paranoia. The project is in keeping with a growing movement to bridge the division between technology and the arts, seen in San Francisco’s Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (a center for “creative coding”), New York City’s School for Poetic Computation (motto: “more poetry, less demo”), articles about online subcultures and their values, and even in new programming textbooks such as Nick Montfort’s Exploratory Programming for the Arts and Humanities. But Heffernan takes her argument a step further. In framing the internet as a work of art, she is not just claiming technology for the humanities. She is offering redemption.

Heffernan aims to do for online life what Susan Sontag, Marshall McLuhan, Lester Bangs, and Pauline Kael did for the fields of photography, media, music, and film. She wants to give the internet a poetics—a vocabulary for appreciating its texture, its tones. Drawing on literary theory and cultural criticism, Heffernan seeks to “make sense of the Internet’s glorious illusion: that the Internet is life.” The web, she argues, is a masterpiece on par with “the pyramid, the aqueduct, the highway, the novel… the radio, the realist painting, the abstract painting,” etcetera. Just as each of these inventions changed the way we relate to one another and the way we express our humanity, the internet too is a social force, a locus of new cultural values. Like any social triumph—especially one in a phase of rapid development—it bears critical inquiry and investigation.

In Heffernan’s understanding, the internet is a unique kind of artwork, even as it contains recognizable art forms with analog roots (video, photography, literature). It’s participatory and user-generated. It might be called a hyperreal artwork “closer to a game than to a deception.” She explains: “Our proxies in this game are our avatars: the sum total of… artifacts of text, image, and sound that we add to the Internet and attach to our various handles.” So the artwork is both game and player: the scaffolding is in place, but it’s our digital selves that give the piece color, contours, feeling. This work-in-progress relies on a feedback loop. It improves with human engagement, and engages more humans as it improves. Slowly but persistently, the enterprise shifts. 

One of the biggest changes the internet has introduced is the way people read: compulsively, promiscuously, unwittingly. Heffernan gives the online-induced inability to stop reading the name “hyperlexia,” borrowing a term from child psychology. Texts are everywhere, she argues, from Amazon reviews to Facebook posts to Tinder messages. Heffernan finds beauty, value, and narrative in the words fostered by the immediacy and intimacy of social platforms. She is particularly defensive of Twitter, arguing that it has allowed poetry to flourish. “Digitizing written language—in short communiqués, as in texts or tweets… or in long form, as in lengthy Facebook debates or Amazon’s ebooks—even restores something to written language that print technology had cost it,” she writes. “When changed from chunky, chewy, smelly matter (think used bookstores) to the photons that enliven our screens, written language becomes purer somehow, and more itself.”                                           

This argument is a flattering one. Since compulsive online activity is commonly portrayed with a great amount of anxiety, it’s affirming to read a defense of its virtues. Plus, the argument is anti-elitist, populist at its core. But I found myself wishing Heffernan would push further into the implications of her claims. Americans, she writes, “read for ‘information,’ as though for a future comprehension test. We underline, copy quotations, pull excerpts, produce decks, compose reviews.” (Side note: Who are “we”? We hear a lot about ourselves in Magic and Loss, but we never find out.) But what kind of information? To what effect on that other human project—knowledge?

This romantic futurism—an aggressive lightheartedness—regularly comes up against more ontological questions and unsavory case studies that I wish Heffernan would tackle, but which wouldn’t quite complement her argument. “I’ll go on treating message boards like novels until I am persuaded otherwise,” she writes in defense of casual online discourse. This is a lovely approach, and Yahoo! Answers may well be the great satirical novel of our time. But this approach is also very detached from the emotional states that lead people in crisis to solicit the company of strangers on, say, medical message boards. This type of oversight is endemic to Magic and Loss, which relies on a division between the offline self and the online presentation of the self.

Heffernan writes about creating a realistic avatar for herself, one who will “field trolls and take sniper fire for me and thus keep the real me, my soul, entirely aloof and safe.” This is a dreamy and unconvincing dichotomy. It insists on a clean bifurcation of identity. Yet surely anyone who has returned from lunch to find they’ve been removed from the company Slack channel can attest to the web’s overflow into real life. (To say nothing of the very real, often 3-D repercussions of online abuse and harassment.) Insisting that the Internet is not life—that it is, instead, art on the order of “what video gamers call... a massively multiplayer online role-playing game”—is an embrace of its form and a disavowal of its intense emotional and logistical realities. 

This is not to mention the tedium of the web. When you consider the hours lost to the digital equivalent of paperwork, small talk, and petty frustrations, some things remain unclear: When is the Internet art? And when is it just, well, life? 

Magic and Loss takes its title from a duality Heffernan sets up early on: “The magic of the Internet—the recession of the material world in favor of a world of ideas—is not pure delight,” she writes. “Between two discourses, two languages, two regimes, something is always lost.” YouTube videos, Instagram posts, videogames and serialized entertainment all become fodder for exploration into how the internet expands and shifts our humanity. The losses that Heffernan identifies are neither moral nor intellectual, but sensory and emotional. Many of her arguments about what is lost in the digital sphere are most convincing on a personal level, not a cultural one. 

She bemoans, with a hit of nostalgia, the retreat of “telephone intimacy” in the face of cellphone-facilitated visual and textual communication (which are still intimate, she notes, just not the same). On MP3s, she writes: “this almost-music [is] missing something, something vital,” like “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,” qualities of live performance. She describes the experience of listening to digital music today as one characterized by a mantra of longing: “What am I missing, what am I missing?”

Heffernan neglects the internet’s less artful dimensions, tools used not for expression but for organization, productivity, and labor. There is nothing of the information management systems, payroll software, CRMs and CMSes that dominate so many of our working hours. I respect Salesforce as a tool, but no amount of critical theory could ever convince me to treat it as art. The web is at its best a platform for art, but certainly not art itself. 

If we see more in it, that says more about our own imaginative capacities than it says about the internet as an entity. For instance, when Heffernan describes the iTunes “Visualizer,” it’s hard not to be entranced:

As with its palette, its shapes are mesmerizing: paisley, oil spills, blue smoke, embraced-by-the-light tunnels, electrocardiograms, icicles, video-arcade spaceships, amoebas, flames, flares, static, smears of headlights at night, half-developed Polaroids, Cy Twombly scribbles, viscous red ribbons that belong in an ad for Cognac.

This is sumptuous writing, saturated with observations that are simultaneously personal, cultural, and strikingly original—and she’s writing about software. I love it. Ultimately, though, the art here is her prose style, not an underappreciated Apple product. 

In a Medium post titled “Manifesto: The Internet as Art” (a document that, partially adapted from Magic and Loss, condenses and articulates some key themes), Heffernan encourages readers to set aside the political dimensions of the internet, asking: “What if, just for an hour or so, we suspended the assumption that the Internet is nothing but a public health hazard or a tool of the surveillance state or a means to a venal end?”

No art is neutral, nor can it be neutralized. An internet without political dimensions is an abstraction. It’s a version of the web that doesn’t exist, and never has. Heffernan notes that features like privacy settings and paywalls “make spaces feel ‘safe’” but doesn’t examine the broader implications beyond those for user experience. There’s a reason for homogeneity in app and web design, and usually it’s to establish consumer trust. Good design smooths everything over: security holes, rapacious data collection, manipulative default settings. Values are embedded in everything, and these values are often political. Any rigorous examination of internet aesthetics necessitates engaging with its politics. Neglecting to so is a bit like taking in “Guernica” only to reflect on the use of grayscale, the angle and glint of the overhead lights.

Similarly, when Heffernan praises the web as a “populist place,” a sphere “to which we all regularly contribute, even if just with a Facebook like or an Etsy review,” she doesn’t acknowledge that these spheres—Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Etsy—are hardly populist. These are all corporate spaces. Experience on these platforms is carefully manipulated, moderated, collected, restrained. Heffernan makes casual reference to “trailing one’s data all over the Internet surveillance state,” but she neglects to dig into why this matters.

It would be beyond unreasonable, of course, to expect a single book to encapsulate all that is the internet. There is no omniscient view. Heffernan sticks to apps, websites, and software programs that mean something to her, as she should, and she investigates certain dimensions that suit her argument. A very American version of the web is integral to her analysis: Chinese and Korean mobile apps, for example, are often visually and functionally busier than the “neat, cute homes far from the Web city center” that Heffernan describes. (Magic and Loss is actually a bit difficult to critique because it does not commit to its own thesis; the boundaries of the argument and subject are undefined, which makes it difficult to know when the book strays and when it succeeds.) But in the absence of a new set of tools for understanding the web, it’s hard to read Magic and Loss as theory with staying power, as a work on par with Sontag’s On Photography or McLuhan’s Understanding Media. It is best read—and, in my case, enjoyed—as a personal document of Heffernan’s own relationship to the web, rich with small wonders, reveries, and illuminations.

The final pages of Magic and Loss caught me off guard. In a surprisingly moving conclusion, Heffernan confronts the traces of death beneath the surface of the Internet and what this could mean for humanity’s engagement with it:

The Internet suggests immortality—comes just shy of promising it—with its magic…. And then, just as suddenly, it stirs grief: the deep feeling that digitization has cost us something very profound. That connectedness is illusory; that we’re all more alone than ever. That our shortcomings and our suffering are all the more painful because they’re built in the mirror of a fathomless and godlike medium that doesn’t suffer, that knows everything, that shows us no mercy or compassion. In those moments death shows through in the regular gaps in Internet service, and it’s more harrowing than ever.

As we continue to invest our time, emotions, and very selves in the internet, the artwork accrues content and value. The great expression of civilization merrily snowballs. But to what end? There is an emptiness to this project, Heffernan implies. We are loving something that cannot love us back. The internet, for all its dazzle, its genuine beauty and wonder, leaks losses.

After a book’s worth of encouragement to embrace, enjoy, and engage with digital forms, this sentiment is all the more striking and, to me, a little bit devastating. This confrontation with grief is no online-only phenomenon, of course. It also sounds a lot like life. Despite spending much of my own time on the internet, and despite a willful effort to internalize Heffernan’s appreciation of the web, to apply the new ideas she offers, to burrow into the aesthetic dimensions of this new existential architecture, by the time I closed the cover on Magic and Loss, I truly longed to do one thing only: log off.