"The signature pastime of the American consumer," Virginia Heffernan writes in her new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, "is now the mental act of processing digital, symbolic data: watching videos, graphics, maps, and images; listening to music and sound cues; and above all reading." And because we spend an inordinate amount of time reading online — tweets, texts, Trump news, Q&As about books about the internet — Heffernan argues that we should stretch our senses and start talking about our time in the Cloud in a way that extends beyond "Internet: Good," "Internet: Bad," and "Science Says: Internet Is _____," that we should push for a critical examination of the place that has become a home for all the other forms of art that we already unpack to death, like TV, film, visual art, and literature. Heffernan's book takes readers through a museum that showcases these artistic exploits, her discovery of them and all the joy and horror they inspire, and how the internet is just the latest form of art to be condemned as a waste of time in fragmented, digital-friendly snaps that have as much fun with language as the medium it chronicles and act as a footnote for internet explorers.
MTV News talked and emailed with Heffernan about her book, how you talk about the internet when you're constantly stuck in the middle of it, and how Downton Abbey explains a lot of our anxieties about the web.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Have you seen the David Hockney's Yosemite iPad paintings at the Pace Gallery? In a review of the exhibit, Hockney describes using the iPad as the canvas like, "It's also an endless sheet of paper, and the color is literally right at your fingertip," which I feel is a pretty good summation of the internet as described in your book.
Heffernan: That's incredible. Hockney appears on one of the first pages of the book too. Because the Guitar video has a little bit of a Hockney palette to it.
After seeing the paintings and reading your book, it also made me think about how one of the tasks of your book — convincing people to treat the internet as something worthy of artistic criticism — is hard because the internet changes so incredibly quickly. It innovates and creates styles at such a rapid pace, it's like going from Impressionism to Neo-impressionism to Cubism to Dadaism to Modernism in the space of a few years. How do you look at it critically and effectively when the moment you're looking at right now could be gone by the time you put it to paper?
Heffernan: One of the paradoxes that makes the internet such a suggestive place is that, on the one hand, we perceive it as perpetually in motion and changing, and, on the other hand, it has this god-like immortality to it: It seems like it won't die and is not subject to decay, and that everything can be unwound, unlike present-tense experience, where you can't archive the present moment, you can't go back and read it over again. That's the fundamental hallmark of the internet. We act as if it will never die, that the Cloud will never die, that the internet will never die. In the face of that, much of human civilization, including our human bodies, seem so defective and mortal and constantly fading. Our lifespan is 80 years, 90 years if we're lucky, and that's a drop in the bucket compared to how long we think the internet will live.
Part of the thing that I think qualifies it as art, or that fits in that cultural space, is that art lasts forever, or at least that's how we perceive it. On the other hand, it does seem like the surface is constantly shifting. One of the concerns when I first proposed the book was, "Well, if you write about the ‘Numa Numa’ video, it will date really quickly." The internet is driven by trends and memes, and before you know it, things are out of fashion. It became one of the obligations of the book to show that there were these building blocks that were giant tectonic plates in this new civilization that could be identified as part of civilizations since agriculture. Once there became a written culture, certain tropes and certain ways of organizing information appeared. If we're looking for the digital Hockney or the digital Shakespeare, it's probably early to do that. There weren't a lot of great films 20 years into filmmaking — at least not what we would identify now as great films. The internet is just this embryonic text that's started to find its way.
It seems that you didn't only want to encourage people to embrace an aesthetics of the internet, but that you were also frustrated that people were asking the wrong questions about the internet.
Heffernan: I think that's right. There's always something in new technology that promotes anxiety on the one hand, but also grieving on the other. It's funny, I just watched all of Downton Abbey — I started after the series concluded — and every time they bring in a telephone, a phonograph, a hair dryer, there's a long conversation about how disruptive or painful it might be to have it in the house. And they have to have discussions about what it might do to things. With the internet, I think we can remember a time when people said "I don't use email," or "I'm not going to get email." I once had to do a piece on people who had never used the internet and refused to start. I reached out pretty far and wide, and I found three people. But when I talked to them, they had used it, at some point or another. It's almost impossible to stay off the internet entirely. We feel as though we didn't get to make a decision. There's this new dawn and we all have to embrace it.
Many of the creative appraisals we have of the internet are from people who say they abstain from it, and it seems like many people who would defend it in a creative fashion are busy being in the middle of it. It's not like You've Got Mail, when you have to travel across the beep-beep-boops of AOL to go to this other life — now you're always in it. And that makes it hard to look at it.
Heffernan: In Downton Abbey, it's the guys who run the household — the earl and his butler — who are the most resistant to new technology. The technology is often brought in to make the lives of less-alpha people more convenient, more economical, more fun. When you take these writers who really objected to digitization — like, who wouldn't object if you were publishing big books [and now] everybody getting published? That thing that you wanted to jump through, that aura your work got to have, [instead] there's now this vast proliferation where everyone can be a writer.That's extraordinarily destabilizing. At a practical level, it also brings down the value of what you do, because there's more people doing it.
I think there's a class thing in this, I think there's a gender thing in this, I even think there's a race thing in this. When I first got on the internet as a tween, I wasn't comfortable showing up in social spaces. I didn't have a loud voice. As a function of my youth and gender, I wasn't given a voice at the dinner table, and nor maybe should I have been. But I thought I wanted one, and I was able to have it online. I wasn't a great talker, but I found these other skills. And when this stuff is described as "not real writing" or "bad for my brain" or whatever, it just seems like it's from people who wanted to keep their place at the dinner table.
The world that people describe when they talk about the blissful universe where you're surrounded by Moroccan-bound books that you read from sunrise to sunset with your great long attention span and you're never interrupted by a text message (nor would you want to be) and everything stays exactly where it's supposed to be — beyond American elitism, it sounds like a longing for the aristocracy. These people see the internet as tacky and discounted. Especially Instagram and Snapchat and Twitter and YouTube — the bywords for the coarsening and barbarism of digital culture.
You touch on this in the book too, how it seems like there's a bifurcation of the internet. There are institutions that are trying to tame the internet, make it more like old forms of culture that are more familiar by putting up paywalls, and then what we're actually moving toward, the mobile web, which is where there is a more diverse group of readers, racially and economically, who are driving change.
Heffernan: There has been white flight from the open web that really began with the App Store. When I look at those apps on my iPhone, it looks like Levittown or the suburbs to me. And I can't pretend that I'm not seduced by them too. I spent a lot of time getting 500 comments asking if I have brain damage on articles I wrote for Slate. I can only protest for so long that that gives me grit and character. It takes a certain amount of humor and fortitude and distance to hold your own in the open web, to risk all these things.
Some of my favorite parts of the internet are when you have repositories of PDFs from old newspapers or magazines, and it feels like you're dropping a hook down into a well and salvaging these ancient things from the wreckage, allowing them to live on the internet as refugees — not quite of it, but adapting nonetheless. They aren't quite the same as books and TV, which have become fluent in internetese and aren't obviously tourists in a foreign land. Do these relics fit in with what you see as the realist art project that is the internet?
Heffernan: Oh I love this. It's something I hadn't explicitly thought about until you just conjured it. I do take huge pleasure in seeing photos of old photos put on Facebook and reading clips of newspaper on the web about people who lived and died well before the internet but are kind of reanimated here, in a perpetual Day of the Dead. And there they are — that World War I vet, my grandfather — next to Bitmoji and ads for "The Bed Tent for Better Sleep."
Do you think the annoying ad plagues that still reign outside the land of paywalls and apps are like corporate sponsorship at national parks — are these efforts to pay for the costs of keeping the internet a wild land open to as many humans as possible?
Heffernan: I've heard about it happening in Scandinavia and other dreamstates, but I've never beheld with my own eyes a culture that doesn't need to sustain itself with money. The danse macabre between art and money is itself art. Sometimes it gets hideous when pop-up ads obscure our view and seem to defeat us. Other times we circumnavigate corporations and find our way to something good without having our pockets picked. And there are times — not always, but sometimes — where the means of monetization is part of the intrigue and development of the culture. I think of the Canadian Warner Brothers trying to make a buck out of their one projector, and finding they needed stuff to put in the beam of light it made — and helping to hatch feature films. So the annoying ad plaques and their analogs: Sometimes they're enervating and horrible, sometimes they're the cost of online living, and sometimes they're part of the fun.
Did you ever think about how you would name internet art movements?
Heffernan: The internet comes up with great names for things. Like gifs: What would we have called them without that name? Or "Aesthetic" — the name for artsy sexy photos on Instagram, which means there is now an aesthetic called Aesthetic. That's also ingenious.
Who else do you think is doing a good job at analyzing the internet
through an artistic, critical lens?
Heffernan: Craig Mod, Robin Sloan, Mark Greif, Diana Kimball, Cara Cannella, and maybe a dozen others.
Do you have a favorite tweet, one that you feel is especially poetic?
Heffernan: I can't get enough of this right now, by @TomRussell8.
And this classic by @ftrain (prolific programmer Paul Ford):