Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

By a strange alignment of the planets, I have found myself as I write this caught between technological worlds in a way, I’m sure, that Virginia Heffernan would fully appreciate.

After receiving a physical book about the Internet, and reading a spacious layout that seems designed for an e-reader rather than the rebarbative density of academic typeface, I found myself (also having just moved house) temporarily without Internet — except of course, for my ubiquitous smartphone.

I am writing this in longhand, the first time I have done so for quite some time, and I am quite enjoying the slower pace — except that I shall then laboriously type the results out on my cell phone, possibly from the airport, on a Microsoft Word app and then email it to its final destination (where it will undergo yet further editorial transformations). It was not that long ago that one used to read in academic acknowledgments pages the fervent thanks from (usually male) scholars to their typists, usually long-suffering spouses. Typewriters are now quaint hipster chic.

What on earth has happened to us?

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Magic and Loss — in the guise of a series of essays on different aspects of the experience, the artifact that is the Internet — attempts to chronicle exactly that tectonic shift. For many of us the Internet burst, fully-formed, from Zeus’s head, already incomprehensible. One of the most valuable aspects of Heffernan’s perspective is the careful attention paid to the early history of tech giants that now seem as given and immovable in our lives, like it or not, as the continents: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iTunes and the iPhone, the Cloud.

Heffernan remembers the Internet when it was still clunky. And as the title of the book suggests, there is a palpable ache of nostalgia throughout: for the somehow more real world we have offered up to the gods of the Internet, for “real” music not digitally compressed, for the physicality of a conversation on a land line, and more subtly, for the text-oriented world we have ceded to the image-centric preferences of a dyslexic Steve Jobs and programmers like him.

At the same time Heffernan is careful and wise to assert that the Internet is not necessarily better or worse than what came before it. It is merely, as she says, the next thing. It is. We must get used to it, along with what that entails.

A self-proclaimed pragmatist and former television critic, Heffernan has a refreshing lack of snootiness for the products of the Internet as art: one of the key insights of her book is that the Internet has democratized the arts. We have been turned from consumers of carefully curated, cultivated, and rarefied artistic experiences (reassuringly ratified by critics), into self-publishing authors, producers, stars, creators, DIY artists. The effect is not glossy. Which is ultimately a good thing: she contends that art in its live form should feel a bit like something you get away with, or maybe shouldn’t be doing.

In this sense of “Everyman the artist,” she shares the insight of a book I also reviewed not long ago: A.O. Scott’s Better Living through Criticism (Penguin Random House, 2016). We do not lack for art nor criticism on the web, and that speaks to humanity’s essential drive to create as well as comment, ceaselessly, on those creations. We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams.

Magic and Loss moves thematically through the different layers of experience on the Internet: design, text, image, video, music. It concludes with the surprising “Even If You Don’t Believe It,” an odd mashup of intellectual and spiritual autobiography in which Heffernan’s own “minimalist-deist” pragmatist approach becomes explicit. There are insights everywhere, and I confirmed many of my half-articulated suspicions, such as the quiet class war between the Souk and Suburbia of the World Wide Web and the App Store.

Heffernan’s writing is gorgeous throughout, occasionally veering purple but generally preserving economy and directness. She has a sharp but kind eye for the well-constructed Internet comment; epigrammatic wit, she argues, is one of the hallmarks of Internet style. There is, she is well aware, a high degree of intentionality present in the shoddy ad hoc look of a great deal of Internet video; like the fad for shaky-cam, found-footage film, we are often reckoning with a homegrown aesthetic rather than any lack of skill.

That last chapter, “Even If You Don’t Believe It,” follows on the heels of the tight stylistic control of the book up to that point, and her sudden launch into matters theological both follows from certain themes already addressed and feels unexpectedly vague and discursive. God and “meaning” appear to be conflated for Heffernan here: one follows one’s spiritual intimations using the same instincts as a good Twitter thread. Horrifying though that may be to the systematic theologians among us, it is a spirituality highly characteristic of millennials and “nones,” and we should do well to listen. It’s a reminder too that, whatever the Buddhist inclinations of Steve Jobs and his ilk, the Internet is now home to an entire motley crew of faiths, and precisely insofar as it is inhabited by ordinary people, can be a place of faith.

The question is, can it be any stronger or more specific than that? Or do we lose, like the compressed digital exegesis of “real” music, the physicality, the real-world experience of a world structured on a deep level by faith and by the dangers and joys of denominational affiliation?

American religious experience in particular has often tended to the dangerously disembodied, a touching faith in truth beamed directly from the source; the Internet in all likelihood will only strengthen this tendency. The good news is that live music is making a comeback. While we should learn to use the Internet, in and out of church, as people of faith, precisely amidst the isolation and unreality of the digital village, there is an opportunity for real, embodied church.

The featured image comes via The New Aesthetic.

About The Author

Hannah W. Matis is an assistant professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. She is a recent graduate of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame, where she completed her doctoral dissertation on the early medieval exegesis of the Song of Songs. She is an avid amateur singer, particularly of early music, and can be relied upon to promote the causes of good Latin, good literature, good food, and good company.

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