Magic and Loss: A book review by Bob Morris

Magic and LossMagic and Loss: The Internet as Art
Virginia Heffernan
Simon & Schuster (June 2016)

How and why the Internet is “the most powerful expansion and expression of the project of being human”

Virginia Heffernan observes, “These are exciting times, filled increasingly with the desktop zines and other transitional forms that presaged blogs, but cultural loyalists are still hoping to hold on to old paradigms.” In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that the strongest resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” I agree, adding that those who defend the current status quo were probably among those who overthrew the previous one.

“Today holding on [to old paradigms] is just about impossible. The tectonic shift has happened…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.” Heffernan then adds “that the Internet is a massive and collaborative work of art…the Internet [seems to be] life” but in fact isn’t. “That’s why the Internet becomes more deeply meaningful and moving when ‘read’ as an aesthetic object than lived or reported on as firsthand human experience.”

Frankly, until reading this book, I never looked at the Internet that way and still have some reluctance to do so. However, credit Heffernan for making a far more convincing case in support of the assertion “that the Internet is [of course not] a massive and collaborative work of art…[nor is] the Internet life” than I could when challenging that assertion. Definition of such terms is, at best, subjective. I do agree, however, that “a new brand of intellectual courage must be brought to envisioning this new symbolic order” just as it make sense for change agents to change their thinking about change and innovators to thinking innovatively about innovation.

With regard to the book’s title, Heffernan suggests that trade-offs are inevitable. That is, “to truly fathom the high-velocity and rapacious new medium that has both re-created and shattered traditional forms, we need to risk the pain and scrap our old aesthetics and consider a new aesthetics and associated morality.”

As Hamlet notes, “Ay, there’s the rub.” Fair enough but Heffernan persists with admirable determination: rather than being abrasive, “I want instead to show how readers might use the Web and not be overwhelmed by it; how we might stop fighting it, in short, and learn to love its hallucinatory splendor.”

I agree that the Internet and then the Web have made possible a cultural transformation that has had greater impact and greater significance than any other that preceded it. This is what Virginia Heffernan seems to have in mind when observing, “At stake in this cultural transformation are the way we think, the way we love, the way we talk, and even the way we fight across the globe. The Internet is entrenched. It’s time to understand it — and not as a curiosity or an entry in the annals of technology or business but as an integral part of our humanity, as the latest and most powerful extension and expression of the project of being human.”

Indeed, “the project of being human” has never had more and better potentialities — as well as more and better resources and capabilities to fulfill them — than it does now.

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