Mixed Take: Virginia Heffernan’s “Magic and Loss”

Magic and Loss, by Virginia Heffenan

Virginia Heffernan is one of our foremost cultural critics, able to write effortlessly about the social implications of television (her former beat at Slate) or pretty much anything. She is also one of the hosts of Slate’s Trumpcast, which has become an essential podcast for understanding our besotted and bewildering age.

I enjoy Heffernan’s interviews on the show, and listening to these led me to read her latest book Magic and Loss. Heffernan published the book last year.

The subtitle is “The Internet as Art.” Heffernan is quite enthusiastic about the Web’s potential as an artistic medium, referring to it as a “masterpiece” of civilization. The book’s chapters describe how the web has revolutionized reading, design, photography, and video. For the first time in human history, almost anyone can be a creator and distributor of their own work. No more middlemen required, just let the Web carry forth and the people will follow.

Heffernan finds magic in this radical democratization. Twitter greatly enriches online conversation, it does not deaden or cheapen it. The Kindle is a revolutionary reading device in the way it seamlessly delivers books to your fingertips, but it still facilitates and rewards deep reading. YouTube videos are now their own type of film product, with recognizable establishing shots and other conventions. To all of the (many) scolds who warn that the Web is making us stupid and shallow, Heffernan serves up a passionate rejoinder.

The “loss” entails what we have left behind to enter this brave new digital world. Now our phones double as computers, and we’ll text rather than talk. In the old days a phone call with a friend was an event, and you made sure not to phone their house after 9 pm and sometimes hogged the family’s one phone line for hours. Amazingly enough, the phone connection was good. These days everybody has their own phone but the connection usually stinks.

That’s an example of a loss Heffernan describes, which I fully relate to. Losses I would add are the simple freedom to leave the house without being reachable, or the ability to navigate the world using senses and maps and not just GPS.

On the whole, though, Heffernan is two parts magic to one part loss. She is a booster of the Web through and through.

At one point I would have been right with her. But the Web has also unleashed demons. Twitter often serves as a venue for shaming others, not for open-hearted understanding of another point of view. Comment sections and Reddit threads quickly become vile. Click-bait prizes sleaze and outrage rather than thoughtfulness and persuasion. The Web did not invent any of these unfortunate tendencies, of course. But it provides a new, always-on venue in which the worst of humanity can flourish. Our current President’s successful campaign was one long exercise in scapegoating and resentment stoking. The Web made his task much easier than it would otherwise have been.

Heffernan treads too lightly on these distressing realities of what the Web hath wrought. I understand the desire to support and champion our new way of life against reactionaries who would prefer that nothing change at all. Perhaps Heffernan feels that acknowledging the Web’s grunginess will only feed the skeptics. Maybe so, but it’s worth the risk. The most cogent forms of love see the thing entire.