How Virginia Heffernan is reinventing tech criticism

Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Virginia Heffernan’s Twitter bio once described her as “something like a critic.” Her reluctance to fully embrace the title is understandable, given that most of what passes as technology criticism today tends either towards gadget reviews or curmudgeons bemoaning the loss of what makes us human.

Somewhere along the line, critical writing about technology became equated with a reactionary disapproval of progress. How can one argue against this wonderful thing that is meant to make us fitter, happier, more productive? Yet, as Heffernan writes, “Every year another book with a title like The Shallows or The Dumbest Generation…condemns the Internet with no less righteous indignation than our Tory pamphleteer.” Our most widely recognized tech critics—Evgeny Morozov, Sherry Turkle, Nicholas Carr, and Jaron Lanier—declare the folly of thinking that technology is capable of solving all our problems, while their literary counterparts—Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith—worry that 140-character writing will erode their craft and moralize about the deterioration of culture.

Heffernan shares “the deep feeling that digitization has cost us something very profound.” But she also encourages us to relish new forms of media. Her passion for her subject pulls technology criticism out of a relentlessly pessimistic spiral.

Heffernan began her career as a critic tricking her editors into letting her write about culture by pitching technology stories—“technology had seemed to be the masculine form of the word culture.” And with her first book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, she sets out to convince us that the internet is humanity’s greatest collective art project. In a market saturated with books about the business, politics, or science of the internet, Heffernan’s cultural approach is a welcome contribution.

The Internet as Art

Magic and Loss views the internet as a collective endeavor that has developed into a “masterpiece of human civilization” alongside “the pyramid, the aqueduct, the highway, the novel, the newspaper.” But, as Heffernan argues, it is not just impressive in magnitude, it is also a record of the world as we know it—a “grand emotional, sensory, and intellectual adventure.” As such, Heffernan deems it “a massive and collaborative work of realist art”—and as a work of art, it can be best understood using the tools of cultural criticism.

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This is the aim of her book: to apply the interpretive tools that we have already developed for traditional art to “build a complete aesthetics—and poetics—of the Internet.” While I’m not sure she comes close to anything “complete,” she does offer an extensive first pass.

Heffernan excels at tying things together, bringing canon into conversation with cat videos.

 

Heffernan’s contributions are strongest when she theorizes like a media scholar. Take Instagram, for instance. Heffernan writes that “images have become units of speech, building blocks in a visual vocabulary that functions like a colonial patois, where old-school darkroom photography is the native tongue and digitization is the imperial language.” She is able to see beauty in even the most mundane parts of our online lives, connecting design and practice: “When you tag the heck out of an Instagram—laden it to groaning like a prayer wall at a Shinto shrine—you hasten and broaden its circulation by making it searchable.”

She highlights how Kindle’s limited internet connection enables focus, noting that Kindle “bestows on the contemporary reader the ultimate grace: it keeps the Internet at bay.” She discerns the literary qualities of Twitter: “Tweets are not diseased firings of glitchy minds,” Heffernan writes. “They’re epigrams, aphorisms, maxims, dictums, taglines, headlines, captions, slogans, and adages.” New media, she shows us, are not incongruous with high culture.

Heffernan excels at tying things together, bringing canon into conversation with cat videos. Her description of the visceral experience of virtual reality in the Oculus Rift draws on French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre’s La Nausée. She rediscovers Walter Benjamin’s lost aura in Etsy handmades and in tears spilled over a cracked iPhone. But engaging with high culture doesn’t weigh the book down. Instead, her exploration is playful and her joy in writing palpable, as when she describes BlackBerries as “that off-black fidget absorber” from which “connectivity gluttons learned…the ecstasy of onanistic thumb-wrestling with text.” Simply by bringing her creative thinking to bear on a myriad of cultural artifacts—lonelygirl15, synesthetic perfume forums, Kanye’s hashtag rap, addictive mobile games, Ebaumsworld, prison blogs—Heffernan leaves no question that the internet is worthy of our attention and appreciation.

While the book puts forth plenty of evidence to show that the internet is art, at the end, I was left wanting to read more how artists incorporate new technology into their work, using it to play with narrative, image, and design—especially those fiction writers who have tackled the internet in recent work, such as Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Cohen, Dave Eggers, and Jennifer Egan. The internet, after all, is an essential part of contemporary art practice, with artists showcasing internet-inspired work at places like The New Museum, Eyebeam, and covered by Hyperallergic and Rhizome. Heffernan also misses an opportunity to address the physical stuff of internet technologies, despite the book’s fantastically tactile raised fiber-optic cover art. She focuses the iPhone’s invitation to take lots of high dynamic range (HDR) photographs, but she doesn’t mention the pleasure of consuming HDR images on the iPhone’s retina Gorilla Glass screens.

 

The Medium is the Internet?

It is easy to see works of art in the internet through Heffernan’s eyes. It’s less easy to understand precisely how the internet works as an art form in itself.

The internet has come to mean many things to many people. It has a technical meaning, as the protocol governing the format of data, enabling anything to talk to anything with an address. It has a physical meaning, as in undersea cables, bottlenecks, and geopolitical control points. It has a formal meaning, in features that describe what the internet adds to other media forms: connectivity, linkability, on-demand access. It has cultural capital in its penchant for all things viral. It has also become a sort of cultural shorthand: When “the internet” is the subject of a sentence, it usually means “people on the internet.” It’s even changing our language—“because internet.”

Heffernan never pins down precisely which definition or version of the internet she means to call art. Chapter by chapter, the book tackles traditional forms we know and recognize—design, image, text, music, video—that have been altered by the internet. Heffernan toggles seamlessly between mobile games like Angry Birds, devices like the BlackBerry, and social media, all under the umbrella of “the Internet.” This generous structure works for a weekly magazine column, but reads scattershot in the space of a book. By using this loose structure, she may mean to suggest that the internet acts as the meta-medium that underlies the design, text, images, video, and music she describes.

Yet, Heffernan does not limit her critique to technologies that are predicated on the internet. The iPod was a digital transformation that only relied on the internet to introduce the iTunes store, not to support the MP3 file format or the design of MP3 player itself. Spritz, a speed-reading technology, belongs to the domain of small screens and wearables, while the internet only provides the content to be read. Oculus Rift offers more immersive opportunities when connected, but the virtual reality tech itself isn’t inherently an internet object, it’s a visual one. So is it really the internet that we should understand as art? Or digitization? Or consumer technologies?

This is the danger of Heffernan putting the “Internet” with a capital “I” at the center of her work. The internet is now such old news that the AP style guide demoted it to common noun of lowercase status, though Heffernan contends that such treatment “lacks proper reverence,” and she remains a staunch defender of the capitalized form. In doing so, Heffernan implies a singular internet, rather than a more pluralistic understanding of multiple internets that acknowledges variation in access and experience worldwide. Heffernan perhaps gives too much weight to the unique properties and redemptive potential of the internet. Evgeny Morozov has criticized this unquestioning stance, taken by those seduced by the promise of the idea of the internet, calling it “internet centrism” (others have labeled it “internet exceptionalism”).

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Sontag wrote. Heffernan’s work suggests that everything now exists to end up on the internet.

In the book’s promotional material, Heffernan’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, places her work in a critical lineage that includes Marshall McLuhan on television or Susan Sontag on photography. Heffernan’s project certainly shares more with the work of these media critics than with Morozov’s. Sontag defined photography and its relationship to art forms that came before it, and gave us language to address the aesthetic and ethical questions surrounding photographic practice. “In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” Sontag wrote. “They are a grammar, and even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.”

McLuhan offered us analysis of the formal characteristics of all variety of mass media—its features, its affordances, its effects, its limitations. For him, content mattered less than the means of delivery, and he offered frameworks—some inscrutable, such as “hot” and “cold” media—that helped readers draw distinctions between cinema and television in terms of scale, distribution, and consumption patterns.

But Sontag’s and McLuhan’s are big shoes to fill, and Heffernan only gets halfway there. “The Internet has a logic, a tempo, an idiom, a color scheme, a politics, and an emotional sensibility all its own,” Heffernan writes. But is that tempo allegro? Silicon Valley cerulean blue? Heffernan never precisely names those generalized, formal characteristics of the internet. It is difficult to see the internet as a cohesive medium on par with photography or television, with recognizable identifying features in its own right.

The internet, after all, is the dominant cultural medium of our time. “That most logical of aesthetes, Mallarmé, said that everything in the world exists in order to end in a book,” Sontag wrote. “Today everything exists to end in a photograph.” Heffernan’s work suggests that everything now exists to end up on the internet.

 

Beyond Clickbait Criticism

That’s the thing about the internet. It it simplifies rather than complicates, polarizes rather than encouraging nuance. Contemporary tech criticism—writing about the internet, for the internet—suffers from oversimplification, clickbait headlines, and sensational narratives. But tech writing should critique, not criticize; it should make meaning out of things, not find fault in them. Or, as Heffernan says in an interview, it should “‘familiarize the unfamiliar’ and ‘de-familiarize the familiar.’”

Unlike many technology critics, Heffernan resists the reductive questions publications so often employ in their headlines, down to the title of her book. The internet is both magic and loss. Technology is both good and evil, makes us smart and stupid, connects and separates us. Heffernan wants us to explore the murky spaces in between.

She has experienced backlash for this position. In 2013, she published an article that started a fire: “Why I’m a Creationist”—playing off Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.” She claimed to be a Creationist on “aesthetic grounds,” suggesting that storytelling and narrative are more crucial to life than science. Heffernan may be too clever for the internet, where meaning is reduced to the length of a tweet. For those who can go beyond the headline, her work is illuminating, but to Twitter trolls and comment sharks, Heffernan’s rhetoric and allusion are just chum.

Contemporary tech criticism—writing about the internet, for the internet—suffers from oversimplification, clickbait headlines, and sensational narratives.

Of course, she’s not the only one. Plenty of journalists, bloggers, and academics are contributing to a discussion about technology. They are authors and activists, like Rebecca Solnit and Astra Taylor, or academics like Zeynep Tufeki and Kate Crawford, writing op-eds pointing out what really matters about the latest tech kerfuffle. Or they are journalists and bloggers, like Heffernan’s colleagues Clive Thompson, Jenna Wortham, Alexis Madrigal, and Rose Eveleth, covering the technology beat. But when I spoke with many of these writers for my forthcoming Tow Center research on technology criticism, they too were reluctant to be associated with “criticism” for its negative connotations and destructive tactics.

Beyond the premise of reading the internet as art, Magic and Loss reads more like a collection of ruminations than a cohesive argument. This may be what we get from tech criticism informed by the humanities—lots of interpretation and reading, but no normative directive for what ought to be instead. Heffernan’s is a practical criticism, one that doesn’t necessarily grapple with the capitalist ecosystem that supports technological change, a perspective Morozov laments is missing from more radical critiques of technology. But she never claims that a humanist lens is the only valid approach to the internet. “Evgeny is a very useful critic,” she told me in an interview. “He is extremely ideological, quite alarmist, but really useful and brilliant because he puts so much heavy 20th-century pressure on these seemingly fragile forms.” Heffernan puts forth a more relatable and useful account for those still struggling to understand the technology that has subsumed our culture and our lives.

 

Criticism for Living

When David Pogue and Walt Mossberg left their posts at The Times and The Wall Street Journal, respectively, Matt Buchanan wrote that the next great technology critic would not be a gadget reviewer. “The questions that consumers face, in other words, are less about what to buy than about how to live.” This is Heffernan’s strength: she plants her criticism firmly in subjective experience. We may or may not share her obsession with perfume forums or #freeskip Twitter campaigns, but we learn to read the internet for ourselves through her example. Heffernan gives us a vocabulary and a model for understanding our feelings, our concerns, our joys, and our fears about technology. Though Heffernan succeeds at demonstrating how one might read the internet as art, she does so mostly by example. Readers walk away understanding how Heffernan reads the internet, but we have to read between the lines to gather tools to carry on that critical work for ourselves.

When Heffernan started writing her column on online video for The Times in 2006, internet culture was a thing to be understood on its own. Streaming online video was only just becoming possible without cumbersome buffering. Memes were barely broaching the mainstream news cycle. BuzzFeed was just a baby. Today, your dad—and maybe even your grandfather—is on Facebook.

As we begin to take the internet for granted, it’s more important than ever to recognize the need for robust and diverse technology criticism. We grapple with which metrics we should use to judge Facebook’s integrity in serving us, as a social platform or as a journalistic entity. Wealthy Silicon Valley VCs with a grudge can ruin entire publications by throwing their weight behind lawsuits. Publishers tiptoe around criticizing tech companies because social platforms and newsfeeds control access to their audiences. We need to stop seeing technology criticism as destructive; rather, it gives us the opportunity to shape the future of technology in our everyday lives. Heffernan’s nuanced example in Magic and Loss expands the notion of what technology criticism can and should be.

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Sara M. Watson is “something like a” technology critic, a research fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, and an affiliate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She tweets @smwat.