Web writer Virginia Heffernan: Online isn't real life

WOODSTOCK — Brace yourself, Luddites: Upper Valley native turned New York writer Virginia Heffernan believes "the internet is the great masterpiece of civilization, a massive and collective work of art."

"Pop culture is always said to be bad for you," she begins her argument. "Novels were supposed to poison women and make them sexually promiscuous. Shakespeare's plays were considered bawdy and impious. But just wait: Those mesmerizing Netflix shows and insightful Facebook posts may be the Middlemarch and 'Midsummer Night's Dream' of the future."

One might wonder how anyone who considers web surfers "not addicted or diseased" but instead "enraptured" could snag a speaking slot at this year's Bookstock Literary Festival, which unfolded over the weekend at a half-dozen of this historic town's most storied landmarks.

Heffernan, a former television critic and digital-culture columnist for the New York Times, now works as a co-host of Slate's "Trumpcast" and contributor to such websites as Politico. But the Hanover, N.H., native — who holds a doctorate in literature from Harvard University — returned home to talk up her own traditional print-on-paper book, "Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art."

"Say 'internet' and you think of fake news or a neurotoxin that's julienning our attention span," she told an audience at the Woodstock Inn. "But much of the time people are scrolling through Instagram photos. Looking at two-dimensional images is not intrinsically immoral."

The 47-year-old first discovered the computer at age 9 when, as a "townie" sitting alongside Dartmouth College students, she logged onto the school's "caged rhinoceros" of an early system.

"My parents believed I was learning to program; actually I was playing an adventure game. At school, I was an awkward child; online I was a wise warrior genius. It was exciting, these green phosphorus letters floating in deep space. I began to see something back there that was bringing things to the foreground."

Becoming a teenager, Heffernan decided to rejoin the human realm and study literature. But after starting her career as a fact checker for the New Yorker magazine, she found herself back on the computer and eventually chronicling her interest in a weekly Times column that led to her book.

"As an artifact," she writes, "the internet challenges the pyramid, the aqueduct, the highway, the novel, the newspaper, the nation-state, the Magna Carta, Easter Island, Stonehenge, agriculture, the feature film, the automobile, the telephone, the telegraph, the television, the Chanel suit, the airplane, the pencil, the book, the printing press, the radio, the realist painting, the abstract painting, the Pill, the washing machine, the skyscraper, the elevator and cooked meat."

"Does that mean it's without flaw, or without potential for great harm?" she continues. "No."

"At stake in this cultural transformation is the very way we live, 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 in the project of being human."

Heffernan is working to explain by writing for a variety of web publications. In a recent column for Fast Company, for example, she opined on "what a great American novel can teach us about news in the digital age" and, specifically, how to combat the increasing tendency to view coverage of current events "too much about sides, about winning and losing, and less about empathy for our fellow men."

"Remember that the best characters and novels — and every single flesh-and-blood human and real-life event — mix good and evil," she wrote. "Suspend judgement. Aim to identify with the players without projection or hope. Let yourself be surprised by evidence that doesn't fit your hypothesis. Take breaks. But also, keep reading. It's quite a story. And you're part of it."

Concluding her talk at Bookstock, Heffernan also offered hope for the unplugged set. Her son, she confided, doesn't want an iPhone.

"He says, 'It curbs my resourcefulness.' "

And the author is devoting her next book to "anti-digital culture" after seeing a column in which she ruminated on science and spirituality trigger a multi-day torrent of profane tweets.

"It was very scary to watch," she recalls.

That's when Heffernan, standing in the sun with her children, realized the storm was contained to her cellphone.

"I had to distinguish what was really happening in the present moment from the impoverished two-dimensional experience of software," she says. "I think one of the huge questions for our time is how much are we playing characters online and how much are we not? I have a new appreciation of what can't be digitized. My next book is about making that distinction."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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