Virginia Heffernan has calmly gone about her business observing, creating and now taking us beyond the veil of media. Magic and Loss is an autobiography of the internet. We may have found our internet incarnate.
When you scan the contents you see a simple line-up. Design, Text, Images, Video, Music and something called Even if You Don’t Believe in It. You think to yourself, self, this is going to be a breeze. Then you start reading. OMG.
Ms. Heffernan fills 242 pages with one reference after another. All artfully placed as proof that what she writes is truth. She shows us the internet is more culture than technology. In fact she posits technology takes second chair to society as well as history. That the internet is the Star Trek transporter we wished for but no longer need.
Two sages in particular came to mind while reading Magic and Loss. Sherry Turkle with her watershed Life on the Screen. Marshall McLuhan, who envisioned the internet and then encapsulated it on paper, because that was the only tool he had. The comparison I make is one of immersion. Of mastery of a domain and the ability to record it. The act of writing it down differentiates itself from experience.
Once you enter the labyrinth there is really no way out. It’s like turning on the camera once a scene has started and turning it off before it ends. You get a compelling snippet but no context, and you don’t care. Design on the internet is all over the place. No one knows what it should or could be. In this section she tells us stories about what people did to evolve what we saw online. That was design. It was made up on the fly. Bitmaps, languages, cognitive orientation.
“The history of digitization is the history of reading.” Text matters, but writing matters more. None of it matters unless someone reads. Reading on the internet is oddly much harder. She talks about how the internet denies us a break. We don’t get white space or a respite from the tsunami of information. She observes that, “Americans read with highlighters.” Information is what we’re after so we can sound important and knowledgable. Then she fell in love with the Kindle. Regardless, we are always reading. Reading is everything. The internet has, in my opinion, disrupted the ritual of reading with videos, graphics, maps, images, music. We have a new reading paradigm. I’m still adjusting. Ms. Heffernan points out that the brilliance of Confucius almost never exceeded 140 characters. That Twitter got so much right. The poetry of the internet.
The tapping or words. “The Blackberry was a literate device.” It turned us into heads down mops who couldn’t wait to read or type (that keyboard was so good) a reply. Ms. Heffernan reminds us that the iPhone changed words and took advantage of “symbolic communication.” Then came Flickr, Pinterest, Vine, Snapchat and Instagram. She closes this chapter by telling us our now ubiquitous camera is for capturing our personal moments. There is no time lag between shutter snap and image viewing. We see it. We capture it. We are.
In this chapter we are taken from the first YouTube video post through the golden age of television, which apparently was not all that golden. “It was a colossal waste of time.” I don’t agree. I always scheduled my TV time carefully and for many years in the 1970’s I didn’t even own a television. A long time ago in my mailbox was discovered a Nielsen TV ratings diary. It contained a crisp, new one dollar bill and an ernest note that told me the future depended on me (the fools). They asked me to fill in my viewing behavior each day for seven days. I was so proud to send it back completely blank. I kept the dollar.
This chapter is potentially a turning point in the book. Her choice to place video ahead of music puzzles me. I would say that more has taken place in video than music. We now regularly attend 3D movies and Virtual Reality (Oculus) is potentially a powerful spark to something really accessible. But, are these part of the internet?
She loved her iPod, as did I. I still keep my iPod fully charged and filled with over 12,000 songs. From my cold dead hands will it ever be separated from me. Music continues to be the rhythm of my life. It’s everywhere. It has meaning. It’s accessible. I consumed vinyl then 8-Tracks followed by cassettes, then compact discs.
Eventually we got the MP3. I thought it was a new element on the periodic table. Not so. It was a trick of the mind to make us believe we were still listening to music. Those of us of a certain age know that digital music is a sonic betrayal. I went to hundreds of concerts. Things were removed by the MP3 in the name of compression. There was a need to skinny down the richness so it could pass through the eye of the internet. It is here, finally on page 183 that Ms. Heffernan first writes the words magic and loss.
The chapter goes on to explore music encapsulated inside no less than fifty references. Even if we knew them all we would never be able to conjure them up and make the connection to music. She closes Music with a reminiscence. Vinyl records as a fireplace of sound bringing to mind discussions with friends and long phone calls (land lines). Yes, Ms. Heffernan, I did perfect the art of courting girls with calls via dial tone. I miss those days as well.
EVEN IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IT
She wraps up this amazing tome with a wide swath of history references. As with many of those pointers, I got lost, but never felt left behind. Ms. Heffernan always brought me back to the present and did it by pointing toward the future. Her book was both a challenge and a pleasure. It took me months to work up the courage to write about it. Still today, I find it hard to categorize, which adds to the importance of measuring the balance between magic and loss.
Clearly Ms. Heffernan has done us a service. She is a rare digital citizen. Top of the house. I learned a lot and was inspired to do more research and chase down those interesting references. What I wanted to read more of was her personal story. When spotted, those moments provided welcome texture and joyful nostalgia. It made this unique work more accessible.
Magic and Loss is a serious, realistic work that owes a lot to culture. It’s the blueprint of the past and a template for the future of media.