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One Hundred Words from Author & Culture Critic Virginia Heffernan


Virginia Heffernan
Virginia Heffernan (credit: Francis Hill)

Virginia Heffernan's latest book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, has been called "A thoroughly engrossing examination of the Internet's past, present, and future…." She is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, first as a television critic in the Arts section, then as an Internet columnist at the Sunday Magazine. She has been an editor at Harper's and Talk magazines and has written for the New Yorker, Mother Jones, Wall Street Journal, Wired, Backchannel, The Message and Slate, where she was that magazine's first television critic. She has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was honored to have Virginia Heffernan participate in our One Hundred Words project from New York by writing her responses to the topics we suggested.


STAY THIRSTY: Collaborative work of realist art.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: The Internet! It's Collaborative because billions of us now contribute words, images and sounds to our digital civilization. Realist because the Internet purports to be life. We don't say "Donald Trump's avatar tweeted X"; we say "Did you hear what Donald Trump said?" But @realDonaldTrump is a charcter, and tweeting is highly stylized. Yet the Internet is a seductive representation of reality. That's why it scares us. We're like the movie audience that allegedly screamed at hurtling trains on screens. And we can't be faulted for mistaking realism for reality—it happens with every new technology, every new art form.


STAY THIRSTY: Cultural transformation.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: This phrase is inadequate to the task of describing the epochal shift in culture—philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language—wrought by digitization. That change has been sometimes conservative, sometimes avant-garde, and sometimes both at once. In some cases, digitization has surfaced the component parts and elemental importance of an ancient form. Twitter has done this for epigrams, fragments, lyric poetry. On Twitter, aphorisms, of the kind Confucius authored in the 5th century B.C., have a new relevance, consequence, and urgency. In other cases—as in visual forms including design and film—digitization has opened radical new possibilities.


STAY THIRSTY: Connectedness.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: A double-edged sword. On the one hand, connection—especially as wide and varied a set of idioms and ideologies as you can bear—is the highest blessing of digital existence. The Internet has exponentially expanded the possibilities for testing our intellectual immune systems, educating ourselves and leading a cosmopolitan life with exposure to diverse digital creatures and forms. It has introduced us to spouses, friends and even rivals who inspire us to do better. But connectedness can also impoverish us. So much mental and social life can inhibit opportunities for robust physical life, quiet solitude and the experience of nature.


STAY THIRSTY: Internet immortality.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: The works of the Internet are known for their stubborn refusal to vanish. Ask anyone who's tried to scrub Google of her name. Or anyone who knows that "delete" doesn't destroy. The Internet's resistance to death and decay—its immortality—makes it inhuman, makes it art. Ars longa, vita brevis. The same way ambitious artists deplore their dying bodies and aspire to the immortality of great art, ambitious humans today deplore their meat-selves and aspire to the immortality of the Internet. Witness the Calico group at Google, devoted to the task of "hacking death," and making humans that live forever.


STAY THIRSTY: Printed word vs. digital word.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: A continuum, not a dichotomy. The move toward greater abstraction is part of globalization. We see this in finance. Trade moved from barter to gold to paper money to the abstraction of credit cards and now Bitcoin. Similarly, the transmission of the word moved from print to digital. As Lawrence Lessig says, "The digital world has more in common with the world of ideas than with the world of things." Reading in digital—text, ebook, online—resembles thinking more than manipulating objects. But to say it's a logical progression is not to say it's progress. And then there's backlash too.


STAY THIRSTY: Classical education.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: At a stretch, the education I had. I grew up in a bookish academic household that happened to acquire computers early. So there was a split. One: the computers, with fantasy games and ASCII art and chat. And two: Shelves stuffed with Homer, Adam Smith, Spenser, Stendahl. (And Glamour and teen romances.) The imperative to learn French, German, Italian and Latin. (Only my brother nailed the Latin.) The Arthurian / Led Zeppelin language we used online in the early 80s did not seem out of sync with the fantasies in the books. So we connected them, called them all culture.


STAY THIRSTY: Technospirituality.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: My hybrid faith and set of practices determined by my awe at networked computing, and my sense of grief for what's lost in the digital revolution. Technospirituality requires that one make one's mind a beautiful and humane place to live. And it's also a word for a jumble of daily practices—akin to meditation, many offline—and faith in this path, this celebration of abstraction and mental life and the tension between those fantasies and material existence. I guess I think of Plato pointing up (to the Cloud ;)) and Aristotle pointing down to this moment, this earth, right here. 


STAY THIRSTY: Creationism.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: For me, a minimalist theism – a working notion that something usefully called God was present at the creation of everything, and at the creation of consciousness. It's also the subject of a light and accidentally trolling piece I wrote for Yahoo News that landed me in the Twitter coliseum some years ago. I thought I was trying to address cosmology to engage thoughtful readers bored with invented controversies like the "Mommy Wars." I guess I got what I asked for! That day that Reddit unleashed furious atheists was more instructive for me than "Origin of Species" or most theology.


STAY THIRSTY: From Funtwo to Wintley Phipps. Even if you don't believe in it.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: Two YouTube videos start and finish the book. Funtwo, an obscure Korean guitarist, and Phipps, a baritone singer and expert on American gospel music. The video of Funtwo playing a difficult rock version of Pachelbel's Canon ("better than Hendrix!" was among the first responses) ignited my love of online video. Phipps performing "Amazing Grace," which the agnostic physicist and Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek sent me, brought me to tears. "They say it works even if you don't believe it" was Wilczek's intro to the video (from Bohr). That became my mantra. I quit debating beliefs and instead embraced what works.



Virginia Heffernan

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