Book Review: “Magic and Loss” by Virginia Heffernan

Magic and Loss by Virginia Heffernan

Heffernan writes about media and technology, and, unlike many critics is not completely ignorant about digital technology, indeed, she has used it for decades. (Not as many decades as me, but enough to have some perspective.)

Much of what Heffernan writes about is flavored by her background as a dissatisfied Philosophy Major, not-completely-satisfied “Media Studies” Major, and years of working in Journalism. With this background, she is able to give us a lot of interesting perspectives on digital life.

If nothing else, it is nice to read some thoughtful analysis from a perspective other than “biz”. She talks a lot about consuming and creating, and not much about “publishing”, “markets”, or all that.

One long chapter considers “text” and “reading”. She uses a broad definition of “reading”—“the processing of symbolic content”—to diagnose the Internet as “hyperreading”. A la Zuckerman, she says that when you “consume” media on the Internet, you are reading.

Therefore reading is not dying, she says people are reading constantly, if anything people are reading too much.

People are also “writing” a lot, via all sorts of digital platforms, with all sorts of wonky designs (which, she notes, do not reflect any of the vast development in “Design” over the last century and a half). She says nice things about Twitter, pointing out that most “poetry” is short, as are many important aphorisms.

After all, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” fits in a tweet.

Heffernan has a long paean to YouTube, which she sees as the new form of cinema. In particular, she comments on the zillions of unclassifiable new “genres” out there, unknown to film school or fancy schmancy artistes.

The content “continues to be enigmatic”, “uploaders have drifted for know forms”. (p. 142) With the DIY uploader “whole genres are being invented” (p. 152) that doesn’t resemble “the pro goods”.

She is also excited about binge watching (which she tags to e very long form fiction), and likens binge watching TV with a friend is akin to reading a novel together. (Something I have never done, or ever wanted to do.)

She is excited by VR, and reports that after decades of unsuccessful technology, Oculus doesn’t make her puke. This is one of the clearest reports I have seen that there is more than hype to Oculus, though I can’t really parse her precise claims. VR makes her sick, but most Oculus doesn’t? Assuming this is a real effect, what are they doing right?

In an interesting chapter, Heffernan recalls her history with iPods and MP3 digital music. She was an early adopter of iPod, and initially loved the experience of having her own soundtrack. But over the years, she has come to dislike digit music delivered directly to the ears. She finds something deeply unsatisfying, unreal, and unmusical.

We try to quench our thirst for music on MP3 but end up pecking at painted grapes.” p. 194 (referring to trompe l’oeil paintings, said to fool birds into pecking at painted fruit.)

This is the clearest case that explicates her title about “Magic & Loss”. It is magical, but she feels an important loss, too.

In a final chapter, she tacks hard and zips off into an emotional discussion of her own theism, which has engendered considerable friction with her fashionably atheistic peers. I think she is way wrong on many points, but I’m not going to argue about her religion.

Overall, except for the last chapter, I found lots of interesting perspectives in this book. But I found many weaknesses.

Heffernan has a dim view of scientific knowledge, and especially social scientists who beef about the horrible bad things digital media are doing to our brains/relationships/politics/whatever. She scoffs that every technology has been condemned as satanic and destructive, and digital technology is no different. It is changing how people live, but not in unprecedented or catastrophic ways.

Of course, she has a point, but only if you get your science from journalists (which is where she works). The media always pick spectacular and exciting studies and extravagant claims. Worse, journalism misrepresents scientific consensus, and treats it as if it is political story telling—everyone has a right to believe whatever they want. These views distort what we might actually learn from science.

Honestly, I wish Heffernan had studied some psychology to go with her philosophy classes. Real psychology, grounded in real life behavior. She would not be so blithe to dismiss concerns about digital life if she looked at how other people live. (See earlier posts such as this or this or this, etc.)

Furthermore, some of her cool insights are technically ideologically, and logically shaky.

Her complaints about digital music are interesting, and her note that live performance is more valuable than ever is valid (and I predicted this twenty years ago). But her diagnosis of why she doesn’t like MP3 is technically and psychologically questionable, to say the least.

This almost music was missing something, something vital. It was, in the engineeer’s jargon, “lossy”. Something was always lost in the digitization of music….” p. 183

Maybe ear buds are a profoundly different experience than speakers, but that sure has nothing to do with MP3 encoding, per se. Something is always “lost” in any kind of transmission, digital or otherwise. And that is not what the term “lossy” means. Sheesh. Total nonsense, technically.

Similarly, she argues that the attention-sucking internet is people hyperreading, implying that if it is “reading” it must be a good thing. This is kind of bogus, and does nothing to allay our concerns that we are being distracted to death by the Internet. Being “addicted” to some form of “hyperreading” is still a problem.  (Assuming that this term even makes sense, which is arguable)

This point blurs into anti-science bogosity.

Blurring the line between hard, empirical science and speculative social scince, many neuroscientists cover up the inconsistencies in their method by pressing it into the service of venerable systems of value.” P. 73 “Neuroscience” is “often but not always headquartered at Big Pharma”, and “[c]lass distinctions are shored up this way.” After all, “for those of use interested in phenomenology, the claims of neurosciences rarely enrich the human experience they set out to elucidate.

Aside from the  smear on the motives of unspecified “neuroscience”, it seems that the real problem is that they aren’t hewing to her own ideological line.

She also is logically loose in her discussion of Twitter. Yes, it is wrong to dismiss Twitter as illegitimate and somehow not really writing and reading. But she raves that Twitter is poetry (“it is language precisely and even artfully deployed” (p. 57-8). She mocks complaints about tweets being short, pointing out that “lyric poetry” is short, as are Confucian adages (though she becomes very confused when she recalls that Chinese aphorisms are usually less than 20 Chinese ideograms—which is not really technically relevant to 140 Latin letters.)

Tweets are not diseased firings of glitchy minds. They’re epigrams, aphorisms, maxims, dictums, taglines, headlines, captions, slogans, and adages. Some are art, some are commercial; these are forms with integrity.” (p. 60)

Really?  I’m not sure what “forms with integrity” means, nor do I see how tweets “are” any of those things.

This kind of stuff might make sense to an English major (or a Philosophy major), but I don’t even understand what question she is trying to argue about.

Again, most of my complaints stem from the fact that Heffernan is a journalist and a media critic, and has little interest in serious psychology or social science or even social criticism. She is interested in Art and Philosophy and Phenomenology, not in people, society, or actual science.

As such, I found her book interesting but extremely flawed.

  1. Virginia Heffernan, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016.


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