Facing up to the damage wrought by Facebook

Previously published at The Arts Fuse.

Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $24.95.

The reason that Facebook is so evil is that Mark Zuckerberg is so good. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, the former wunderkind has drunk deeply of his own Kool-Aid and genuinely believes that his creation is a benevolent force in the world. “Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion,” Vaidhyanathan writes in his new book, Antisocial Media. “But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”

From propagating fake news to violating our privacy, from empowering authoritarian regimes to enabling anti-Semitic advertising, Facebook has become the social network everyone loves to hate. Vaidhyanathan, whose previous books include The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry (2011), has produced a valuable guide, written in clear, non-academic prose, to the monstrous force Facebook has become. And if his overview of what’s gone wrong with Facebook will seem familiar to those of us who obsess about these things, it nevertheless serves as a worthwhile introduction to the Zuckerborg and all that it has wrought. If only Vaidhyanathan had some compelling ideas on what to do about it. If only any of us did.

Facebook’s malign omnipresence came about quickly. Founded in 2004, it wasn’t until the dawn of the current decade that it became a behemoth. With 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is, for many people, synonymous with the internet itself — the place where your aunt and uncle share photos of their pets, updates from their vacations, and, of course, links to memes and conspiracy theories about George Soros’s non-existent Nazi past and the “deep state” plot to overthrow President Trump.

Such craziness has serious real-world consequences. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Trump became president partly because of Facebook, as Russian propagandists, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign itself all bought ads to bolster Trump’s message and to persuade possible Hillary Clinton voters to stay home on Election Day. The Facebook effect was probably not as powerful as James Comey’s bizarre obsession with Clinton’s emails — or, for that matter, Electoral College math. But given that Trump was elected by just a handful of votes in a few swing states, it seems plausible that Clinton might otherwise have overcome those obstacles.

There’s nothing new about political advertising, even if Facebook’s tools for microtargeting tiny slices of users based on the information they themselves have provided are unusually precise and pernicious. More ominous, Vaidhyanathan argues, is that the Facebook environment encourages the sort of fragmented thinking and emotional reactions that are antithetical to healthy civic engagement and that helps give rise to an authoritarian figure like Trump. Everything looks the same in your news feed. And since Facebook’s algorithm is designed to give you more of the type of content that you interact with, you become increasingly sealed off from viewpoints you don’t agree with. Vaidhyanathan’s attempt to shoehorn Trump into his overarching theory of Facebook is a bit awkward given that Trump’s social-media drug of choice is Twitter. Nevertheless, he is surely on to something in arguing that the reductive discourse that characterizes Facebook helped fuel Trump’s rise.

“After a decade of deep and constant engagement with Facebook, Americans have been conditioned to experience the world Trump style,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “It’s almost as if Trump were designed for Facebook and Facebook were designed for him. Facebook helped make America ready for Trump.”

Vaidhyanathan is not the first to take note of the distractedness that has come to define the digital age. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, laments that the internet has given rise to a culture of skimming rather than deep reading and warns: “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it — and, eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” Carr barely mentions Facebook, which at the time had not yet become a hegemonic force. But there is little doubt that it has only accelerated those trends.

So what is to be done? In a healthier political climate, Vaidhyanathan writes, we might expect our elected officials to act — by mandating greater privacy protections and by forcing Facebook to sell off some of its related businesses such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. But he holds out little hope, even though Europe is moving in that direction. And he identifies a specific reason for his pessimism by describing two competing philosophies of corporate leadership in the United States, neither suited to dealing with the menace we face. One, market fundamentalism, holds that the sole obligation of a corporation is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The other, the social responsibility model, sees a role for corporations — but not for government — in addressing environmental and cultural concerns and in helping to make the world better. Vaidhyanathan places Facebook squarely within the latter tradition. Remember, he sees Zuckerberg at root as an earnest if misguided idealist.

The problem is that both of these philosophies are based on differing notions of corporate libertarianism. Each exalts the business leader as the exemplar to which society should aspire. By embracing a binary view of the corporation’s role, we have, Vaidhyanathan argues, essentially eliminated the public sphere from the discussion of how to solve universal problems. Rather than looking to elected leaders, we look to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Laureen Powell Jobs, and, yes, Mark Zuckerberg. We embrace “innovation” rather than real progress that benefits everyone. Given the state of our politics, that might seem like logical behavior. But it’s also behavior based on the nostrum popularized by Ronald Reagan that government is the problem, not the solution. Say something often enough over the course of nearly four decades and it becomes true.

There is some hope. Although Vaidhyanathan doesn’t mention it, there are signs that journalism is becoming less dependent on Facebook. According to the web metrics firm Chartbeat, news organizations are seeing a decreasing amount of referral traffic from Facebook and an increasing amount of direct traffic to their websites and other digital platforms. “The increase in direct traffic matters because it enables publishers to control their own destiny,” writes Lucia Moses of Digiday. “They have more data on reader behavior, which enables them to better target readers with more content and offers for subscriptions and other revenue drivers.” Given the parlous state of the news business, any shift away from Facebook is a positive development.

Moreover, there are signs that we have reached peak Facebook, with young people in particular turning away from the service. According to Hanna Kozlowska, writing in Quartz, Facebook usage among 12- to 24-year-olds is declining, and overall usage in the United States and Canada is starting to shrink as well. That’s not to say Facebook is about to go the way of Friendster or MySpace. But perhaps a shrinking user base, combined with the controversy and legal woes Zuckerberg is dealing over privacy violations and other scandals, will lead to a kinder, gentler Facebook.

Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan says, it’s up to us. “Reviving a healthy social and political life would require a concerted recognition of the damage Facebook has done and a campaign to get beyond its spell,” he writes. “If millions were urged to put Facebook in its proper place, perhaps merely as a source of social and familial contact rather than political knowledge or activism, we could train ourselves out of the habit.” Later he writes: “Resistance is futile. But resistance seems necessary.”

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Beset by bad news of its own making, the ZuckerBorg faces its Myspace moment

When Mark Zuckerberg looks in the mirror these days, does he see Tom from Myspace looking back?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Is Facebook looking at its Myspace moment? The blockbuster news that data scientists working on the Trump campaign rifled through the personal data of some 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge surely represents a new and disturbing low. But it’s been a long, long time since there was anything even remotely positive to say about the ZuckerBorg.

From creepy psychological experiments to advertising aimed at “Jew haters,” from the manipulation of its Trending Topics feed to the proliferation of Russian-backed fake news, Facebook is looking more and more like a uniquely malign influence in our lives. The question is whether Mark Zuckerberg and company, in their arrogance and greed, have dealt themselves a blow from which they will not recover. No doubt Facebook will be with us for many years to come — after all, Myspace is still with us, sort of. (I’ll bet you didn’t know that.) But Facebook’s reach and influence, already on the wane by some measures, may start to shrink in serious, measurable ways.

The latest, reported jointly by The New York Times and The Observer of London (the Sunday edition of The Guardian), is complex in its details but devastatingly simple in its conclusions. Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling operation backed by the wealthy Mercer family, used subterfuge “to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate,” as the Times put it. The data breach — not a theft but, rather, an abuse of Facebook’s rules — enabled an analysis of “whether a particular voter was, say, a neurotic introvert, a religious extrovert, a fair-minded liberal or a fan of the occult,” the Times reported.

“We exploited Facebook to harvest millions of people’s profiles,” a whistleblower named Christopher Wylie told The Observer. “And built models to exploit what we knew about them and target their inner demons. That was the basis the entire company was built on.”

The Cambridge Analytica side of the story is a rich one, and it includes details such as how the Mercers and their hired thug, Stephen Bannon, set up the company as a shell to hide its ties to the British-based SCL Group (it would be a crime for a foreign company to work on a U.S. political campaign) and how SCL, in turn, has ties to Ukrainian and Russian interests (but of course).

But as I’ve argued before, the idea that voters can be manipulated by the dark arts practiced by the likes of SCL and Cambridge Analytica is unproven. The false propaganda spewed daily by the likes of Sean Hannity and Breitbart (another Mercer-backed operation) is far more influential, I suspect, than Facebook ads specially tailored to “neurotic introverts.” What really worries me — and should worry you, too — is not what this says about President Trump’s 2016 campaign but what it says about the risks we take whenever we log onto Facebook.

Not that this should be news, but Facebook makes its money by engaging in the same kinds of psychological manipulation that the Mercers have tried to apply to politics. It uses that manipulation to keep you on the platform for hours at a time, all the while showing you ads based on how you use the service — what you post, what you “like,” what you comment on.

The Cambridge Analytica breach came about through a pretty typical Facebook activity. Several hundred thousand users were paid to take a personality test, and they agreed to share their Facebook usage patterns in return. Incredibly, at the time Facebook allowed researchers to scoop up the same data from the test-takers’ friends, unbeknownst to them, which is how the number grew to 50 million. Facebook’s response is that, well, you know, that’s not what the rules said you could do with the data. Sorry.

Now Facebook is in big trouble — not only in the United States, where, among other things, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has launched an investigation, but in Britain, where SCL is suspected of interfering in the Brexit vote, and where regulation of corporations such as Facebook is taken rather more seriously than it is in the colonies. Even here, though, The Washington Post reports that Facebook could be hit with “many millions of dollars in fines” for violating a 2011 consent decree to protect users’ privacy. (Theoretically the fine could reach $2 trillion, although the Post cautions that’s unlikely to happen.)

Which brings me back to the Myspace analogy. As you may recall, Myspace was the big social network of the previous decade, succeeding a nearly forgotten service called Friendster. Myspace founder and “first friend” Tom Anderson’s smiling face became an iconic symbol of the early days of social media. The service became enough of a mass phenomenon that eventually Rupert Murdoch took notice and bought it. But Myspace’s dominance didn’t last long; in 2008 Facebook took the lead in total users. In the hazy mists of our collective memory, it might seem that Facebook was just better — more technologically sophisticated, easier to use. And that’s true. Myspace tended to look like a vintage 1990s-era Geocities web page.

But Myspace made some huge blunders, too. More than anything, it allowed itself to become a sleazy outpost that ended up driving users away. As Amy Lee of The Huffington Post put it in 2011, “The network had started to flood with scantily clad would-be celebrities, filling the site with highly sexualized photos that led to the site’s tarnished reputation as a hotbed of obscenity.” The result, Lee wrote, was something that internet researcher danah boyd compared to “white flight,” with Facebook emerging as “a safe haven for more elite users.”

Would anyone describe Facebook as a safe haven today? Of course, Facebook is far larger than Myspace ever was, and it benefits enormously from the network effect — that is, its main value is that everyone uses it. Nevertheless, some cracks in the foundation have emerged, and it’s possible that what seems impregnable today will turn out to be more fragile than anyone had imagined.

Consider: TechCrunch reported in January that growth in the number of Facebook’s daily active users had slowed during the fourth quarter of 2017, and had actually dropped slightly in the U.S. and Canada. The market research firm eMarketer has found that users who are 24 and younger are leaving Facebook in droves. And just this week, The Wall Street Journal cited new figures from eMarketer showing that Facebook’s share of digital ad revenues is expected to decline in 2018, from 19.9 percent to 19.6 percent — the first shrinkage ever.

Last month Wired magazine published a massive investigation by reporters Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein on Facebook’s two years of hell, starting with accusations that the service had manipulated Trending Topics to stifle conservative voices and culminating in Facebook’s role in propagating fake news. “It’s not easy to recognize that the machine you’ve built to bring people together is being used to tear them apart,” they wrote, noting that Zuckerberg’s initial reaction to the notion that fake news on Facebook may have influenced the election — “a pretty crazy idea” — was seen even within the company as “clueless and self-absorbed.”

So what happens next? Last October, The New York Times published a roundup of ideas for “How to Fix Facebook.” ranging from reducing anonymity to transforming the company into a nonprofit organization. My own suggestion would be for a startup to launch a competing social network without advertising. Users would pay a modest fee — say, $10 a month. And all of the perverse incentives to keep us online and sell us stuff would go away.

I should add that this is not likely to happen. But no one thought Myspace’s time in the limelight would be so short-lived, either. In the digital age new, compelling ideas can catch on very quickly. Just ask Tom.

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No bang, just fizzle: Why Apple’s iPad flopped as a news platform

Photo (cc) 2011 by Global X.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Of all the good technological innovations that were supposedly going to rescue the news business from the bad technological innovations that had laid it low, perhaps none was more highly touted than Apple’s iPad.

Portable, beautiful, and cheaper than a laptop (though not cheap), the iPad would re-create the closed media environment that had prevailed before the rise of the internet. Instead of the web, you’d have apps. Instead of free access, you’d have subscriptions. Instead of frenetic multitasking, you’ve have the relative calm of one-task-at-a-time concentration. It was Steve Jobs’ final creation — the fulfillment of his dreams, according to Walter Isaacson, his biographer. Among those who let their enthusiasm get the better of them was David Carr, The New York Times’ late media columnist, who wrote several weeks before the device’s 2010 debut: “I haven’t been this excited about buying something since I was 8 years old and sent away for the tiny seahorses I saw advertised in the back of a comic book.”

Unfortunately, the iPad has proved to be a huge disappointment for news publishers. The reason, according to Shira Ovide of Bloomberg Businessweek, is that though people like their iPads, they love their smartphones. Sales of the iPad peaked at 71 million in 2013 and slid to about 44 million last year. Meanwhile, about 1.5 billion smartphones were sold in 2017. Against that backdrop, iPad sales are barely a rounding error.

Ovide attributes the iPad’s disappointing performance to the utter failure of Apple’s iBooks to challenge the Amazon Kindle and its library of electronic books. No doubt there’s something to that. I’m sure that the lack of real technological advancement has held back sales, too. I have a third-generation iPad from 2012. Although I’d like a newer, faster model, the improvement would probably not be worth the cost. New phones, on the other hand, generally offer real advances, and we’ve all gotten into the habit of upgrading every two or three years.

How has this affected the news business? We are, of course, consuming lots of news on our phones. But the iPad and other tablets were supposed to offer something different — a “lean back” experience that would mimic reading a newspaper or a magazine.

As Ovide notes, the early days of the iPad saw ambitious experiments like Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily. Moreover, our two leading national papers, the Times and The Washington Post, went all in. The Times offered an attractive iPad-only edition that was a pleasure to use. The Post several years ago unveiled a “national digital edition,” a low-cost, magazine-like product that was updated just twice a day — at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. — for people who wanted to sit down and read rather than bouncing around their phone looking for something to occupy themselves for a few minutes.

Unfortunately, the Times’ iPad edition is no more. Last year it released a universal iOS app for both the iPhone and the iPad that looks and works much better on a phone than on a tablet. The Post’s national digital edition still exists. These days, though, there is far more emphasis on mobile than on leaning back.

“In hindsight, it was a waste, and Jobs led them all on a costly detour,” Ovide writes. “The iPad is important, but it never became the ubiquitous, world-changing computer that Jobs pitched in 2010. Instead, the smartphone — including Apple’s own iPhone — changed the world.”

I should point out that there was skepticism at the time regarding the iPad’s world-changing properties. David Carr himself qualified his enthusiasm by appending this to his seahorse analogy: “Come to think of it, the purchase didn’t really meet my expectations, but with the whole new year thing, a boy can dream, right?” I also expressed reservations about the iPad ahead of its release, writing in The Guardian:

The problem is that the iSlate [as many of us thought the device would be called], rather than making our technological lives simpler, instead amounts to one more object — one more thing — that we have to lug around. It won’t replace our smartphone. And the virtual keyboard ensures that it won’t replace our laptop, either. Do we really need a third internet device to carry with us wherever we go?

Even though I later broke down and bought one, I think that assessment has held up rather well. So here’s another prediction: Technology will not save the news business. In fact, no one thing will save it — but many things might. The iPad is a fine platform on which to consume media. But it was always unrealistic to think that it would save us from the long, hard slog of developing new economic underpinnings for the journalism on which democracy depends.

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Why Apple was right to comply with China’s censorship demands

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Over the weekend Apple removed software from its Chinese App Store that enabled iPhone users to get around censorship laws in that country. The action was widely portrayed as a blow to those working for freedom and human rights in China. And it seemed especially tawdry following as it did the recent death of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo while in Chinese custody.

But I would argue that Apple did the right thing. My intention is not to write a love letter to Apple, whose leadership, I’m sure, was motivated more by commerce rather than by conscience. Nevertheless, Apple’s decision was a welcome example of Americans’ dealing with the world as it is rather than as they wish it to be. Our values are not everyone’s values.

Typical of Apple’s critics is New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, who couldn’t understand why Apple would back down so quickly after successfully fighting the FBI’s demand last year to provide a software key to a terrorist’s iPhone — and, thus, to all other iPhones as well.

“When Apple took a public stand for its users’ liberty and privacy, the American government blinked,” Manjoo wrote. “Yet in China over the weekend, when faced with a broad demand by the Chinese internet authority, it was Apple that blinked.” Yes. But what Manjoo was describing was not situational ethics on Apple’s part. Rather, it was the difference between the United States, a free country ruled by laws, and China, a repressive authoritarian state. In fact, as Manjoo conceded later in his column, Apple would likely have accomplished nothing by pushing back against Chinese officials.

China may show little respect for the rights of its citizens, but it is part of the world community. It makes sense to ban interactions with pariah regimes such as North Korea and Syria, and to prohibit companies from doing business in China in a way that leads to the direct persecution of citizens (something that could in fact arise from Apple’s plan to build a data center in China) or that involves prison labor. But we have no more right to impose our vision of free speech on China than, say, Canada does to insist that we adopt its immigration policies as a condition of doing business.

Besides, even most Western democracies do not have as expansive a view of free speech as we do — yet no one seems to find it outrageous that we accommodate ourselves to their laws when doing business overseas. In the early days of the commercial web, Yahoo was fined $15 million for violating French hate-speech laws that prohibited the display and sale of Nazi memorabilia. Such laws would be regarded in the United States as an outrage against the First Amendment. But of course Europe has a history with hate speech that, so far, we have been fortunate to avoid.

More recently, Google has had to contend with “the right to be forgotten,” as European Union countries — again led by France — have passed laws requiring that certain types of private information be removed from the internet. To comply, Google has set up an “EU Privacy Removal” form that lets users fill out a questionnaire about offending material.

As an online columnist for The Guardian from 2007 to ’11, I had to contend with British libel laws several times. My editors told me that some of my media and political commentary had to be toned down even though it wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in this country. Indeed, at one time it was common for plaintiffs to engage in “libel tourism,” filing suits in the U.K. because they were more likely to win there than in the U.S. Reforms have made that less of an issue, but it is still far easier to win a libel suit in London than in New York. The difference is that, under the First Amendment, speech about public officials and public figures is protected except when it is egregiously and deliberately false.

All of this, I realize, is rather far afield from the oppression and violence experienced by anyone in China who refuse to conform. These examples do show, however, that American businesses see nothing abnormal about adapting their practices to other countries’ laws and traditions, even on fundamental values like freedom of expression.

In 1940 Sen. Kenneth Wherry, a Nebraska Republican, cast an eye toward China and declared, “With God’s help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.” It was a naive view of American exceptionalism then, and it is expressed today by those who think we can use our economic leverage to bend China to our will.

We can’t, and Apple’s executives recognize that. Despite its repression, China today is freer than it was when Richard Nixon made his historic visit. We can hope that it will be more free in the future. By engaging with the Chinese on their own terms, we might be able slowly help that process along.

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Trump, technology and the enduring appeal of conspiracy theories

Illustration via Pixabay

Last week Zack Beauchamp of Vox explained on the public radio program “On the Media” why liberals want to believe in outlandish conspiracies about President Trump. “One expert I spoke to on political misinformation said that conspiracy theories were a weapon of the weak,” he said. “They were a way to understand and make sense out of the world when it doesn’t seem to make sense to you or seems hostile to you.”

Beauchamp was referring specifically to the ridiculous drivel promoted by Louise Mensch, a former British parliamentarian whose disinformation campaign has taken in a few Trump critics who should have known better. (A sample: Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and House Speaker Paul Ryan were all about to be arrested because of their ties to Russia).

But I think Beauchamp’s insight is also useful in thinking about a couple of other theories making the rounds among liberals who are trying to explain why a boorish lout like Trump won: his campaign’s use of big data, funded by the shadowy Mercer family, and the proliferation of dubious pro-Trump websites and bot-controlled Twitter accounts.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

The closing of the internet: Why online privacy and net neutrality matter to all of us

Jim Sensenbrenner. Photo (cc) 2008 by the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.

It’s hard to imagine a less likely viral video sensation than Republican congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. But there he was last week, all 73 years of him, wagging his finger at a constituent concerned about online privacy and telling her, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.”

Sensenbrenner’s lecture was a clarifying moment in the debate over the future of online privacy and digital democracy. After eight years of the Obama administration, whose telecommunications policies were more often than not in the public interest, President Trump and his Republican allies are rushing headlong into a future that is of, by and for the telecom companies. It’s a debate that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as it should — and that could set the tone for how we communicate with one another for at least a generation.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And talk about this post on Facebook.

The web is no longer a place we visit. It’s how we live.

Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn't much good.
Before the web, there was Prodigy. And no, it wasn’t much good.

The web—or, as we used to call it, the World Wide Web—is 25 years old this month. On August 6, 1991, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who had outlined his idea for the web two years earlier, published the first website. It was, as the Telegraph put it, “a basic text page with hyperlinked words that connected to other pages.”

Those of us who were there at the beginning understood that this was a big deal. Even so, the revolution it launched could not have been imagined. As Virginia Heffernan put it in her recent book Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, “The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization.” And the web provides the road map that makes the internet navigable.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

Slides for my AEJMC talk on recording and transcribing

Doing this on my phone. I’ll try to pretty this up later, but for now, just click here.

Virginia Heffernan’s random but rewarding Magic and Loss

Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.
Virginia Heffernan. Photo via The Cube.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A half-century after Marshall McLuhan warned us that our media tools shape who we are (“The medium is the message”), and a half-dozen years after Nicholas Carr lamented that the Internet was undermining our ability to read and think in a linear, coherent manner, Virginia Heffernan has written a book that proves both of them right.

Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art (Simon & Schuster, 272 pages, $26) is an honest-to-God book, with paper, ink, and a binding. (Or so I’ve heard. I downloaded the Kindle version.) Reading it, though, feels more like randomly browsing the web than it does like reading a book.

Look here: An essay on the aesthetics of Instagram and Flickr photography. Click. An argument that closed apps offer a better—yet more elitist—experience than the open web. Click. A discussion of epigrammatic poetry demonstrating that its most influential practitioners would have been right at home on Twitter. (Blaise Pascal’s “Do you wish people to believe good of you? Don’t speak,” published in 1669, takes up just 58 characters.) Click. Newton Minow did all of us a favor by calling television “a vast wasteland,” since it imbued the young medium with the transgressive quality that all great art needs. Click.

But if Heffernan offers us a lot of little ideas, she has a big one as well: that the Internet giveth, and it taketh away. At 46, she isn’t quite a digital native, though she’s certainly more of one than I am. Perhaps more relevant is that she’s been around just long enough to experience the digital revolution in its many forms. The good and bad of life online is clearer to her than it would be to someone 20 years younger.

“The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization,” she writes, adding: “As an idea it rivals monotheism.” But even monotheism has its drawbacks. In her chapter on music, for instance, she offers a compelling argument on what has been lost as music was transformed from performers on a stage to tinny, ultracompressed sounds that you listen to on your smartphone. (Click. A diversion into the rise of military headphones in World War II and how returning veterans embraced them as a way to listen to music while tuning out the rest of the family.)

Of course, the assertion that MP3s offer sound quality inferior to the CDs and LPs that preceded them is hardly novel. But Heffernan gives it an unexpected twist, writing that she bought her first iPod around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and that she welcomed a mechanical tone untethered from the messy reality of how music is actually supposed to sound. (But Norah Jones? Really?) Only later did she realize that she missed “the echo of the chirp of the bassist’s sneakers on the wooden stage as he nervously kicks his foot or the sound of the backup singer’s lungs still metabolizing pot smoke.”

There is more, much more—on the humanistic orientation of technologists like Steve Jobs versus the cold rationality of scientists; on the aesthetic differences between electricity (“the province of the engineer and the rationalist”) and electronics (“the province of the irrationalist, the deconstructionist, the druggie, and the mystic”).

Heffernan ties these disparate strands together in a closing chapter that starts off as annoyingly self-indulgent but ends with a measure of humility and grace. She traces her development from an Episcopalian-turned-Jew-turned-Episcopalian (with detours into something like atheism); as someone who rejected philosophy in favor of literary criticism (she has a Ph.D. in English from Harvard); and as the author of a widely mocked 2013 essay titled “Why I’m a Creationist,” whose ethos (“They say it works even if you don’t believe in it,” she writes, quoting a physicist Twitter friend) remains a guidepost for her.

I started out reading Magic and Loss hoping to glean some ideas that would be useful for my work as a journalist and academic who writes about journalism. What I encountered was an extended meditation on the nature of art and God, on immortality and death. Heffernan has written a book that is by turns frustrating and insightful—and that always aims high.

Did Verizon pull a fast one on Marty Walsh?

At Universal Hub, cybah analyzes two Huffington Post articles by Bruce Kushnick, executive director of the New Networks Institute, and concludes that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh may have gotten taken for a ride by Verizon.

Let me cut to the chase: Apparently Verizon’s $300 million deal to provide FiOS broadband service to homes and businesses in Boston is a lot less than it seems. Instead, Verizon may be planning to install wireless transmitters on utility poles around the city for two reasons: (1) it costs a whole lot less and (2) it would allow the company to avoid being regulated as a full-fledged cable provider.

I have not delved into this deeply. This is more of an assignment-desk post: well worth following up by local journalists.

More: Additional context from local media and technology activist Saul Tanenbaum, writing for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.