Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
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.
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.
Now that information about Ron Paul’s long-known ties to white-supremacist groups such as Stormfront has finally gone mainstream, it’s time for the media to dig into a particularly incendiary tidbit.
Four years ago, conservative blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs reported that the Vanguard News Network, “one of the ugliest neo-Nazi sites on the Web,” was complaining that Paul had whispered sweet nothings in their ear while taking a very different stance in public.
Johnson reproduced part of a post by Bill White, the “commander” of the American National Socialist Workers Party, who wrote:
Both Congressman Paul and his aides regularly meet with members of the Stormfront set, American Renaissance, the Institute for Historic Review, and others at the Tara Thai restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, usually on Wednesdays. This is part of a dinner that was originally organized by Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis and Joe Sobran, and has since been mostly taken over by the Council of Conservative Citizens.
I have attended these dinners, seen Paul and his aides there, and been invited to his offices in Washington to discuss policy….
Paul is a white nationalist of the Stormfront type who has always kept his racial views and his views about world Judaism quiet because of his political position.
At the time, New York Times blogger Virginia Heffernan made mention of Johnson’s findings and got slapped down in an “editor’s note” for passing along “unverified assertions” and for failing to contact Paul for comment. You can no longer find Heffernan’s post at NYTimes.com, but I wrote about it for the Guardian. I also sent an email to the Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, asking why a Times blogger was being punished for blogging, but I never received a response.
So when is it appropriate to write about the claims of the “commander” of a neo-Nazi group? I’m not sure there’s a good answer. As Johnson began his item four years ago, “Take this one with a grain of salt, please.” But given that the Times today goes page-one with a detailed report about Paul’s ties to Stormfront and other white-supremacist groups, it seems to me that White’s assertions are relevant and worth checking out.
And given the facts that we now know about Paul, it doesn’t seem too outlandish to believe he might have sat down and broken bread with these hate-mongering whack jobs.
It’s interesting to see this stuff finally going public. As I recall, Paul was doing well in the polls four years ago, too. But I guess since he was in no position actually to win the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, as he is (or was) today, the executives at major news organizations saw no need to devote the resources needed to investigate Paul’s background.
Paul’s last defense seems to be that though these groups support him, he doesn’t support them, and that he’ll accept help from anyone who offers it. Which means that he may not actually be a racist in the sense of believing that non-whites are genetically inferior to whites. But how finely do Paul’s supporters want to parse this?
And here’s some fresh goodness from Charles Johnson, who has stayed on Paul’s case.
Photo (cc) by R. DeYoung and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.