The Internet as Art
The Internet May Be Humankind's Greatest Masterpiece

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Writer Virginia Heffernan fell in love with the Internet through the strains of Pachelbel's Canon.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "GUITAR")

MARTIN: It was January of 2006, and this video appeared on YouTube in its early days.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "GUITAR")

MARTIN: The musician is a guy named funtwo, and the video is called simply, "Guitar." Virginia Heffernan had been reviewing television for The New York Times, a plum assignment where she spent a ton of time watching beautifully composed visuals. So this funtwo video captivated her. It was raw, unpolished.

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN: All of a sudden, this thing that looked so different. You know, it was like you'd been used to men in suits and all of a sudden you saw the - your first hippie. He doesn't care that he's completely backlit. He doesn't care that his face is obscured. Like, he's playing into a web camera that's just attached to his computer. There are fewer than zero production values.

MARTIN: Heffernan was hooked. Her new book, "Magic And Loss: The Internet As Art," traces her own experience with the web and strips the technology away to reveal the beauty. Beauty, she says, that can make us feel insignificant and overwhelmed.

HEFFERNAN: Google organizes all the world's information. There's no way that one small person in our small, fathom-long bodies could imagine containing all that information or even slaking our thirst from it. But instead of admiring the sublime quality of what Google has managed to do, of what the Internet offers, we often just feel that inadequacy so strongly.

So instead of saying wow, these are the Alps and I'm tiny, we end up beholding the Internet and then telling ourselves that we must be brain-damaged because we can't take all this in. And I knew there was a way to stay sane in the face of the sublime, the face of the potentially overwhelming, and not sell our souls to try to approximate it.

MARTIN: There is this idea, though, propagated in elite intellectual circles that the Internet represents the end of culture, right? Social media in particular brings out the worst in humanity. We're addicted to our phones to such a degree that we ignore our kids. There's porn everywhere - just the click of a mouse. Youtube videos can distract us from real issues, real life, some say. You argue that the Internet itself is not just that. It is actually a giant artistic collaboration. How so?

HEFFERNAN: I think the other thing I brought to the funtwo video, that first video I loved on YouTube, was a real familiarity as a TV critic with writing about television that was on the arts pages of The New York Times next to opera, dance reviews, theater reviews, book reviews - all these things that we consider arts, but was in other sections of the paper and in the culture at large considered a public health hazard.

So how we were publishing articles saying television shortens your attention span, fattens us up, makes us lazy, makes us lethargic, and then on the arts pages talking about palette, talking about structure, talking about language, talking about characters, talking about pacing and music - all the things that you associate with art criticism.

I decided to make a virtue of that. Television - and later the Internet - gets some of its virtues in opposition to a culture that also calls it diseased. It's very energizing for a new art form or energizing for a new cultural form - like it was for punk music, like it was for Shakespeare's bawdy plays and comedies, like it was even for sentimental novels to be called bad for you - what makes you indulge in it more.

It drives up the price of it so people start writing better and better. And with television, it ended in these so-called binge-worthy shows that are maxi-movies and certainly on par with the best movies in the theater right now.

MARTIN: Point me to some examples of how you think about the Internet as art. It's not just a place - and I mean beyond just the fact that an artist can literally post their art online and drive sales. You are making a bigger statement about the collective contribution of all our thoughts and ideas into some artistic good. How do you see that? How do you unpack that?

HEFFERNAN: Matthew Arnold called the arts the best that has been thought and said in the world. And if Google has had its way and has - is at least on a continuum with organizing all the world's information, then we have the worst and the best of what's been thought and said in the world increasingly on the Internet.

Let's just take tweets, for example. You're slaving over a very short-form kind of communication that you have to keep to characters. Anyone who experimented with writing - forget even about haiku, but, like, really challenging acrostics or villanelles knows that there's something fun about trying to fit a thought into a tight form like that.

You also have to account for the fact that you're shouting people out in a tweet, which is very much what Pope and Dryden and some of the Tory satirists did, you know, in the history of poetry. And then you also are writing, like, in a cryptic way because, you know, sometimes you want to send a signal to some people and you want to send a signal to other people. Sometimes you want to do - be very aggressive and controlling. Sometimes you just want to be a good citizen and kind of give a, like, hooray or applause to someone else. Those are all different personalities of poets.

Then you end up trying to create something that's consequential, that could potentially, because we're in a world that gives a lot of credit and power to poetry or these - whatever we want call these 140-character-long epigrams - they could get people fired. They could get people elected. They could divide friends. They could unite friends. They could brighten someone's day or wreck someone's day.

MARTIN: It has power, yeah.

HEFFERNAN: It has power. I don't know the last time that a New Yorker poem - you know, which is nothing against The New Yorker, but that's the highest achievement of - still the highest achievement, I think, of American poets is to appear in The New Yorker - that a New Yorker poem was quoted and, you know, in an analog way retweeted and that had, you know, giant effects on our culture. So, like, slaving over language to make it consequential, writing very formally and writing, you know, for a big - potentially big audience with impact? That sounds like we are in the age of poetry. I - it's hard to think of a time when poetry was more powerful.

MARTIN: Are we a more literate culture because of the Internet today?

HEFFERNAN: I think we are reading more than ever before. It's true that bibliophilia, which is what the 20th century - you know, the love of books is. The 20th century associated literacy and learning with a love of books, of the codex that, you know, has a right-left page, and has a cover, and can be collected, and can collect dust and be in libraries. That was a 20th-century phenomenon. In this century, we are so literate, such fanatical readers - let's put it this way - that you will risk a fatal car accident to continue, quote, "texting," literally interacting with text. Reading it, writing it - it is our chief intoxicant, writing and consuming words.

MARTIN: Virginia Heffernan writes about digital culture for The New York Times Magazine. Her new book is called "Magic And Loss: The Internet As Art." Virginia, thanks so much.

HEFFERNAN: Thank you, Rachel.

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