Why the Internet Is the Greatest Achievement of Any Civilization, Ever | Virginia Heffernan

Why the Internet Is the Greatest Achievement of Any Civilization, Ever | Virginia Heffernan


I see the Internet as the great masterpiece
of human civilization, to which we’re all contributing all the time the nearly four
billion of us with wireless access across the globe. And the reason I call it art is that the building
blocks of this enterprise, the Internet, seem obscure, it seems like this must be the tubes
or code or a complex surveillance state or operation of various huge tech companies. In fact what we’re looking at and interacting
with are ancient forms, including text and short form text that for centuries has been
known as lyric poetry. And two-dimensional images that bear are a
lot of resemblance to frescoes and even cave drawings that we now see the same tropes being
resurrected on first Flickr and then Instagram and Snapchat. We see on YouTube we see performance and it
music that might have belonged to the ancient Greeks. And, of course, we see music in the form of
digitized music, MP3s, Lossless music streaming on title. So it’s very difficult to me to see it as
not art. These are exactly the building blocks of civilization,
the artifacts that have determined civilization, an increasing civilization. So rather than see us as going to more coarseness
and barbarism with the Internet I see this as increasing civility, increasing organization
and a natural progress of civilization. The Internet does have the hallmarks of a
move that we see in the culture since ancient times to increasing abstraction. So online where certain interactions might
have taken place in an actual mob with actual fisticuffs, now you see those things happening
on Twitter in the so-called Twitter mob with a kind of symbolic aggression that can be
just as unnerving to witness. But as far as damage to physical bodies it’s
much kinder. And so there is a great book about the arguments
for capitalism before it’s triumph up by a writer Albert Hirschman. And he points out that capitalism had a sweetening
effect. He calls it a sweetening effect. Dusar. It brought a level of – commerce brought
a level of civilization to what might have been a war like interaction among peoples. I see the Internet on a continuum with that. I also like many other writers, especially
early writers about the Internet see a religious and almost theological component to the Internet. I came to the Internet by chance in 1979;
ARPANET era, the era of the eve networks. I was a child. I lucked into a so-called dumb terminal that
I could dial in with a modem and a coupler to a mainframe computer in the middle of my
New Hampshire town. And when I looked at that screen, that dark,
dark background and then the phosphor green letters in the front I wanted to know what
was out there. I wanted to know what was in that squeal and
crash of information I heard on my modem, I heard on the coupler on the telephone. And that speculation about what that deep
space behind the letters might comprise or what the Macintosh and iPhone interface is
keeping from us, you know, what that friendly interface is hiding from us, what that mystery
back there is that can’t be explained in simple engineering terms, it’s at this point indistinguishable
from magic as Arthur C Clarke said. I believe that the form of the tradition that
the Internet partakes of is realism. That doesn’t mean that it actually represents
the world. Photography is a realist form. It’s not deliberately artful. It purports to represent the world as it is. Then you look at daguerreotypes photos, you
look at Matthew Brady photos of the Civil War and you see all kinds of art, all kinds
of posing, all kinds of formal conventions that hamstring it, even as it claims to represent
the world as it is. Now, the same is true of film. The resistance to three-dimensional film recently
has said well film already accurately represents the world. Well, the introduction of prospective in the
renaissance made painting more “realistic,” depth is an actual component of experience. So to say that 3-D that adding a third dimension,
that adding depth is not a way to more accurately represented the world, at least short sales
or represents like a high investment in the realism of two-dimensional film. A real credulity about how well we’re representing
the world as it is. And that illusion, the illusion that we’re
getting closer and closer to more realistically representing the world is one that we have
all the time. Every new technology, including science and
the compasses and sextants of analog culture claim to represent the world as it is. And the arts have followed that too, except
for that defiant pushback on the realist forms that we see with impressionism or say punk
music. I see in the rise of vinyl, the renaissance
in vinyl sells a love inaccurately representing musical symbols. So the so-called representative form that
is the MP3 compressed musical technology aims to be super true to the idea of high, high,
high fidelity, sharp realist representation of music. Well, the vinyl sound, the muddy or sound,
the more mediated sound, the sound of that signals that there are dust particles and
air and depth and grooves has a certain humanness to it that the impressionists captured when
they left off trying to capture the world as it is and captured a subjective experience
of the world. So yes, I believe that the illusion that the
Internet not only represents life accurately but is life, is an illusion and it’s an illusion
we should be very aware of.

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