The Information Sage

This year, Internet guru Virginia Heffernan headlines our benefit dinner. Find out more about attending the dinner.

Virginia HeffernanDavid TebaldiMass Humanities Executive Director David Tebaldi talks to our annual symposium panelist and Internet writer Virginia Heffernan on just where the rabbit hole of the Web is taking us.

David Tebaldi: You have a Ph.D. in English literature from Harvard. What was your area of specialization? Were you contemplating an academic career at that time?

Virginia Heffernan: My dissertation is on American naturalist fiction; it used a methodology that was briefly, thrillingly known as the New Economic Criticism. I tried to discover how the dynamics of price inflation inform novels written in boom/bust times. I absolutely thought I'd be an academic. I did, though, take a year off and worked as a fact-checker at The New Yorker. Even after I went back to Harvard, I kept working as a journalist to supplement my teaching fellowship, and then to subsidize my dissertation writing.

DT: In a recent column about Facebook that seems to have generated a robust response from readers, you make an interesting observation: “the Facebook greeting carries something like eye contact, recognition and a smile—humanness—which is, paradoxically, what people most fervently traffic in within the shimmering cyberworld of the Internet.” In what ways are social media more “human” than more traditional forms of communication?

VH: I'm not sure what's true of all social media, but it's true that you never know where humanness can achieve value. Manual slips of needles on records, or dust on vinyl, are what some audiophiles identify with “warmth” and contribute to the impression that vinyl is more human than .mp3 technology. Cell phone calls, to me, mangle and inhibit human voices and silences so violently that they are interesting only insofar as they're efficient…unlike analog calls, which—at least to teenagers and  sweethearts—used to be filled with breath and timbre and the exhalation of smoke and suspense. Humanness. I asked Nicholson Baker not long ago, since he writes about sex and technology, if he thought there was beauty and range to sexting, and he told me there absolutely is.

DT: Critiques of digital media seem to fall into two camps: utopian and dystopian, with the dystopians far outnumbering the utopians. What do you think about this? Is it just that disaster stories sell so much better than feel-good stories?

VH: There's a great deal of suffering and anxiety around the question of what will happen to analog totems (like books) as well as predigital jobs (like photo editors). These artifacts and jobs defined our emotional and intellectual lives as well as our livelihoods. Sometimes digitization feels like we're having our hearts and brains transplanted, and we're losing our jobs at the same time. Zombie movies are enjoying a renaissance. No wonder there are dystopian visions around. I feel that acutely. And this pain is not going to pass, any more than the pain involved in other self-styled revolutions passed.

I'm not in either camp. But I would advise everyone to do as yogis tell us and “sit with our feelings.” If digitization frightens or bores you, a reaction that seems more meaningful might lie in these practices: in the revival of vinyl and papermaking, in DIY culture, in the new run on live music, in foodie culture.

DT: In a recent opinion piece in your newspaper, the critic Neal Gabler, a dystopian, bemoans the fact that knowing, or collecting information, has supplanted thinking. He goes on to say that social networking sites “engender habits of mind that are inimical to the kind of deliberate discourse that gives rise to ideas.” Do you agree?

VH: No. Gabler argues that we are in a bona fide Dark Ages. I don't believe this, but I respect the pain in it. Far from devaluing ideas, the tech world has priced ideas—and I mean ideas that would look like ideas to Gabler—so sky-high lately that Marshall McLuhan (a Gabler hero) probably wouldn't have made it through the door at TED. TED peddles ideas at least as charismatic (and only sometimes as thin) as Norman Mailer's big ideas and “the end of ideology,” which Gabler cites as products of the heyday of real thinking. Not to mention big life-changing algorithms and code and design ideas, which are all too many to mention in the last two decades.

DT: Do you think digital media presents opportunities or only challenges to education, especially K-12 education? Do digital media promote any important cognitive skills?

VH: I don't believe I can lift out skills from experiences any more than I could lift out messages from media or thoughts from language (à la Wittgenstein). So while chess apps really do teach young kids to play chess—movement of pieces, strategy, repose—much faster, and with fewer tears than a classroom teacher can, who cares if kids learn chess? Unless it's fun. In which case, it's okay that chess apps are just fun, too. But the main thing is not to use technology to teach certain skills just because they're heartwarming to adults who grew up analog. It's also important not to avoid teaching a technological skill just because it seems heart-sinking. Kids should be shown how to master the digital world that's around them and then be given the tools to get critical distance from it.

DT: What do you think of the often mentioned analogy between Google and a public utility? Do you think Google ought to be regulated?

VH: I think two things: I believe Google genuinely is missiondriven— not evil; and I believe Google has too much power. For all its mission, Google will not opt to check its own power; no entity ever does. But competitors, as hard as that is to imagine at a time when Bing is a punch line, might yet catch up to it. The ecosystem of the Internet can change very quickly. Bing is already coming up with richer answers to some queries than Google does. You should try it, if you haven't. The social networks have taken on the operations of search in many ways, too. I now look for people on Facebook, and “what people are saying” on Twitter; I might have used Google for these in the past. We might get an oligopoly in search, where we now have a functional monopoly. It's my strong preference to let the free market take this one, but that's mostly because the antitrust noise around Google sounds like resentment. I'm not sure where I stand on Google's purported violations of the Sherman Act, or its parallels with Microsoft in 1995. These investigations strike me as expressing not ethical concerns but the concerns of competitors.

DT: And Wikipedia. In a recent conversation with a brilliant historian, I mentioned that a well-known story she repeated about the death of William Henry Harrison is tagged as apocryphal in his Wikipedia entry. Her utter disdain for Wikipedia as a reliable source of information was palpable.

VH: There's a line in a poem by Louise Bogan, about Don Juan, that comes to mind when I think about faith and doubt. It's this: “What the wise doubt, the fool believes. Who is it, then, that love deceives?” Bogan's idea, I think, is that you can be deceived by faith (when you believe something that turns out not to be true) but you can also be deceived by doubt (when you doubt something that turns out to be true). I find it fascinating that the accredited historian believes a story that Wikipedia doubts. This stand against Wikipedia is an inversion of the old anti-digital line that the Internet is a credulous place, filled with superstitions and conspiracy theories and all kinds of baloney. At this moment, to [your] historian, the Internet is filled with misleading doubt. The resistance to Wikipedia is an interesting block that journalists, historians, academics, and educators ought to interrogate. I generally ask that writers and academics register as editors at Wikipedia. As long as the Google algorithm puts Wikipedia at the top of search results, and as long as Google controls search, it's urgently important that as many people from as many different backgrounds as possible register as Wikipedia editors. No one ought to complain about Wikipedia if they're not working on it. That's the representation that the Internet affords us, while taxing us in many other ways.

DT: I heard recently about a Web site called “If I die dot org” where you can store messages and documents that will be sent or accessed only after you die. I heard about another Web site that scans and stores all your tweets and predicts (rather badly for the moment) what your next tweet will be. It doesn't take much to imagine combining these two technologies so that people can communicate with “you” after you die. Throw all your digital communications (blogs, Facebook, etc.) into the mix. The combined Web site could even create an avatar of you based on every digital image of you that exits in cyberspace, and make it change over time as you “age.” This kind of thing would have seemed so far out there just a few years ago and now it seems like, “Oh, yeah, that's cool.” Is it cool?

VH: It doesn't take much to imagine? Yes, it does take much! I never would have thought of it, and I'm impressed. I hope you've been to GoDaddy and locked down “digital afterlife dot com” by now, and made some Sand Hill Road calls. Very early in the life of the Web, Timothy Leary, who was then dying, said he could live forever on the Web, as long as his Web site survived. For years, people have been leaving messages for the dead on the Internet—on guestbook sites, on Facebook, on blogs and message boards. But people always need places to park their prayers. As a mysterious, placeless incarnation of a kind of massive collective consciousness, the Internet makes a good case for itself as a place for prayers. Like the night sky or the wind. It's not that I think Web eschatology is “cool,” exactly. I think it's natural, somehow.