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Jun 23, 2016

June 22, 2016  By Andrew Keen

Virginia Heffernan’s new book Magic and Loss isn’t shy about its significance. “Just as Susan Sontag did for photography and Marshall McLuhan did for television, Virginia Heffernan illuminates the logic, aesthetics and mysteries of the Internet,” its jacket claims. And the early reviews have been positive, the New York Times, for example,describing it as “an enjoyable snapshot” which “embraces the Internet as a work in progress.”

So I emailed Heffernan to see if she wanted to chat about the book.

“Interested”? I asked.

“Very, let’s start!” she emailed back within twenty seconds (as if she’d been expecting my invitation).

That’s the magic of our Internet age.

* * * *

Andrew Keen: So you’ve written this impassioned defense of Internet culture—of online music, design, video and, above all, writing. But why write a conventional text about it? Shouldn’t you have posted your thoughts on Medium, Instagram or YouTube? Why the book? Why an old medium for a new message?

Virginia Heffernan: Magic and Loss, while it aims to temper anxiety about the Internet, is not a defense of anything. In showing that the Internet is art, I don’t argue that it’s utopia—far from it. Our online civilization contains agony and ecstasy, magic and loss. I chose to publish this book on a distribution schedule that, in 2016, is more improvised than traditional. I published some material in print and online first, tested out ideas in person at podiums and in classrooms, shared a document in the Cloud with my editors, edited and fact-checked from a PDF, published excerpts and videos and images on social media, and now have released an e-book, an MP3 audiobook and a three-dimensional book in online and ordinary bookstores. Publication now involves a radical hybrid of analog and digital media. I love e-books and audiobooks, as well as ordinary books, but this is only my second time out, so it’s still exciting to see a box of my own hardcover books I can give to family and friends! I might have missed that excitement if I’d gone digital-only—I’m not sure. You never know when the pangs of loss, brought on by the meteor-hit of digitization, might kick in.

AK: Yes, I was particularly taken with the agony and loss in Magic and Loss. It’s an intimate and sometimes painful confessional of your earlier life. I was struck by the nostalgia permeating much of the book. Digital technology—especially its discovery as an adolescent—seems to have shaped your life. Jaron Lanier wrote that he was “nostalgic” for the future. When you write about the Internet, are you writing about the past or the future?

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