A Halo of Pixels: The Internet as Religion, not Art

Art and the Internet are hardly strangers. In the last decade-plus we’ve already cycled through net art, new media art, post-Internet art, and frantically onward, with each new movement and manifesto trying to formulate aesthetic principles and create works that respond to the dominance of networked computing over modern life.

Even when released onto the web, though, these have mostly been creations of the artworld. In Magic and Loss, Virginia Heffernan hopes to reorient the discussion by construing our everyday use of the Internet as a kind of art-making. “The Internet,” she proposes, “is a massive and collaborative work of realist art,” an idea she tentatively fleshes out by analogy with participatory games such as MMORPGs. As a vehicle for its own distinctive forms of aesthetic experience, it constitutes “the great masterpiece of human civilization.”

Heffernan writes as an unabashed enthusiast, suffused with affection for the minute choices that shape digital design. Perhaps the best precedent for her project is Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. Barthes wrote about the particulars of daily life—adverts, wrestling, plastic, steak and chips—in order to show how they are governed by the hidden logic of signs. Heffernan seems to be following this model, with chapters dedicated to design, images, text, video, and music. Photostreams, blogs, podcasts, tweets: these are our vehicles of everyday expression, pressed into service for everything from Presidential policy statements to our most intimate exchanges.

As worthwhile as this sounds, Magic and Loss by and large fails to make good on its ambitious promises. It frequently resembles a hodge-podge of columns or observations loosely strung together, rarely cohering into an overarching argument or narrative. (Or, to recall a dead analog metaphor, it skips around like a needle on a scratched record.) Even the book’s main target is elusive. Heffernan uses “the Internet” to refer not to the physical infrastructure of cables, routers, and servers, nor to the network structure defined by the protocol stacks that these systems use to communicate. Instead, it serves as a metonym for all of the ways that humans interact with the devices that are connected to this underlying network. This can mean the web in general, particular sites like YouTube, social media platforms like Twitter or Mastodon, iPhone apps and games, or devices like the Kindle and Oculus Rift that may not even be inherently networked, but are all part of the shimmering technological surroundings of our lives.

The problem for Heffernan is that in terms of audience, content, interface, governing norms, subjective experience, and affective tone, these have little in common. There is no “Internet aesthetic” that binds them together. Nor can they all be subsumed under her briefly sketched ludic analogy. True, social media involves the construction of avatars that serve as idealized proxy versions of ourselves. And websites often aim to profit by using gamified interfaces to keep users on-site. Browsing Wikipedia, binge-watching Netflix, or playing games on a phone, though, have no such component. They are pure consumption. It’s not an accident that the MMORPG comparison quickly disappears from the book. Even if you could treat your online activity as a Fluxus-style performance, that isn’t how most people approach it.

In lieu of any unifying aesthetic frame for these activities, we might look for persuasive case studies of each aspect of digital life taken separately. But even when it comes to the microphenomenology of things-to-be-done-online, Heffernan’s diagnoses often ring false. To take one example, she proposes that Instagram’s high-speed flow of filtered images “have become units of speech,” and that despite adhering to highly stereotyped themes, content, and visual presentation they nevertheless “look like reality.” Is this really how we understand these images, though? Even if we accept that the look of “realism” is partially conventional, the fact that the term “curated” is routinely used to describe them suggests that people are fully aware of how unreal these self-presentations are. Curation is selection, editing, artifice, not reality.

She goes on to propose that the purported artistic value of Instagram is to cut us loose from language and open our eyes to “a highly forgiving, playful, and compassionate style of looking.” Mired in language, “we come to imagine the world to be much uglier than it is.” This seems like a piece of dubiously ad hoc psychology. Here language is cast as a despoiler of reality, while in her earlier discussion of Twitter it’s celebrated as a vehicle for poetic and aphoristic insight. Individual images in Instagram move too fast to be contemplated one by one—because slowing down means less data for advertisers to mine—but the effect of staring into this blur is (somehow) to encourage slow looking in real life. There’s scant evidence for any of this. If anything, passive social media use is weakly correlated with heightened risk for depression, not deeper experiences of sensory joy.

The book also maintains a peculiar silence about the darkest aspects of online life. Apart from a glance at one (rather mild) YouTube comments thread, whole vile continents go unnamed and unscouted. Among the phenomena about which Heffernan is silent are the 4chan/8chan crowd; doxxers, stalkers, and the PUA/MRA scene; revenge porn; shitlords and troll culture; Pepe and other viral racist memes; encrypted networks where would-be terrorists swap beheading videos; and sites where makers of botnets and software viruses exchange wares. The Twitter mobbing of private individuals gets only a handful of mentions. Even pornography only surfaces in the context of YouTube’s attempts to keep it from dominating their site.

Heffernan focuses instead on the shiny public fronts of the most heavily capitalized parts of the Internet. (Her chapter on music, for instance, centers exclusively on the iPod, mp3s, and the Apple music store.) This leaves out the whole range of online behaviors that exist outside these public forums, such as people’s private search practices. Google’s own data analysts argue that people’s willingness to enter their most unspeakable thoughts into the search box reveals bottomless appetites for violent and racist content. Magic and Loss floats along within its own filter bubble, giving readers a whitewashed, middle-class, US-centric, and thoroughly consumerist vision of the Internet, one crafted to flatter techno-utopians and venture capitalists.

In the book’s final chapter, Heffernan sketches an intellectual and spiritual autobiography recounting how she gradually turned away from the smug, bruising certainties of atheistic philosophy and reductionistic science, ultimately landing in the orbit of Richard Rorty. As she tells it, Rorty’s genteel pragmatism offered a framework for justifying her religious sensibilities. Religious belief is part of a narrative, and the only grounds for holding onto or rejecting such a model of the world is whether or not it works. What she takes from Rorty is the exhortation to answer philosophical demands for any deeper justifications with the request “to just drop it already.”

As conversation-stoppers go, that’s surely an effective one. Still, I should add that what it means for anyone’s worldview to “work” is something that, in typically Rortian fashion, goes uninterrogated here. That’s another question that only rates a bland, indifferent shrug in response. At least the old-school pragmatists like Peirce and Dewey held our worldly beliefs to a far more stringent empirical standard than just the fact that they constitute an emotionally satisfying story, though saying so probably smacks of the scientism that raises Heffernan’s hackles. In any event, this apologia was no doubt prompted in part by the vicious backlash against the widely circulated Yahoo News post in which she publicly declared her creationist beliefs. But it also provides the key to why the book’s themes never quite gel, and why a book allegedly about art has mysteriously little to say about it.

Heffernan spends pages describing the hold that Wittgenstein’s quietist pronouncements had on her, and this in turn casts retrospective light on the many suggestive passages in the book where she describes being fascinated by states of absorption, flow, trippiness, immersiveness, presence, even “rapture (or stupor).” What these have in common is being quasi-mystical or heightened states of consciousness that elude discourse. They are states of which we cannot speak—“narrative gaps” in her terms—that nevertheless show us something about the world. What the Internet seems to offer Heffernan is an always-on gateway to these sorts of experiences, a way of short-circuiting the rationalistic styles of thought her younger self found so alienating. And thus, her apotheosis: “my religious life and my technological life had both turned mystical and become one.”

In the end, then, it’s neither rigorous semiotics nor aesthetic theory that drives Heffernan’s project, but a more primal desire for transcendence. It used to be that art was meant to be our replacement for religion, a spiritual surrogate in a God-free world. Now it’s technology, with futurists like Ray Kurtzweil dreaming of a digital metempsychosis in which they will find God in the cloud. Despite its ostensible concern with seeing art in our mundane browser tabs, Magic and Loss is really the latest iteration of this urge towards rapture, a drive for something that will provide a brush with the divine. Drugs and orgies, rituals and chanting, mortification of the flesh, meditation and monasticism, burnished devotional altarpieces, abstract painting from Malevich and Kandinsky through Rothko, and now the App Store. That’s progress for you. Is our pixelated trance, the constant, screen-induced buzz most of us spend our waking hours cocooned in, really advancing this search, or just numbing us to the pain of its continued failure?


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