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Virginia Heffernan - The Digital Revolution

Par Virginia Heffernan
Publié par Clifford Armion le 21/02/2011

Activer le mode zen

Virginia Heffernan, journaliste, tient la rubrique « The Medium », consacrée à la web culture, dans le New York Times Magazine. Dans son prochain livre, The Pleasures of the Internet, elle porte un regard d'esthète sur le web qu'elle considère comme une œuvre d'art collective, véhicule d'expériences sensorielles fortes. Son approche unique nous permet de mieux appréhender le potentiel culturel des nouvelles technologies. Ce texte a été écrit à l'occasion d'une rencontre organisée par la Villa Gillet autour de la "webculture : nouveaux modes de connaissance, nouvelles sociabilités".

Who I Am

I may need someone to signal to me to wrap it up.

Because I was one of those people who was in grad school at Harvard for 12 long years-

Through therapy and writer's block.

And I became the kind of pale Dostoevsky grad student that undergrads joke about.

Anyway, I kind of have a hard time knowing when to finish.

So here we go: The Pleasures of the Internet.

The Catastrophe has Already Happened

Now that you know I'm a bitter graduate student from the 90s, I'd start out with a quotation from Roland Barthes.

Because, you know, we don't get enough Americans who talk too much about French theory anymore.

So here's Barthes:

"The psychotic lives in fear of a breakdown"

"There are moments when a patient needs to be told that the breakdown, fear of which is wrecking his life, has already occurred."

I think there's a breakdown - a catastrophe - in the culture that we have been fearing.

And it has already occurred.

This breakdown, for our purposes today, is the end of analog culture. That regime is over.

That regime - of education, publishing, media, arts and entertainment - that set our expectations for novels, poetry, politics, journalism, music, film, photography, social and emotional life... it's over.

It's already occurred. So that's a relief.

Your anxiety can end now. And the great news? Your sorrow and sadness can now really begin!

What's Ahead: Three Ways to Move on

But for real.  I'm going to propose in this talk three hugely different responses to this stage in the evolution of our civilization.

Just spell out what this crossroads looks like, and hopefully liberate you to choose a path.

This digital era is a stage Roland Barthes knew nothing about, and could not have anticipated. In cultural studies, our great 20th century critics are of limited use to us now.

My three responses to digital technology borrow from the lessons of urban history. You may see yourself in one or all of these responses.

All of the options are intelligent, cohesive ways to approach digital culture, and each one offers a genuinely happy plan for individuals, businesses, teachers and students who feel adrift in digital culture, or anxious about it.
And that's all of us!

These responses give you a framework for making decisions about digital culture now and forever. That framework will give you a way to make the big decisions: a way to decide whether or not to use Facebook, share Kindle versions of assignments, try HDR photography, use YouTube constructively, support Wikileaks, secure your email, encourage readers and students to exploit technology or protect themselves from it. So that's what this talk is about:

How to love the Web. How to love the Internet. Even when it means, sometimes, swearing it off.

Facing Facts

So are you all with me? Remember I am a battered graduate student, who spent way too much time in seminars. Sometimes I mistake meaningful exchange for... filibuster.

First, we do have to face that a cultural catastrophe has happened.

Twenty years after the invention of the World Wide Web, this should come as a neutral fact - neither here nor there, just true.

But let's go through the facts - to take the sting out of them. Because we are talking about loss.

And much of the writing about technology lately is writing about loss - about how much we miss analog culture.

So, this is for everyone who believes they are in mourning for literary culture.

If the culture you love the culture that has formed your whole identity means chiefly the antique scent of libraries and mold on paper - we're losing that.

If it means card catalogues or thick, heavy manuscripts or long, handwritten letters - we're losing that.

If it has a lot to do with newsprint or folding a big broadsheet on the subway or magazines with scent strips and center folds - we're losing that.

If it has to do with reporters getting their stories from information quid pro quo and with sources in dark alleys or fancy restaurants, using Xerox machines and tape recorders - we're losing that.

If it has to do with vinyl 45s, with the reds and blues in analog television images, with the stutter of film as it finds a new reel - we're losing that.

But if your fundamental experience of culture and media is actually about break with the material world - an intellectual, mental, cerebral experience - if it doesn't fundamentally have to do with specific material conditions - smells, ink, paper, film stock, magnetic tape or memories of these things - then there's lots of good news.

The Triumph of Digital Culture

Basically, I can't believe our luck.

The Internet is the great masterpiece of human civilization.

As a work of art, the Internet puts to shame the pyramid, the aqueduct, the highway, the novel, the newspaper, the nation-state, the Magna Carta, Easter Island, Stonehenge, agriculture, the feature film, the automobile, the telephone, the telegraph, the television, the Chanel suit, the torch, the airplane, the pencil, the book, the printing press, the radio, the realist painting, the abstract painting, sculpture, the Pill, the washing machine, the skyscraper, the elevator and cooked meat.

As an idea it rivals monotheism.

Just as, in Nietzsche's scheme, man created science which in turn killed god... analog culture created digital culture and now digital culture has superseded it.

The great American pragmatist Richard Rorty used to like to point out that Ptolemy, who believed the sun revolved around the earth, was not defeated right away when Copernicus unveiled his heliocentric model of the universe.

Instead, Ptolemy's followers persisted in their error for decades. They didn't budge. They kept believing the heavens revolved around the earth.

In fact, rather than scrap their model, they added to it. They added every kind of tweak and footnote to explain the phenomena of the night sky. Because what they saw confused them.

That's how sophistry is born. People holding onto their views and habits, even in light of overwhelming evidence that it's time to give them up.

(Sitting in Rorty's philosophy survey class in 1989. He described this overburdened Ptolemic model. And a guy in our seminar used to imagine a Christmas tree freighted with silver balls with labels, and then weird explanations for them. He was great at it. "Orion should be found here. But there's a lot of extreme celestial dust from the 1548 harvest season. So Orion is temporarily found here.")

I'm reminded of the wrongness of those Ptolemists as I read the many treatises about the preeminence of 20th century culture.

It's true that many of us owe our jobs, our routines and especially our emotional and intellectual lives to those old totems - to books, film, magazines, record albums, television shows, and even self-consciously ephemeral stuff like analog video, datebooks, Rolodexes, card catalogues, business cards, letters and newspapers.

These things are in our muscle memories, our limbic systems. They define at the deepest levels how we apprehend and understand the world.

It's no surprise, then, that we've been hesitant to junk any of this stuff.

As we contemplate its obsolescence, many of us have even grown possessive, preservationist, miserly, fearful, elegiac.

We're like the hoarders in E.L. Doctorow's latest novel "Homer & Langley". We can't throw anything away and our hoards are killing us.

We'd rather scrap lobes of our own brains than scrap the tokens that defined civilization for so long that we're now powerless to imagine civilization without them.

No wonder the warnings about how the Internet is turning us into shallow nitwits.

No wonder Internet criticism is a little delirious and filled with distortions.

We're panicked with grief. We feel we have too much to lose.

Just One Fable of the Internet's Triumph: E-books are Great

So that's why I say the catastrophe has already happened. Even Twitter, little Twitter, is five. Twitter is officially old.

What a great place to start. It's high time we stopped worrying and learned to love the Internet.

Because, to take one example, e-Readers are amazing. This year $460.6 million will be spent on content of e-readers. By 2014 it will be over $10 billion. By 2020 the number is expected to exceed $33 billion.

This comes during a recession, when profits in traditional media are shrinking.

The Web site of the New York Times has 50.5 million unique visitors every month. About 7 million people have downloaded the NYTimes apps across platforms.

At the same time, about 876,638 subscribe to the print paper, or buy it.

So this is all kind of done. It's not that print is OVER; it's just been outrun by digital culture.

So what do people love so much about digital culture? Why do they persist in downloading and surfing in spite of the books about how bad it is for us?

This is something that a few months ago I used to try to explain. But now many of you know what's so appealing about e-books.

How many of you use a Kindle or another e-Reader?

Aha - then you know. You know that we're finally really reading again - long, immersive reading experiences that I, anyway, hadn't had in ten years with books.

E-Readers simply work better than books. The experience of reading, which had grown corrupted by books, has become heady again.

That's right: e-Readers are not just an adequate substitute, or convenient or cheap. E-Readers are qualitatively better than books!

Those super-expensive dust-gathering books of the 90s, the hyper-produced, hyper-graphic ones with the beautiful covers designed to sell on the front table at the big bookstores I couldn't get through those books. They were made to be sold, not read.

And the writing! They were made to be turned into movies when they were fiction - or segments on the Today show or Front line if they were nonfiction (American style since Fitzgerald has been designed as proto-screenplays).

Books have become illiterate! They aspire to be visual, material objects! They are sold as objects.

Prose was meant to be digitized. And listen, I believe there is plenty of information that's not "meant" to be digitized. I prefer 35 mm film to HDTV. I prefer some kinds of analog sound to digital.

But it's aesthetically controversial to digitize light and sound waves. Numbers and symbolic systems like written language - come on.

Language becomes more purely itself when digitized. It becomes more abstract; it becomes closer to thought.

Text works so beautifully in a digital form, little mass-less electrical pulses, like thoughts in the brain.

Words are easy to digitize and disseminate. They're not chunks of matter. They're symbols. Language is already a symbolic order. And so we read and write all the time on the Web. Invent new languages, even.

Which is one of the most surprising components of digital culture.

Something that would have blown everyone away had we been able to see into the future in the 1990s when it seemed that - everywhere we looked - visual culture was eclipsing literacy.

When the threat to our attention spans and our souls was not the Internet - but television. Television was faulted for widespread behavioral problems.

And the quick cuts on MTV - remember those? They were supposed to be putting an end to intelligence itself.

Today, critics of digital culture keep proposing the hummingbird as the model of the information-consumer in the Internet age. The fickle, trivial hummingbird. The very thing we were said to be becoming when we watched MTV and changed the channel too often.

But I think the Internet man is a much stranger bird than than a hummingbird. He is homo lector, the reading man.

Aviario Lector? The Reading Bird?

Long ago he invented books so he could read them. But then books threatened to kill reading.

Only now reading is back. It's thriving. New dialects develop every year on the Web. New ways of communicating with words - and devices for using words - develop all the time. The word processing app, Pages, is - to Apple's great surprise - one of the most popular apps on its new iPad. That's right: the app for writing. We write; we read.

And this experience - reading and writing on the Web - is much, much closer to thought, I might add, than overthought typefaces and fonts and heavy bonded paper.

That stuff looks like you should eat it or display it. This can't be meant to fill your brain with new networks.

Every medium contains its own themes. E-readers certainly have their own themes. One of the themes of the e-reader is "lostness."

Which is a loving way of describing a feature that annoys some readers: it's hard to tell where you are in an e-book.

But because they get you lost, I predict that books that are more immersive - more pleasurable and sustaining to read - and less dependent on covers and typography - will thrive on e-readers.

There's no coffee-table effect with e-readers. Someone seeing you on the subway can't tell if you're reading François Mitterand's La Mauvaise Vie or L.A. Story by James Frey.

And there's nothing to do with a book on an e-reader but read it. So books that get published and sold in ebook form had better be very, very good to read.

And books are of course just one example. Digital culture is abstracted culture - it moves fast and far, it's weightless, it's mental.

The more cultural experiences become digitized, the more abstraction is the hallmark of our civilization.

This abstraction may irritate you. Maybe you miss the warmth of leather datebooks or - as I do - the gorgeous range of vocal sounds of analog telephones.

Maybe you want to touch leather or hear the exhale of cigarette smoke. Maybe it's a sensory experience you miss.

Everyone misses something.

But the resistance to technology is often just the longing for another technology.

In the case of reading, our powerful longing is for the codex - and someday when, we imagine, it was indispensable.

The codex started as a Roman Empire technology that people used to hate and blame for making us stupid when they longed for the scroll. And the way that readers of the Torah had to concentrate and pay attention to find their places on the scroll. (The novelist Dara Horn has been teaching me about this.)

Codices in those days seemed to be making people illiterate because they couldn't find their places. They could use bookmarks, etc. All those kids with their books! Such short attention spans!

In any case. We now miss the codex, to the extent that it's being supplanted. And we now believe it's texting and videogames and Facebook that are making us dumber.

Were Things Really So Good?

But instead of hearing about how bad things are getting, I like hearing about how great things were.

Because: really?

Was there really a time when everyone had long attention spans and read The Critique of Pure Reason in German over the course of a summer afternoon. And they were looking up unfamiliar words in an actual Cassell's German-English dictionary, page by glorious, mold-scented page, and then cross-checking it with their Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which they got free when they joined the Book of the Month club to buy more long big hard books which they set beside their Oxford English Dictionary, the one with the supplement and the magnifying glass, neither of which is necessary now because the OED is entirely online and will never be updated on paper again, but never mind, and how this long afternoon of Kant was not unusual but rather typical if you can believe it in -




Never mind. One of those years. Before the Internet. Before everything was ruined.

Oh come on!

The Three Responses

So now that it's clear that

1. the catastrophe has already happened -

2. things were never the way we imagined them anyway -

And 3. things are pretty amazing now -

It's time to talk about what to do with that revelation.

The lesson here, I think, is from urban history. From the story of American cities.

This may sound very schematic. From the Industrial Revolution to wartime, people flooded to the cities - for jobs, money, excitement, social life.

I consider this city that we all just ran to the World Wide Web. This is the commercial space of the Internet - the part of the Web with ads and address bars and for which you need a browser; it's where you can be easily seen.

People got tired of cities after the war, and they are getting tired of the Web, too. Don't get me wrong: I love the Web, but it's a wild and dangerous place. It's a teeming commercial city. It's haphazardly planned. Its public spaces are mobbed.

Signs of urban decay abound in broken links and abandoned projects.

Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters of the Web unsafe and unsanitary. Bullies and hucksters roam the streets. An entrenched population of rowdy, polyglot rabble seem to dominate major sites.

What's more, lots of people feel watched. So whether you're law-abiding and threatened by pranksters, or a prankster and threatened by scrutiny, it can feel like New York City in the 1970s on the Web.

People who find the Web distasteful - ugly, uncivilized - will probably never adjust. For years, though, they've been forced to live there. The Web is the place to go for jobs, resources, services, social life, the future.

But now, with the purchase of an iPhone or an iPad, there's at last a way out, an orderly suburb that lets those who hate or fear the open Web sample its opportunities without having to mix with the natives.

The suburb is defined by apps from Apple's glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center.

In the migration of dissenters from the open Web to pricey and secluded apps, we're witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight.

The parallels between what happened in cities like Chicago and New York in the 20th century to what's happening on the Internet since the introduction of the App Store are remarkable.

Like the great modern American cities, the Web was founded on equal parts opportunism and idealism. In the 1990s "help wanted" signs proliferated, and workers showed up, boasting of little more than email accounts and skills with Microsoft Word.

Close on their heels were enterprising types looking to entertain and preach. Merchants sought to attract clientele, so interfaces became more reliable, and barriers to entry dropped.

Today, nerds, students, creeps, outlaws, rebels, moms, fans, church mice, good-time Charlies, middle managers, senior citizens, starlets, presidents and corporate predators all make their home on the Web. In spite of consensus about the dangers of Web vertigo and the importance of curation, walled gardens online - like the one Facebook purports to represent - are few. The Web is minimally controlled pandemonium.

For that reason a kind of virtual redlining is underway. Even if you still surf Web on a laptop as you've done for years, thinking that not much has changed, you must have noticed paywalls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access to the Web. This apparatus is an effort to generate the insular effect of paper, which is not linked or part of a global network.

It makes some spaces feel "safe" - safe from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and popup ads, crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters, and the eccentric voices and images.

With more walls going up, the spaces you have to pay to visit need to be prettier than the free ones to justify the price. The catchphrase for app developers is "a better experience".

Behind paywalls like the one the New York Times is about to introduce, production values surge. Cool software greets the paying lady or gentleman; they get concierge service, perks. Web stations with entrance fees are more like boutiques than bazaars.

At the same time, some people are on their way to quitting the Web entirely. That's what some hundreds of millions of new users of the iPhone and iPad are beginning to do. By choosing machines that only comes to life when tricked out with apps from the App Store - Apple rigorously vets every app and takes 30 percent of all sales - users of Apple's radical mobile devices increasingly commit themselves to a more remote relationship to the Web.

The free content and energy of the Web, to the extent it stays free, will be disparaged by people who don't find it up to the standards set by the App Store. This makes sense. It's hard to argue that The Weather Channel app, for example, doesn't offer a better experience of meteorology than Weather.com.

The Weather Channel Max app turns the weather into a thrilling movie you can touch and even drive, where Weather.com looks like a hideous, cluttered textbook: white space, columns of fussy bullet points and thumbnail images.

"The App Store must rank among the most carefully policed software platforms in history," as Steven Berlin Johnson put it not long ago  in the Times. Policed why?

So the App Store can maintain its separateness from the open Web and drive up the perceived value of its offerings. Perception, after all, is everything; many apps are to the Web as bottled water is to tap - an inventive and proprietary new way of decanting, packaging and pricing something that could once be had for free.

I see why people fled cities, and I see why they're fleeing the Web. They're not only willing to pay for a retreat from the Web; they want to pay for it. They want to be in a place they paid for - a private space. Not a public space, like the World Wide Web.

So I see your three options this way:

Rejectionsim, security, in-real-life experience, back to the land. This is the least-exercised option, but it's gotten good press and it matches an impulse deep inside many of us. This is the option of "going rural" - to analog and manual technologies that predate digitization. To antiquarian interests. We see this with the rise of vinyl and DIY movements; in journalism, hyperlocal blogging has brought back shoeleather reporting.

Just to give you a sense of what this looks like: there was a HUGE shock from Nielsen's recently released numbers that came in the form of sales of old-school vinyl LPs: they were up 33 percent from 2008. What's more, vinyl sales grew by a whopping 89 percent between 2007 and 2008. With 2.5 million vinyl units sold in 2009, Nielsen still said that more albums were sold than any other year in history.

I haven't talked much about this option because it's like discussing buying gold when you're giving an investment seminar. There's always the opt-out bearish option, and we should never forget it. Educators and parents much recognize that some people are passionate about this. Just as the Times has print subscribers who are passionate about print. It's a small group, but it's fierce and vocal.

This group, if you need to appeal to them, often use the Web plenty - they just visit Etsy, Treehugger, Ravelry, biking message boards, green sites. They are also increasingly interested in security - security from hackers on the one hand, and surveillance and traffic analysis on the other.

The second option is out to Apps. Apps sparkle like sapphires and emeralds for people exhausted by the junky non-design of monster sites like Yahoo, Google, Craigslist, eBay, YouTube and PayPal.

That's worth money. And to even the most serious populist there's something rejuvenating about being far away from an address bar and ads and links and prompts - the constant reminders that the Web is an overcrowded and often maddening metropolis and you're not special there. Confidence that you're not going to get hustled, mobbed or mugged - that's precious.

Any entrepreneur here should be thinking of designing an app.

And the third option is right "here" in the World Wide Web.

I say "here" which is how I know it's where I feel most at home.

 Where consuming and producing are all mixed up. I still love the Web best, though I respect the rural and suburban lifestyles.

I wrote about people moving to Apps - how they represented a safer, more stable, more symmetrical experience to many iPad and iPhone users. And I was asked if that meant the Web was "over" - No! Some people thought the 70s was the best time to be in New York. And it might yet be the best time to be on the Web.


These three responses are well-suited to our exact current moment. You can move nostalgically to pre-digital technologies.

You can move progressively to apps.

Or you can stay on the Web, which is probably where you do most of your reading and writing right now. Your email. Your Web browsing. Your ecommerce. Your news-reading.

These are also the options available to your clients, customers, students and friends. The overview of digital life is going to change again. Maybe there will be a huge exodus from the Web to Apps. Or maybe the Web's numbers will swell even bigger and the app and the offline crowds will be small and elite. Or maybe the movement offline will push so hard that a security-obsessed anti-Web Internet will expand.

But this is an amazing time to be alive and working. Yes, it can be frustrating. But as the Internet changes to reflect massive participation in it, still more opportunities come of it. Someday we'll look back and see that we're only 20 years into this new civilization - and the catastrophe has already happened -

And the best is no doubt ahead of us.

I mean, if a melancholic graduate student can ever say something so optimistic. Well, maybe not "no doubt."

But maybe.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Virginia Heffernan, "Virginia Heffernan - The Digital Revolution", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), février 2011. Consulté le 29/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/les-dossiers-transversaux/nouvelles-technologies/virginia-heffernan-the-digital-revolution