Virginia Heffernan is a writer and acclaimed cultural critic whose most recent book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, explores the deeply human aspects of digital culture. Recently, she joined Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab and co-author of Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, for a Heleo Conversation on the cultural effects of technological advances.
This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.
Virginia: You’re very different from people who either hate technology or love it. You have this amazing neutrality. In [your] book you used this three word sentence, “So it goes.” You were talking about fertilizer being used first to save people and then as chemical weapons. You’re quite willing to say there’s no thumb on the scale for technologies to be good.
Joi: Whether we’re talking about the internet or anything, it’s neutral in the average, in that it has great things and negative things, but we can at least try to be responsible for the technologies we create. As a scientist, you can see how it affects society. You can get feedback from society, and that’s the way that nature works. There’s a lot of death in nature. There’s a lot of things that we would label bad or evil, but somehow nature is able to thrive and flourish, and it has a lot to do with the way that systems self-regulate.
As participants in the system, we can try to make a system of flourishing rather than one that dies or that goes into chaos. You do that by taking responsibility. One of our new faculty, Kevin Esvelt, is working on CRISPR gene drive, the thing that allows you to edit a gene so that all the offspring will inherit that edit. He’s gone to Nantucket and started doing these town hall meetings where you have people who don’t like GMOs. They’re conservative about certain types of technology. He talked through this whole process of editing the genes.
He said, “I don’t want to release this in a place where we haven’t allowed the people who are affected by it be in charge.” They had a conversation—they unanimously supported him going forward with the research, and considering the population, it’s very interesting.
In your book, I love the approach of art and design, because a thing that we’re missing is the notion that people have to have a sense of sensibility or taste, and that the emotional piece should drive your intuition on whether what you’re doing is good or not.
Virginia: I started writing it when I was a little bit of a Bolshevik for the tech revolution, and I was a little impatient. The way Sovietologists used to be like, “Oh, don’t worry. Soon Europe will fall, and we’ll achieve this Marxist utopia.” I was sort of like, “Yes, yes. But just speed up.”
I started to take the measure of the grief that people had around these new things, and the difficulty our brains and hearts have with the uncanny or with disgust, and realized that that was influencing our conversations about technology. The humanities do a beautiful job helping people dramatize how squeamishness might be navigated.
There’s a near religious piety and zealotry about the dangers of science writ large. I think reading H.G. Wells, the Romantics, the literature of 120 years ago is a nice touchstone. The terrible anxieties about the mad scientist in his lab, and how he must be destroying the human heart.
Joi: It’s interesting how our sensibilities and our squeamishness are to practical things. Take the test tube baby 30 years ago. It was like Frankenstein. It was on the cover of Time magazine. Now it’s covered under insurance.
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I think it’s a couple of things. It’s the way that the technology is introduced. GMOs were introduced as a corporate oppression of farmers, right?
Joi: If electricity hadn’t been Paris being lit up, but electric chairs, maybe it would’ve taken longer for electricity to be turned into a cool thing. This is one of the things that Kevin’s really into—let’s not make the introduction of gene drive some sort of colonial, oppressive or dangerous thing, but have it be an informed decision by the people who are being affected that saves lives, that is well managed and well understood. I think the deployment of technology is a piece. Having said that, the first deployments of internet were so wonderful that we got techno-utopian and then lost our guard there.
Virginia: We did, and I love that you are so willing to change your mind. It’s something that I also want to cultivate, that capacity to be changed by new data.
“Journalism used to be the media writing about the battleground, but [now] the media is the battleground. You are the news now, not writing about the news, and I think the journalists haven’t figured out that they are the ones being played.”
Joi: We’re both affiliated with The New York Times, and what a moment right now. Journalism used to be the media writing about the battleground, but [now] the media is the battleground. You are the news now, not writing about the news, and I think the journalists haven’t figured out that they are the ones being played, and that every time a mainstream newspaper writes about something, all the kids are giggling. I think that that willingness to reflect is really important. I don’t know how you’ve been thinking about it as an author and a journalist.
Virginia: It’s as though the water supply of the media has been fracked and poisoned. It’s really hard to quench your thirst. Either you’re redefining what your thirst for information is or for, or what citizenship looks like vis-a-vis the media, or you’re trying to slake that thirst in different ways.
That gets to one of the things I’ve been interested in—do we double down on complex, traditional languages? The Soviets corrupted the language so much that it became an act of resistance to continue to read Tolstoy and Turgenev, and remember the richness of the Russian language. We’re seeing language corrupted at the level of Twitter by wonderful, if black hat, coders who don’t speak ordinary language. I don’t know if we double down on the English language equivalent of Tolstoy.
Joi: My working theory is that mainstream media are the red coats and everybody else are the guerrillas. I have a feeling that while there may be some inspiration, I don’t think we’re going back, and I think the stuffiness that we cherish is like classical music. I was a disc jockey. Tools like Ableton Live let you remix and remix, and real musicians don’t believe that people who don’t make the original sounds are musicians, but there’s a tremendous amount of creativity. In fact, I would say if you’re trying to hold people’s attention for 10 hours, a DJ has more creative output in reading the audience than a musician who’s playing a song over and over again.
What I think is happening is that the creativity is going to a different place. It’s a different game, and the hard part for the media is the game is no longer a physical fight that the reporter is covering. The game is actually the reporters themselves. It’s gotten so meta. As a journalist, when you see something bad, you write about it, but what the kids are trying to do is get you to write about them. Every time you are appalled and you write about it more, it’s the whole “feed the troll” thing. It’s so funny because a journalist’s reaction to anything is so predictable.
There’s two things happening. One, you’ve got a somewhat classical system that we’re trying to preserve, and two, the battleground has changed so that it’s hard to see because it’s about you now. Journalists, in recent history, have been third-person. You often say, “There was a journalist there,” even if it was you.
Virginia: The journalistic dialect may be very short-lived. Journalism is said to be at a seventh grade reading level. Trump, incidentally, talks at something like a kindergarten to second grade reading level, meaning it’s like when some of the kids are reading and some of the kids aren’t. It’s barely literate.
It’s possible that journalism, the seventh grade reading level, was a short-lived way to shore up the middle class to inscribe certain American values, and the editor is an invention of America. The person that’s like, “This needs to be short, and we need to tell you what the whale is.” Is Moby Dick the man or the whale? We could assume nothing. It’s very handholding. Even The New Yorker, that’s supposed to be the height of literacy, makes no assumptions. Twitter is so impacted and cryptic, and for the most rarefied minds, compared to that long line of post-war journalism that’s like, “Don’t worry. We’re going to teach you. We’re patient with you. It’s okay for generalists.”
In any case, there may be some Dickensian and Melvillean language that will itself stand as a bulwark against this uncaring disruption represented by Donald Trump.
Joi: Are you saying maybe Trump is more like James Joyce?
Virginia: Joyce and Eliot are like your DJs. They’re super techy and they’re always quoting. Like the DJ, the mix is that you’re using other people’s language all the time.
Joi: A DJ does have to know the history, but they present it in the context of the moment. That’s the editorial, curatorial part, and that’s what a lot of people feel the internet disrupted in a bad way. Seth Godin was talking about this, how it used to be hard to publish a book. The book publishers became curators of what should be in print, and similarly with mainstream media.
It’s interesting to see what’s emerged, because if you have smart people interacting, they’re going to create art at some layer. Whether the art is the yucks that you get for getting journalists to say something funny…
Virginia: The LOLs.
“Speaking in full sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization just sounds like Latin to people who don’t care.”
Joi: Carl Malamud got somebody to use RTFM, which stands for “read the fucking manual,” in The New York Times by lying to them about what it stood for. We’ve been doing this media hacking forever.
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It’s developed in a weird way to the people who don’t get it, just like Tchaikovsky could be disgusting to people who didn’t get it. That notion of being familiar with a certain kind of music and having other music just not make sense to you is the disconnect. Speaking in full sentences with proper punctuation and capitalization just sounds like Latin to people who don’t care, right?
Virginia: Absolutely. Both illegible and pretentious. A lot of times there’s talk of the hatred of these middlemen, whether it’s department stores, book publishers, or whatever, that separates them from the machine. They’re like, “Get out of the way. I want to get my mortgage from Better Mortgage where there’s no one selling me. I just want me and the money.” James Altucher is like, “You got to publish yourself. Everybody’s got their hand in the till if you do it the other way.”
A lot of times another, equally powerful voice says, “We’re missing curation. There’s not enough humanity on this end.” It’s the Tickle Me Elmo thing—the best Christmas breakthrough toys are innovative technology on the inside, fur on the outside. It depends on your relation to those fur and eyes. Maybe that is the sweetening fact of existence.
“The disconnect, if we go back to the kids on the net today, is that the mainstream media, the book publishers, those curators aren’t of the community. [Regarding] fake news, we’re seeing a new generation of curators that are feeding people what they want. But I think a lot of people know it’s fake news.”
Joi: Let me give a comparison and then suggest a hypothesis. In Japan, the ultimate luxury, Omakase, is you let the chef give you whatever they want to give you. I used to stay at an inn where the innkeeper would choose what restaurant I would go to, when I would take my bath—I didn’t have to think about anything.
Then when I was working on writing something, everything was perfect, but that’s because I trusted them and they knew me. In America, it’s the opposite: “I want this dressing on the side, and no peppers, and can I have twice the olives?” Control of your meal is the ultimate restaurant experience.
I’m exaggerating, but I think it has a lot to do with the intent and the social context of that curation.The disconnect, if we go back to the kids on the net today, is that the mainstream media, the book publishers, those curators aren’t of the community. [Regarding] fake news, we’re seeing a new generation of curators that are feeding people what they want. But I think a lot of people know it’s fake news.
Virginia: Of course.
Joi: It’s kind of just for yucks. The fact that we get all up in arms because, “How could these kids be believing all these stuff?” It turns out probably most of them don’t even believe it, and they just think it’s funny.
Virginia: Remember the guy that shot up that pizza place? On the way he was like, “I just wanted to investigate it myself.” This is the problem—the media took Trump literally, but not seriously. Evidently, at his rallies, nobody took “build a wall” seriously. They just heard in it something fun, the chorus to some heavy metal song, and knew that that meant we want more responsible immigration policy.
That is actually a very sophisticated reading that college educated people don’t quite learn to do. Literalism is an affectation in the media. When Trump said “Grab them by the pussy,” this is where literary language turns into legal language, to say that he was threatening or confessing to sexual assault and should be prosecuted for that. The truth is, we actually do know what locker room talk is. There was nothing literal in what he was saying. This is notwithstanding the testimony which happens in a legal context, but reading all those contexts is yet another cognitive burden on all of us. You turn to your Omakase curator partly to relieve the strain of how do we read all this material.
“Calling people deplorable or illiterate, that’s not useful because they’re literate in a different language.”
Joi: What we need to do is to draw the humanity out. I was walking down the street once in Tokyo, and I saw this guy with a Mohawk and a leather jacket and studs, and it had a big button that said, “Fuck Off and Die.” I bumped into him by accident, and he said, “Oh I’m sorry, excuse me.” There’s humanity in everyone. Having said that, I bet my values and Trump’s values are very different and our views on women are very different. It’s nuanced. You can’t take it literally, but you have to also see it as a signal, to make sure you don’t misread the signal. Calling people deplorable or illiterate, that’s not useful because they’re literate in a different language.
Virginia: Yes, particular styles of reading always condemn the next one. The Latin Bible was the Vulgate—the vulgar, popular Bible meant to be for Romans and for conversion purposes. Now Latin is the height of pretension. Torah scroll readers believed that unless you could find your way in a scroll… a lot of it was about orienting yourself in the text.
Then they saw the Roman codex with cut pages. How condescending! Now you get to turn the numbered pages. Everyone can find their place, and look at Latin with its easy-to-read style as opposed to the Hebrew. The same has gone on with “tweets aren’t real language” and so on.
I wonder if people who grew up with Asian or pictographic languages have had more of a facility for reading online. For one, 140 characters is quite long.
Joi: I helped launch Twitter in Japan, and there was a huge debate about whether we should allow 140 characters. One word could be one character.
You could write a whole novel in 140 characters. You could write a lot, and in fact, too much. The spirit of tweeting in Japanese was completely different because you could write so much. That, in a weird way, was a problem. Japan has a literary prize called the Akutagawa award, which goes to the top novelists of the year, and somebody had written a whole book on a phone, to be read on a phone, and it won the award.
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I do think that the way that you read pictograms, Japanese and Chinese, does change the way that you can read on a smaller screen. When you look at Chinese sayings and Chinese philosophy, they’re like short bumper sticker quotes. More than enough is probably three characters. It’s almost like a little item of art rather than a series of letters.
Virginia: I want to ask you about something even more contemporary: emoji and GIFs. Being able to read and use GIFs and emoji—is that a vocabulary that interests you? Do you think it constitutes a whole new language? Is it even valuable to wonder those things?
Joi: Yes, I think it is. If everybody starts doing something, it is, and you have to accept it. When enough people use it, it starts to create its own sophistication and culture.
“Underestimating working class people in terms of their ability to have culture, to be thoughtful, to be sophisticated, is a big mistake we always make.”
I dropped out of college to become a disc jockey in a nightclub in Chicago because I found that the culture of the working class people who hung around in clubs—during the AIDS epidemic, how they supported each other—was so much more sophisticated than the kids that all have nearly the same values, studying the same thing, this kind of monoculture.
Underestimating working class people in terms of their ability to have culture, to be thoughtful, to be sophisticated, is a big mistake we always make. This emoji culture—their art is in a different place. That’s why some people don’t see it, and it’s really interesting to try to understand, but it’s hard because it’s like trying to learn a new kind of poetry or a new kind of music after you’re old.
Virginia: I’m suddenly reminded of one other thing I wanted to talk to you about. In a discussion of the MIT Media Lab, you bring in biologists to sit front and center in labs that used to be for technologists. You say, “Biology is technology.” I realized “culture,” in a gendered language, maybe that’s the feminine version of the word and technology the masculine version of the word.
These are made things. There’s nothing different about them from a piece of music, technology. Might we go so far as to say biology is culture and vice-versa?
Joi: You can’t really tell the difference now between nature and manmade. We’re designing nature and nature is designing us. This is kind of what you’re talking about, culture versus nature. It’s completely integrated, right?
Virginia: Absolutely. I just heard a lecture about artificial intelligence, the first iteration of the Chinese room theory of John Searle. The idea that a little box, even if it was staffed by someone who could retrieve Chinese phrases at any second, that that wouldn’t be a brain. He asked us to wonder about the difference between a brain and that Chinese room.
I was on the internet by 1980, so I don’t know really what a box that has knowledge in that way looks like. Every box I use obsessively, from this phone to this computer, is Wi-Fi enabled. I’m not worried anymore if this is intelligence or not intelligence, that my laptop knows the answer to very sophisticated questions. I have no doubt that I speak to some extent Chinese when I use Google Translate. Or that I know things in Wikipedia when I ask Wikipedia. That is thinking.
Joi: If you study neuroscience and the nature of memory, it’s really bad. Every time we recall a memory, you forget it. [We have] fake news, and we have fake memories. This notion that there are these absolutes and that somehow our brain is sacred in some way is kind of ridiculous.
At the Media Lab, we use the term “extended intelligence” to talk about where we think AI is going—which is that it’s going to be embedded in the system, and it’s just a collective intelligence with machines and human brains. Sometimes human brains are good at certain things, and sometimes machines are good at other things, but it’s a system that averages out and does something random, like vote for Trump, and sometimes it does great things like measure gravitational waves. So it goes. We’re here.
Virginia: Can you take a morally and emotionally neutral position? Sometimes I can get in that Gaia perspective of, “Well, the forests have to burn down, and maybe people need to get AIDS so that they’ll die, and that’s the waste product of our great living organism.” Then other times, and I don’t know if this is the nostalgic or the superstitious side of me, I can’t be that cold-blooded. I just think, “No. It’s morally wrong that AIDS or Lyme disease trounces so much of the population.”
Joi: We all have different parts of our brain that have different personalities or values. When I get into the metaphysical, just-meditated, looking-from-outer-space mode, then I look at things like Trump and say, “How fascinating” rather than, “Holy shit.”
I think you can have both. You have to be able to look at the world at every scale and own the fact that it’s internally inconsistent with itself because we’re a bunch of microbes. We’re also a gene that wants to procreate. We’re also ideas that want to get out and transmit in the world. We’re also part of nature which doesn’t really give a shit if we’re still around. It has a very different sense of good or evil. I think you have to own each state of consciousness because you still are a body and a part of society but also part of nature.