If The Caret had a patron saint, it would be Virginia Heffernan. The NYC journalist brought the internet to the culture section with her 2008-2012 New York Times Magazine digital media column, "The Medium," where she approached her subject matter with a blend of intellectual rigor, pop fluency and a rare-for-the-time enthusiasm. Her engrossing 2016 book,"Magic and Loss," picks up where her column left off, making a case for the internet as "the great masterpiece of human civilization."
These days, Heffernan can be found cohosting the Slate podcast "Trumpcast" and writing regularly for Politico and Wired. Below, she talks about what she's gotten right and wrong about the digital age and why her most recent coverage is more wary of its charms.
Hi Virginia! We have so many questions for you we’re not sure where to start. Sooooo…we’re passing the buck to the award-winning journalist. What’s the first thing we should ask you about?
Maybe what's the least digital thing I've done lately? (Answer: ATV in a swamp. Best mud.)
How did the idea for"The Medium" come about?
Jim Schachter, who now runs WNYC, had been with me in the arts section of the Times, and when he went to the Magazine, he proposed I write "The Medium" there. The title was his idea. We both thought that there was a culture evolving online; that the internet was not just a business or tech story. I had been writing about YouTube videos — like the "Brokeback Mountain" mashups and parodies — already for the daily newspaper. We thought I could expand that, and address some of the oddness of incipient web 2.0. Columns were on stuff like the new high-def makeup for HDTV, and its relation to human skin. The digital sound mix in "The Hurt Locker." The phenomenon of thinspiration. It was half eccentric exploration and half an explainer, for people just understanding what broadband was doing to and for the culture.
What do you think you’ve gotten right about the internet?
Very soon after I saw an app on an iPhone it occurred to me that the web — URLs — would no longer be our access to the commercial resources of the internet. Anyone who could afford it would decamp for apps, which would mean we were getting the same formerly free stuff, but for a price (sometimes subscription rates or in-app purchases, sometimes the forfeiture of data). Our municipal water was now decanted in fancy crystal goblets. It's the way of urban life. Something gets lively, exciting, and dangerous (with malware, "predators") and everyone wants a McMansion. Apps on my phone even look like Levittown seen from the sky.