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Episode 18 June 21, 2016 | 53min

A Conversation about “Magic and Loss”

Our co-founders talk to author Virginia Heffernan about her latest book—and the internet.

Show Notes

Aesthetics and digital technology: this week Paul and Rich talk to writer Virginia Heffernan about her new book, Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. The conversation covers Buddhism, Angry Birds (my babies), The 4-Hour Workweek, nuclear war, ancient philosophy, Bay Ridge, and wild horses. Like all the best technology podcasts, it includes both numerous references to Jony Ive and a good amount of Latin.

Paul Ford: Hey, Rich Ziade.

Rich Ziade: Paul Ford. How are you?

Paul: I’m doing good. My levels are up. I’m excited. I’m ready to have a conversation.

Rich: I just want to punch you in the head but I’m not gonna do that because we’re gonna talk to each other —

Paul: You can do that after we’re done with this podcast.

Rich: OK.

Paul: My name is Paul Ford. I’m here with Rich Ziade. This is Track Changes, the official content marketing podcast of the Postlight agency.

Rich: Sponsored content.

Paul: Rich, what is the Postlight agency? You’ve got a new definition you’ve been working on.

Rich: It’s a digital studio.

Paul: Ahhhh!

Rich: Here in New York City, where we incubate and build and design incredibly forward-looking things.

Paul: Wow, that sounds great!

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: How do I get involved?

Rich: [email protected]

Paul: Aw, I can’t, let’s, let’s, let’s get on that as soon as possible. In the meantime, let’s take a deep breath and talk about aesthetics and technology.

Virginia Heffernan: Ooof.

Paul: Yeah, that was a rough transition, wasn’t it? [laughter]

Rich: All of a sudden PBS kicked in.

Paul: But I’m not actually making, I’m not just drawing that out at random.

Rich: OK.

Paul: Today in the podcast studio, Rich —

Rich: Yes?

Paul: We have Virginia Heffernan, who has written a book called Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art. And that is published by…

Virginia: Simon and Schuster.

Paul: Hi Virginia!

Virginia: Hey, Paul Ford.

Paul: It’s nice to have you here.

Virginia: It’s wicked good to be here.

Paul: It’s good. Are you promoting this book everywhere?

Virginia: Oh my God….

Paul: Including this podcast?

Virginia: Yes I am! [laughter] But I do like the way you say it as sort of a punchline, like, you say, like, “the internet as art” in quotation marks, and also “aesthetics,” come on, who likes the word “aesthetics”?

Paul: I’m convinced, I mean, you pulled something off to get them to buy a book with the word aesthetics in the proposal.

Virginia: Oh yeah…well…

Paul: Like was your agent just like, “…really?”

Virginia: No, I did a bunch of bait-and-switch stuff.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: Yeah. So in the very beginning when I was sort of shopping the book, a lot of marketing people asked if I could just put the word “science” in the title.

Paul: Oh yeah, of course.

Virginia: Just why not?

Paul: Just — [laughter]

Virginia: Just sub out “art” for, say, “science.”

Paul: You’re a scientist, really, of…culture. [laughter]

Virginia: Well I really do want to start a center and Google, I’m looking at you to sponsor it, called The Google Center for the Literary and Artistic Sciences.

Paul: Oh, they’re really into that.

Virginia: They really, really —

Paul: They’re the like, ones.

Virginia: They really are, exactly.

Paul: They’ll destroy publishing even faster that way.

Virginia: But don’t you think that if we just call it “science,” we might be a winner?

Paul: Oh no, there’s like another $2 million if you, if you call it science.

Virginia: If you say anything with science.

Paul: So our listeners are mostly, often technologists.

Virginia: Right.

Paul: And so what is the word aesthetics? What does that mean?

Virginia: You know, I think of it as the sensory emotional dimension of life.

Paul: OK.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: OK.

Rich: Porn.

Virginia: Porn definitely fits in that category, and as your technologists know, porn has always been a driver of technological innovation. Always always.

Rich: Always.

Paul: Actually, let’s get into that. Because at some level, that was the conventional wisdom up until Web 2.0, and then it just turned out that people talking and sharing —

Virginia: Yep. Well porn is a great place to start at, when you think about Web 2.0, the big broadband allowing video and social life online, and, you know, we have the assumption from Avenue Q that the internet is for porn, anyone want to sing?

Paul: No. No.

Virginia: OK. [laughter]

Paul: No, but this was actually, and this was a real part of — early internet consensus was that pornography would drive new technologies.

Virginia: Yup.

Paul: Like it required more bandwidth…

Virginia: Yup.

Paul: And that was always —

Rich: It also took more risks in terms of the technical pieces they’re willing to stitch together and do some crazy things.

Paul: Yeah, they could ask you to upgrade your browser.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: For better pornographic experience.

Virginia: Mmmm hmmm.

Rich: And you’ll do it.

Paul: Yeah, whereas —

Rich: Yeah, you’ll empty your bank account and do it.

Paul: Whereas like, the Washington Post would never do that.

Rich: Right.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: And before that VHS.

Rich: Mmmm hmmm.

Virginia: Finding cheap ways to film things in Santa Monica, and then, also, like, the stag theaters had, you know, all kinds of zoning and weird details associated with them, so you could get in and out, in an almost internet-y way.

Rich: Yeah.

Virginia: So you could watch things in the dark, alone. Alone.

Paul: Real life incognito mode.

Virginia: But, you know, Web 2.0, I think instead of saying, what is the internet, the question is, what is porn? I mean, if YouTube was supposed to be all porn, it ended up being something else, but in a weird way, sort of scratched that itch? God, that’s gross. But —

Paul: It is gross, but —

Virginia: You know what I mean?

Paul: But how so? Like, how does YouTube scratch the itch? We thought the internet was going to be all porn.

Virginia: Yep.

Paul: It turn out it’s just partially porn. It’s more Netflix than it’s porn.

Virginia: Well I think that it is —

Rich: By certain measures, it is all porn.

Virginia: Yeah!

Paul: Sure.

Virginia: Well see, I’m glad to hear that, because people in their bedrooms, using webcams, doing things that we don’t usually get to see, and we watch it alone, and often have an emotional and physical reaction to it, so, you know, arousal, a friend of mine writes romance novels, and she sees her goal as to promote an emotional, physiological reaction on every page. Ideally tears, because the novels are super sentimental and they’re for women, or, you know, physical sexual arousal. And her books aren’t porn, you know?

Rich: Sure.

Virginia: They’re not classified as porn. But those videos are, you know, you wince. You flinch. You lean forward. You interact. You know?

Paul: So we went straight to video —

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Right? Which almost kind of makes sense. As I read through the book, and we’ll give more information on how to purchase and get more book-related content as we go through this podcast, right?

Virginia: Yep.

Paul: We want to do that, right?

Virginia: That’s right. Sure.

Paul: That makes everybody happy?

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: OK. But as I went through the book, what I saw was that, you’re a textual person.

Virginia: Yeah, that’s right. I’m a writer.

Paul: Deep down. You’re a writer. Like, what’s the potted history here? You went to college…

Virginia: God. [laughter] I went to college, I gave college a try down at the University of Virginia. And then I went to graduate school straight out of it. I just, you know, had got it in my head that my dad’s career path was the only one I could think of. I wasn’t creative enough to think outside it. So…

Paul: You came from an academic family?

Virginia: I came from an academic family. He did English. I thought it was a rebellion because he had done the Romantics, so I thought I’d do American as a super rebellion.

Paul: [knowing sigh] This is what it’s like —

Rich: What are we gonna do with this child? [laughter]

Virginia: I know, exactly, she’s lost to us. [laughter] And I melted down there. I have to be honest. It was like, warlock-y games and cloak-and-dagger stuff and the social life was brutal, I just couldn’t get it together. So I failed my general exams.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Virginia: And was told that my manner made me difficult to test, and also difficult to interrupt. So, be warned, you two.

Rich: Oooooo.

Paul: Wow.

Virginia: And so I insisted that I get to take it two weeks later, and I came and I took it like a robot, because I was twenty-three, so I just, was very easy to interrupt. Very easy to interrupt. So short answers, to the point, it was a reading test, passed. But moved to New York for a while. Then went back to graduate school on the grounds that I didn’t want an unfinished dissertation crushing my spirit for the rest of my life. Did the dissertation, moved back to New York, and went into journalism.

Paul: Was your plan more, to be more of a critic than a journalist, then? For a long time?

Virginia: Yeah. Yes. And somehow I managed to, I mean, bait-and-switch is sort of the theme of the show to me. I managed to smuggle in criticism as journalism. But you know what? Criticism, you know when people talk about the stuff that’s written online, people are not doing a ton of shoe leather to write online. They’re not doing a ton of investigation as an enterprise. They’re writing criticism, you know?

Paul: This is, this is my life, too. People call me a journalist and I always wanna, like, wave my hands and be like, “Ah, I’m actually an essayist,” it’s just nobody even knows that that is.

Virginia: You don’t even, yeah, you don’t want to say that. But yeah, Paul, you’re not walking out there going, “Isn’t it true, Mr. Mayor, that on, you know, 2003 — ”

Rich: Little notepad.

Paul: No, when they make me —

Virginia: With a notepad, but also —

Paul: When they make me do it, I’m terrible! I hate it.

Virginia: I’m so bad.

Paul: I’m just like, “Oh…hi…uh…” Because I just feel like this whole situation is so forced and uncomfortable.

Virginia: When they said, “I don’t want to talk about that,” I’m just like, “Oh yeah! No…no harm, no foul.”

Paul: Totally fine.

Virginia: Like, see ya. Yeah.

Paul: Yeah, whatever you want to tell me is fine.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: I just want to, at that point, when they make me go talk to them, I’m like, well let’s just do a press release then. I want them to be, I want them to feel good.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah, so it’s —

Virginia: And then you write about their hat, because —

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: You’ve got nothing else.

Paul: Well, it’s, they require that. All right, so you have managed to write, this is a work of criticism, like you reference, like, I’m going to be real nerdy for a minute, but like, Auerbach’s Mimesis and so on, like —

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: This is in that vein, like, this is the, like, hey, here’s a way to look at a big thing in our world.

Virginia: Yeah, and the essays are, I think, The New York Times, in their review, called me a gleeful trickster. And, you know, my glee —

Paul: That felt good, right?

Virginia: These are tears of a clown, like let’s not pretend that I’m in glee all the time. But, you know, that’s how I hope it come across.

Paul: The writing is always very playful, though.

Virginia: I like to….

Paul: You’ll pull the rug out.

Virginia: ….play. I like to play.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: The shit you can write. You know, I’ve gotta say, if we weren’t doing this, I would’ve read a few pages of this and I would have just started demonizing you and framing you as this elitist who studied in weird places that I wasn’t allowed to go to, and rationalized why this person can, it’s —

Virginia: Well see, my response to that is this sounds like misogyny to me. [laughter] I call misogyny on anything. If someone doesn’t like me, they like a girl better, another girl better, misogyny.

Rich: But you know what’s tricky, is that you do play, I think that’s, it was throwing me off. I thought it was going to go down the path of, like, am I reading Foreign Policy? But then it gets fun all of a sudden.

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Paul: This is, it took me a while to figure this out about you, too, which is just like, every now and then you’ll just, you’ll drop some names like a graduate seminar, and then the next paragraph is like —

Rich: Yeah. Exactly.

Paul: Let’s, you know, that monkey was pretty funny. [laughter]

Virginia: Angry Birds. I know.

Paul: Yeah. The Angry Birds bit was great. I was just actually, like, ready to write her — because I screenshotted it off my Kindle. I bought this book —

Virginia: Nice.

Paul: Because you know, you’ve got to. You have to buy all the books.

Virginia: Thank you.

Rich: You keep dropping that you bought a Kindle book.

Paul: I haven’t said…it’s important. [laughter] It’s important. People need to know that when they have friends who are writers, everyone’s like, “Oh you published your book!” The way to appreciate that is to purchase the book.

Virginia: Oh my God, the purchase. [laughter] That’s just so wonderful.

Paul: Like, that’s all you want to hear, right? Because like, people don’t know, like, the numbers are not huge on books, and so like literally, when your friends are like, “I bought your book,” you’re like, “OK, the publisher’s going to see that.”

Virginia: Like, that moves the needle. It does.

Paul: It’s so ridiculous.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: And so…but the Angry Birds was great, because suddenly you’re like, my babies. [laughter]

Virginia: Yes!

Paul: They took the pigs —

Virginia: The pigs. The snorting pigs.

Paul: They took my babies.

Virginia: They take your babies. Come on.

Paul: They really got you with that.

Virginia: Yeah. Fury. And I got in touch with anger through Angry Birds. I can’t help but mention, I was on the global leaderboard of the top —

Paul: I’m glad you mention it, because it was gonna come up for me, too. Top 1,000 leaderboard Angry Birds.

Virginia: Yeah.

Rich: Seriously?

Virginia: I can, yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: I mean, if you want —

Paul: Over 36 billion people were playing this game. You were top 1,000.

Virginia: I was pretty early, and I’m not sure — yeah [laughter] over 36 billion is exactly right. So top 1,000.

Paul: Damn.

Virginia: I can sign stuff or whatever, if you have a picture of a pig or a bird.

Paul: Did you have an overarching strategy?

Virginia: [laughter] In Angry Birds?

Paul: Yeah. Did you dream it?

Virginia: Um…oh I definitely dreamt it. And I still, the motor memory is still, like, it’s still hard to pop up an iPad and not start rubbing it, you know?

Paul: People can’t hear, but your hands are moving as you’re telling me this.

Virginia: Oh my God, it’s starting.

Paul: Yeah, you’re playing Angry Birds.

Virginia: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Yeah, I’m trying to pretend it’s like playing the piano. I mean sometimes it’s a stretch to call all this stuff art, but I still do.

Paul: But you have an amazing experience with Angry Birds.

Virginia: Yeah. There was something super powerful, I mean, it was kind of the first way I got used to the oleophobic — I love that expression.

Paul: I don’t know that expression.

Virginia: It means, like, resistant to oil.

Paul: Oh!

Virginia: You know, iPad screen, and the way that, especially Apple products, love to sort of deny the body. I mean, I don’t want to get too into it, but in old keyboards, certainly in BlackBerry keyboards, those things get gross.

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Virginia: Because you’re mixing your body with the keys a lot.

Paul: Remember those white Apple keyboards that were plastic, and kind of chunky, and they had that clear plastic, and then all the, like, dander from your body would pour into them. It was really bad.

Virginia: It was really bad.

Paul: The design got so messed up.

Virginia: You got the feeling that, like, antiseptic Apple was just, like, people are revolting. Like they just are.

Paul: Jony Ive thinks people are just horrible.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Because you have to like, scrub down to go into the design lab.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Like I bet there’s like a, like a pumice stone that they take to your entire body before you can touch a single headphone.

Virginia: That’s right. That’s right. This sounds like just trivial and Apple bashing, but I think it’s significant. The internet is, like, this immortal, god-like, Jony Ive-like space, and there’s a lot to the body and the decay of the material world that is…shoved out of it, you know? And we have an idea, at least, that the internet lasts forever, and that it’s, like, art longist — what’s that expression?

Paul: Artis longa, vita brevis.

Virginia: Nice! Check it out, like, with the Latin.

Rich: What is this?

Paul: Art is…longus? Forever. Lasts a long time. Life is short.

Virginia: Right.

Rich: Got it.

Virginia: So, you know —

Paul: Which is what artists tell themselves to justify not making any money.

Virginia: Yes, that’s right.

Rich: ‘We’re doing something higher than commerce.’

Virginia: Yes.

Rich: Bigger than commerce.

Virginia: But you know, like, you start talking about everything being up there and lasting forever, and you know, getting super Platonic on it, and that just, like, kindles a desire, at least in me, to be, just down here, like the dying animals we all are.

Paul: Well actually when you see Apple is now dealing with the body, where they put in HealthKit, and —

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Suddenly they can track your running and so on and so forth.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: And then they got in trouble, because they were really, they were late on menstruation, which, actually is complicated. But like, yeah —

Virginia: Yeah yeah yeah.

Paul: But they didn’t —

Rich: Title of podcast!

Paul: Late on —

Virginia: “Late on Menstruation.”

Paul: “Our Period is Late, from Apple.” Um…so yeah, people were like, where the hell is this? Why can’t I track this too? And all the regular body stuff, which is funny because you go out to California and they’re all, like, monitoring their bowel movements.

Virginia: Well yeah, well what I — I wanted to say that I’m not sure Apple gets to the body, or anyone gets to the body when you talk about, like, the Tim Ferriss stuff of like, your body throws off all this data. You know, that is like, on a direct continuum with the Ray Kurzweil, you know, project to ‘hack death.’

Paul: They’re all really into it, and so Tim Ferriss, 4-Hour Workweek

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Paul: Sort of like, the archetypal ‘climb a mountain in cargo pants’ kind of guy.

Virginia: Circumference of your feces, just gotta keep it —

Paul: Keep —

Virginia: Gotta keep measuring.

Paul: Keep an eye on that stuff.

Virginia: Keep an eye on that stuff, and also somehow that leads to female orgasms.

Paul: Great. I didn’t actually know that. So. [laughter]

Virginia: Oh yeah. You know, these, I guess what we’re getting at —

Paul: Can you fill the blank in there a little for the listeners.

Virginia: The, oh, connect those dots? Well, there is something in the next one, after The 4-Hour Workweek. There’s a lot of talk of SEO, so like, you know, hacking search engines, and then that somehow leads to, you know, we think that relationships between men and women have something sensory-emotional, something aesthetic about them. Oh no. It’s just a question of hacking biology, physiology in the woman, to keep her oxytocin levels, etc etc. And then she will, you know, moon over you and genuflect before you.

Paul: [sigh] Wow. So that’s almost like the Whole Earth Catalog gets applied to the pickup artist scene, like, it’s just…

Virginia: Yes. Exactly. Right, the pickup scene is supposed, is kind of social science-light, and this is supposedly hard science. You know, it’s just like, there’s this hormone and that hormone. I mean, hormones are like bodily humors anyway. But the reason that this is significant is, and I know you’re listeners are, um, technologists, but technologists are trippy people. They are not, like, science writers towing the line on whatever their thing is.

Paul: In general they’re far more New Age than humanities types.

Virginia: I can’t ev — oh, well, do you draw a big distinction?

Paul: Uhhhhhhhhh…

Virginia: Like, Jobs —

Paul: Not —

Virginia: Jobs said he was a humanities person at heart, but then, what is that Buddhist body stuff that he did?

Paul: I mean he said so many things, too.

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Rich: Let’s not key off him.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: Nice. OK. Fair enough.

Paul: [sigh]

Rich: As far as technologists go, I think…

Virginia: Right, exactly. Good call.

Rich: He was alien.

Virginia: Who would you call, like, a respected technologist whose views we can kind of parse?

Paul: Who is like a true expression — Sergey Brin.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Like —

Virginia: Well, they are, like, at Google, like, Jewish progressives, and they definitely are into the, like, hack death Calico project —

Paul: Yeah, they don’t want death, and they like, do they still wear the shoes with the toes?

Virginia: Techno-utopia? I don’t know. You know, I’m in Mountain View the week after next. Just dropping that.

Paul: Just look down.

Virginia: Just speaking at Googleplex.

Paul: Just look down — going to Google? Yeah. That’s exciting. Talks at Google with Virginia Heffernan?

Virginia: I will report on it, as you know that I love to do, and ask a lot of not-hard questions.

Paul: Ask them to raise their feet.

Virginia: I will definitely observe their shoes, I promise.

Paul: OK.

Virginia: And you’ll see it on Twitter, if not Medium.

Paul: I want to count.

Rich: Zuckerberg?

Paul: Yeah, he’s a good expression of it, too.

Virginia: So, Zuckerberg, I mean at least, and you know, a lot of this is folktales and myth, but he, you know, he wants to meet girls and socialize and he’s a romantic. And he has a romantic idea of what connection means. You know, unless, on some level, you believe that’s cynical, he is just like, other people want to meet girls. But it doesn’t seem…it doesn’t seem like that’s true. And, you know, the way to woo women is with poetry. And software.

Rich: And likes.

Paul: Neither of those —

Rich: Thumbs up.

Virginia: And likes, you know, OK, so Facebook —

Paul: None of that is true.

Virginia: Of Mark Zuckerberg?

Paul: Of him, it works, I think pretty well. I think it worked out OK for him.

Virginia: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: Not the poetry —

Virginia: You mean the way to woo women is not with software?

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: Right. You know, Postlight makes wonderful objects, um…

Paul: Thank you. Appreciate it.

Virginia: For women and men.

Paul: Good god. And corporations, who are really the organisms that are going to survive.

Virginia: Yeah. You know…

Paul: Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring it down.

Virginia: I don’t know about that. I just, like, there’s so much wonderful push-back on, and repurposing of, these, like, dominant softwares, that I think is worth noting. But you know, I’m biased, you know, I can’t help it. I just, I spent, and I don’t know if you guys did, too, but I spent the seventies and eighties terrified of a nuclear apocalypse?

Paul: Sure. Of course.

Virginia: And when it didn’t come —

Paul: Was that big in Bay Ridge? Was the nuclear bomb big in Bay Ridge? It was big for me, in Pennsylvania.

Rich: In the seventies?

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: …not really.

Paul: Eighties? Day After, all that stuff.

Virginia: Day After? Come on.

Rich: Was that eighties? Day After?

Paul: That was —

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Early eighties. Threads?

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: You ever see Threads?

Virginia: Um, I didn’t see Threads.

Paul: Oooh, that’ll mess you up. That’s like, the British Day After? It’s much scarier.

Virginia: Oof, but what you guys didn’t see is that I starred in, well, first of all, always disarmament now, and no nukes and stuff rallies, but as a child I also starred in a sidewalk production of No Last Flower, based on James Thurber’s The Last Flower.

Paul: Whoa.

Virginia: Where my brother and I were the last children on earth.

Paul: Wow.

Virginia: And we also —

Paul: You still remember it? You still —

Virginia: Oh God.

Paul: Could you perform it now?

Virginia: Still remember the plot of it? I think it might’ve been mime. I think it might’ve been mime.

Paul: Whooooooooooooa.

Virginia: But not only that, but —

Paul: How old was this?

Virginia: In New Hampshire —

Paul: Twenty-six? Twenty-seven? [laughter] How old was this?

Virginia: Last children on earth, please, I think we were eight and six. [laughter] I —

Paul: Close.

Virginia: Also in my hippie town in New Hampshire, we had to write letters to Andropov, then the…prime minister? Of Russia. Asking that he designate our town, Hanover, as a target site, so we would die in the blast and not the fallout.

Paul: Wow. This is fun for kids.

Virginia: So this was fun. And mutually assured destruction, we were very convinced that would happen. And so the upshot of it was I was learning about Hiroshima, like exactly how the skin would come off my body when I died in the fallout, and I wish that I had learned, like, one thing about ancient Greece. So, you know, I can tell you all the ICBM abbreviations, but it was just this crazy wasted knowledge, and that was, like, you know, would have been a nice time to get a real education.

Paul: No, it was all about nukes, I remember that.

Virginia: All about nukes.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: But so like let’s say it’s all about customer, what’s that CRM thing stand for?

Paul: Salesforce? Customer resource management? Or is it…

Rich: Relations…

Paul: Relationship management.

Virginia: Yes. So what if I learned all about that, how, like, J Crew follows me around selling me the same t-shirt everywhere I go, I spent a long time thinking that was a harbinger of the apocalypse. Like, I could’ve used my brain to learn to crochet in that time.

Paul: It’s true. It’s true.

Virginia: So that was my resolution, is no more apocalyptic thinking, and that’s how you get to me being, you know, a bit of an optimist in the book.

Paul: Can you crochet?

Virginia: No. See?

Paul: Me neither.

Virginia: It’s ICBM. It’s —

Paul: I’ve actually been looking at it, looking at knitting, I have way too much nervous fidget?

Virginia: You know Freud said that the only thing women had ever contributed to the culture, I’ve said this before, is braiding and knitting.

Paul: That’s misogyny.

Virginia: You know what? That actually is misogyny. That’s not my knee-jerk thing.

Paul: No. I think that’s actually —

Virginia: That’s pretty harsh.

Paul: That’s actually misogyny.

Virginia: On the other hand, it does give a lot of credit to knitting and weaving, you know?

Paul: Yeah it’s true. It’s good stuff.

Virginia: And maybe there’s a lot, I mean, I know at least one mathematician that uses crochet to demonstrate something to do with music and math!

Paul: Oh no, there’s actually a pretty good knitting and coding scene.

Virginia: So maybe —

Paul: Well, because Jacquard looms were the first, uh, sort of programmable punch card. There’s always been a textile-technology-punch-card scene-thing going, since the 1700s.

Virginia: So maybe this is, like, rabid feminism on Freud’s part, that he identifies the, like, chief driver of culture as a —

Paul: Yeah, it’s good, but who’s gonna publish it? [laughter] It’s fine, I’m just like, really? Like, you know, can you, I’m just, I’m going down the list, like, who’s gonna take that piece?

Virginia: Yeah, OK.

Paul: Yeah, that’s like, you know, that’s like four paragraphs of —

Virginia: Paul’s like, always pitching, just so you guys know.

Paul: Yeah. Constantly.

Rich: Surviving.

Paul: That’s all I do.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: That’s all I do, is pitch. All day long. I pitch editors.

Virginia: [whispered] Pitch pitch pitch.

Paul: What are people not asking you? What are you, what is this thing that you’ve done? So here’s what I think you’ve done —

Virginia: OK, yeah. [laughter]

Paul: Let me tell you. As a man, let me tell you what you’ve done.

Virginia: Yes, exactly, ‘splain it out.

Paul: So I think that people who know you and have read your stuff, until this book, may not have been aware of how fully nerdy you’ve been, and what a subtext it has been to, kind of, everything you’ve been doing. You started messing around with networks and chat and community in the late seventies?

Virginia: Late seventies, early eighties.

Paul: Yeah. So this is literally the earliest possible moment for, like, a tween girl to show up and start typing into a terminal.

Virginia: Yeah, I think so. And by the way, I want to give credit to Mandy Davidson and Megan Winters for also being there with me?

Paul: Mmmm hmmm.

Virginia: You know, we were the, like, braided barrette answer to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or whoever, or John Perry Barlow. So —

Paul: It’s just these three girls in New Hampshire who were like, that looks cool?

Virginia: We thought ‘that looks cool.’ We thought the cis-progs were, you know —

Paul: At Dartmouth.

Virginia: At Dartmouth College, where John Kemeny, who wrote BASIC, or co-wrote BASIC, had come to be the president, and save us from our colonial ski town, that was literally luddite in the sense that we had wood stoves and we put, like, colonial stuff on our doors and, you know, or like, the colonial Williamsburg —

Paul: Wasn’t that just the seventies, though. Everyone was like, oh, we might as well go back to that, it’s over anyway.

Virginia: Yeah. And then suddenly we’re like, oh God, woodsmoke, this is not good.

Paul: No. And Reagan gets elected and suddenly —

Virginia: That’s right. But so Kemeny came, he put a giant, you know, sighing, heaving, rattling mainframe in the middle of town, and agreed to teach the school children BASIC. We learned BASIC and I took the road, you know, I don’t even know if not traveled, just, like, the foolish road of not learning to code like you guys did, but just getting on, pretending to code for a minute and a half using BASIC, which probably doesn’t even count, and then instantly got into the chat side of things, the avatar creation and the fantasy game, the D&D-style game that we called Excalibur, because why not?

Rich: And this is what year?

Virginia: ’79, ’80, ’81. Finally my friends called it computer dating and started singing “Desperado” and…when I walked around —

Paul: We don’t have the rights.

Virginia: You know that — [laughter] — you know that burning, burning, burning feeling you have when you’re teased and you’re eleven? Just like, fall down to the center of the earth, I can’t go on? When I first heard Hallie sing “Desperado” to me, I was just like, “I’m going to freaking change my ways. There is no question I’m going back anywhere near that poisoned thing that’s going to wreck my life.” And so I went off for a long time and when it resurfaced in Compuserve, I told myself I had to be really careful, the “Desperado” side was gonna come back if I wasn’t careful. You know, I was pretty careful for a while, but you guys know this. You just, you see networked computing and something in you trips and you just…

Paul: You gotta figure out how it works.

Rich: Can’t let go.

Virginia: You can’t let it go.

Paul: I used to hide the computer manuals in my life, as a kid.

Virginia: Oh yeah.

Paul: And the other thing is that I didn’t learn to program until I was pretty far into my twenties.

Virginia: Oh wow.

Paul: Because I was like, that’s too nerdy. I refused to learn to read as a kid.

Virginia: Right.

Paul: I was like, I’ll learn to read when I’m six, that’s when you’re supposed to do it.

Virginia: Right, or else your parents talk about it too much, and whatever.

Paul: Yeah, it’s just like, no, I don’t want to do that yet.

Virginia: Yeah, you know, I think people whose brains picked up, and you know, I’m just guessing and I love pushback from the listeners, but I think people who learn to code or read early don’t learn to learn, you know? Like my daughter learned when she was six, basically, and my son learned super early? So he just thought, and people would have this with code, like, he just thought his brain kind of found it, and he never really — and then he was like —

Paul: I got it.

Virginia: Why doesn’t soccer come to me like this?

Paul: Mmmmm.

Virginia: You know? And it’s the signature act of education to learn to read, and if you don’t, like, even have any idea of the, of the building blocks of it, you just think it’s a, you know, it comes to you through revealed religion, then it sets you back on other processes of learning. Maybe. Maybe.

Paul: Are you learning anything right now?

Virginia: Oh. You know, I have really embraced, very much against my nature, anti-abstraction and material culture. So I’m trying, for instance, to not use a GPS. I’m perpetually disoriented. I’m trying analog tools like, you know, the Navy is, for fear of cyber attack, training on sextants again? And compasses and so on. And even celestial navigation. So I’m trying for once to look around me at 3D objects and actually sit in a room with flesh-and-blood people and —

Paul: And is this to like, find a building in Midtown? How’s this working?

Virginia: Uh…you know, I’m gonna fault you for an anti-handicap thing, because I really do have topographical disorientation disorder, whatever. And I get lost in familiar places, definitely lost on the grid in Manhattan, I mean, c’mon, that’s like, all of us do that.

Paul: Anything below 14th Street.

Virginia: Oh, no, I’m talking about the grid.

Paul: I get bad with, like, Madison and Lexington and all those. They really throw me off.

Virginia: They throw me off, and —

Rich: Words, instead of numbers.

Paul: Yeah, and then also, like, where is Broadway, at any given time?

Virginia: And I was one of those who was just like, OK, as long as my true south is there, in the form of the late, lamented Twin Towers, I can find my way.

Paul: We’ve got the new one now. We’ve got One World Trade.

Virginia: True.

Paul: It works.

Virginia: True. True. It does? OK. So, but the point is I’m trying to look up, because there’s like a couple square inches of space that, like, attract my attention a lot, namely my mobile phone, and I just, I’ve been looking at that thing too much, you know?

Paul: How did you first learn to navigate in New York City?

Virginia: Oooh. Um, I looked at maps, and I got to, for some reason, the Upper West Side, I would, like, recite to myself —

Paul: Amsterdam.

Virginia: Amsterdam and so on. Whatever else. Columbus. Riverside. And so that I knew, and then, oh, taxis.

Paul: Sure.

Virginia: I still think it’s glamorous to ride in taxis, and I still have a fantasy that someday I could get in a taxi and be like, “21 Club, please.”

Paul: Yeah, of course.

Virginia: “And step on it.”

Paul: It’s doable. But the guy would be like, “Whaaa?”

Virginia: Yeah. Yeah.

Paul: And then you, you grew up in Bay Ridge.

Rich: Yes.

Paul: How did you perceive the larger city? When did you start to become aware of it?

Rich: You know, it’s funny, there was a murder on 86th Street that was on the cover of the Post, like thirty years ago, and I thought it was 86th Street in Bay Ridge.

Virginia: In Bay Ridge.

Paul: Which is where you lived.

Rich: Which is where I lived.

Paul: Yeah.

Rich: I lived off 3rd Avenue in Bay Ridge.

Virginia: Yeah, Manhattan.

Paul: That wouldn’t have even been on the cover of the Post.

Rich: No. There were people dying out in Bay Ridge. It just doesn’t get —

Paul: Yeah, that’s like page 36, and like, a bulleted list, yeah.

Rich: Exactly. Exactly.

Virginia: Bay Ridge is Saturday Night Fever territory, right?

Rich: Well here’s the thing: we emigrated from Lebanon in ’77, fleeing the war.

Virginia: Right.

Rich: So we get here and Saturday Night Fever is exploding.

Virginia: Yeah.

Rich: Across America. So we think that Bay Ridge —

Paul: Well those are the streets you’re on.

Rich: Is the center of America.

Virginia: Right.

Rich: Because there’s no cultural context. We just think, “Oh shit. The biggest movie in the world — ”

Virginia: Is John Travolta, like —

Rich: The music’s phenomenal.

Virginia: Swinging his hips and walking, you can tell by the way I use my walk, in Bay Ridge?

Rich: Yeah!

Paul: Oh yeah, he’s —

Virginia: Oh God.

Rich: The whole thing is filmed in Bay Ridge.

Virginia: How great.

Paul: You’re recognizing the streets where the feet are —

Rich: Oh yeah.

Paul: And the paint store, and like, yeah.

Rich: So my family —

Virginia: Yeah.

Rich: There’s eighteen of us that came over, are thinking, “Oh they film all movies in Bay Ridge.”

Virginia: Right. [laughter] That’s amazing.

Rich: We had no context.

Virginia: And also you were getting used to the, like, geopolitical phenomenon in that movie of like, what is it, like, Latin dancers overtaking Italian dancers or something?

Rich: Yeah.

Virginia: And now Bay Ridge is very Middle Eastern, no?

Rich: There is a Middle Eastern strip. There’s definitely a —

Paul: That was Rich. He did that.

Virginia: He did that.

Rich: Yeah.

Virginia: He brought the Lebanon.

Rich: You just go to where there’s other people that have similar bread. [laughter]

Paul: You’ve literally got to eat, right?

Virginia: Similar bread is so right.

Rich: Just anything. Give me a signal here.

Paul: You need some soup.

Rich: Of where I need to end up out of Kennedy Airport, and then we’ll go there.

Virginia: Yeah. Yeah.

Rich: So.

Paul: Um….

Virginia: So I’m glad, you know what I love about the focus in this podcast —

Paul: Oh yeah, yeah, I know.

Virginia: It’s just like, it’s just laser-like —

Paul: Oh yeah, yeah.

Rich: We’ve got a set of bullets here.

Paul: Yeah, we just keep it on the book, it’s about the book.

Virginia: You guys are men —

Rich: I do want to come back to —

Virginia: So you’re very linear.

Paul: Oh yeah. Absolutely.

Rich: I do want to come back to your desire to get out of your phone. I think that’s interesting and I think it’s…

Virginia: Yeah…

Rich: Why?

Virginia: I am a phenomenology — I like how things seem, and, you know, a little less adept at sorting out how they are, and so suddenly I got a small amount of distance from my phone screen, just the phone screen, and was like, this is a very boring thing to be looking into all the time.

Rich: Mmmm.

Virginia: You know? Just the way the apps line up. I mean, why should that take my visual field for so much of the day?

Rich: Yeah.

Virginia: Just the visual part. I don’t think it’s hurting my attention span. I just, there’s nothing I should stare at that long. And then I read about some younger-than-me people in northern California of all places who had decided that they wanted to get over their Facebook addiction. I was surprised they were addicted to Facebook. And so they put a little, they had LSD breakfasts, little micro-dose of LSD in the morning, subcutaneously. Not recommending it. But they found that they lost complete interest in their boring phones because the faces of people on the bus were just so interesting. And aren’t they? Like I’m looking at your two faces, we’re not doing this over the phone, and just like, the texture of your face?

Rich: Mmmm.

Virginia: I talked to someone who makes digital humans, you know, he like, reverse-aged Brad Pitt for Benjamin Button, is that it? And he was talking about the way light refracts, and then this is turning into data again, I probably can’t go too far from that, but he was talking of the way that light refracts in human pores, like the reason that there are, like, really bad at getting skin is that, like, the concentration of oil and hair and whatever else in our pores, and this goes back to oleophobia, it’s so different in every pore that the light refracts differently from every single pore in every single face. So you have, like, infinite number of angles that the light comes out.

Rich: You don’t know, it’s coming. It’s iOS 11 —

Paul: Yeah. They’re going to do that?

Rich: Has pore support.

Virginia: Has pore support. [laughter] Pore-port, correct?

Rich: Pore…pore…I mean, the resolution to this, you can’t see the pixels, where else do you go? You go to the pores.

Virginia: Well I will say that the people who do this digital humans thing are alert to it, and have tried to do CGI with it, and can begin to simulate the face —

Paul: I mean we’re like five years away from someone standing up onstage and going, “With PoreKit, your selfies will be — ”

Virginia: Yeah.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: “ — will take into account every single angle of light that goes into your face.”

Virginia: Well I don’t think we necessarily want it, because I think that you look prettier when it’s, like, Barbie-ified. You know, you want your skin to be, like…

Paul: Smooth.

Virginia: Kind of smooth…

Paul: Slick.

Virginia: But then, so then the thing was, I looked up from my oleophobic phone into the all oily faces of people around me, and was just like, I have one chance on earth, and I want to see more —

Rich: Hmmm.

Virginia: More oil, frankly. More texture. More…I’m just, like, looking at your eyebrows. An app has nothing on your eyebrows, Rich.

Rich: And…

Paul: Angry Birds, they took away your babies. [laughter]

Rich: So how’s it going? How long have you been doing it and how’s it going?

Virginia: You mean, yeah, trying to look up? Um, I think I, ugh, God, the listeners are not gonna like this, but I started a sort of meditation mindfulness program maybe four, five years ago.

Rich: There are good apps for meditation, I can say.

Virginia: Oh my God, believe me, that’s where I started. [laughter] And I can now almost do it without the apps. And I, you know, I mean, I know this gets super trippy, but can you picture that painting “The School of Athens,” that fresco, it’s like, all these —

Paul: Sure. All the philosophers.

Rich: Hmmm.

Virginia: All the Greek philosophers, and in the middle are Plato and Aristotle. And Plato is pointing up, where he thinks truth resides, in the clouds, let’s say.

Paul: Is that why he’s pointing up?

Virginia: He’s pointing to the cloud, yeah, Compaq’s cloud, the cloud created in an exurb of Houston. And Aristotle’s pointing down to the earth, right here. And like, Buddhism makes a nice, at least in it’s kind of pop-American practices, makes a nice point about attention to the body leads to attention to the verities and the abstract life that I like so much. So yeah, I guess I did start looking down at the place where I am right now, and it’s probably no surprise that there are Buddhist geeks and there’s like, the rise of this kind of mindfulness practice has mirrored the rise of the Web. So it’s like, we live so much in our heads, and more than our heads, our sort of outsourced heads in the internet —

Rich: Mmmm.

Virginia: That there’s something illuminating, enlightening about, you know, just being with your arms and legs and…

Rich: Are you happier?

Virginia: Yes. It’s been a pretty amazing five years in that way.

Rich: Oh it’s been five years?

Virginia: Well, five, yeah, five years. So like —

Rich: Wow.

Virginia: Maybe this is true of all books, but like, the book chronicles, like, slightly earlier stage in my development. You know, it’s like powerful emotions remembered in tranquility. Like, I needed to have the tranquility of the years that followed in order to write it down. Yeah. Paul’s laughing at me because he knows —

Paul: Well no, there’s —

Virginia: He knows I’m quoting Wordsworth, and he’s just, like, you are a loser.

Paul: Right before I walked in, I was looking at Twitter on my phone, like some sort of animal, apparently.

Virginia: [laughter] Sorry.

Paul: And there was a quote, J. Robert Lennon, who’s an author, quoted another author, Lydia Davis.

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Paul: The quote is, I’m assuming it’s from a short story, “She reads a book about Zen, and she writes down on a piece of paper the eight parts of Buddha’s eight-fold path — ”

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: “ — and thinks she might follow it. She sees that it mainly involves doing everything right.” Which I think is just like, ouch. Right, like?

Virginia: Yeah, there’s —

Paul: That’s hard.

Virginia: There’s, right, and the translation is like “right speech.” It’s like —

Paul: It’s hard.

Virginia: I don’t know what, I looked for the original Pali translation of “mindfulness” for a column, and mindfulness is sort of this British word. It’s like, brought by the colonizers in Sri Lanka, and a translation of some, you know, this gets kind of silly, but it’s a translation of some kind of liturgical dispute that this governor was asked to adjudicate, and he, I think the word was “seti,” s-e-t-i, and for short, he decided that’s “mindfulness,” like the British “mind the gap” kind of thing, or like, “mind your parents.” In fact, it means something closer to something weird like “memory of the present,” and it just doesn’t parse in, like, our tense-obsessed language, but you know, sit with the idea of memory of the present, and things get pretty good. You know?

Paul: The lesson here for me is that, not that there has to be a lesson, but what I keep hearing is five years, right?

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Paul: You’re getting this stuff. You’re doing this work. The book is, you’re going like, aesthetics and technology, can we align these two things? It’s a very personal book.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: And it’s the process of years and years and years. Which is, when you’re stepping back from the phone, that’s the kind of timeframe that you’re able to get into.

Virginia: Yeah. I, let’s see, I had a BlackBerry when I started. I, actually, I want to back up. Probably a lot of your listeners, I’m just guessing, guys —

Rich: They’re all in one large basement.

Paul: It’s literally —

Virginia: I’m imagining.

Paul: It’s seven people.

Rich: Don’t worry. [laughter]

Virginia: Oh yeah, it’s seven of you, six out of the seven of you may remember those, like, phosphorus screens of the dumb terminals. Maybe you guys do, too?

Paul: Oh no, 100% of our listeners remember those.

Virginia: OK, so to the seven of you who remember this, it had this deep-space dark background, and these green letters that floated in the middle, and I felt like I had this very, sort of, deep interaction with it. Like I just, I just would wonder what’s back there, like, is that a black hole, is that God, is that something threatening and cold, or is it, like, this warm mental space? And you know, I stared at that screen a long time, at least, you know, probably as much as I look at my phone today. Just wondering what was out there. And in the foreground were these, like, witty, weird, cryptic — because we had, you know, fewer than 140 characters to write, like, “get lamp.”

Paul: Right.

Virginia: “Enter cave.” You know, in those games, and I mean, I don’t know, like, you’d have to be a really serious materialist with like, a commitment to the rectitude of the order of the world, to not start speculating that something weird was out there —

Paul: So you —

Virginia: Now Apple —

Paul: You very —

Virginia: I just want to say that I went from that to an Apple IIE, that Zenith Z19 dumb terminal that we had dialed in with, and I looked at that Apple interface of the bitmap and I felt like, you know, like I felt like I had had this deep-grooved friend who used to talk about a lot of weird shit, and all of a sudden she had had a really great facelift, and had a lot of makeup on, and she was super friendly, and I would try to bait her back into conversation again about like, these profundities that she used to like. Nope. She did look beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, and she was super friendly, but I just couldn’t get back into it. And you know, I feel like Apple’s, like, it’s been a steady process of, kind of, throwing me off, off the internet and looking for that depth that I used to see in that old screen somewhere else, like, hey, the night sky.

Rich: Well that’s a, that’s a, I feel like a basic principle for Apple, which is, look, this is a dangerous place —

Virginia: Let us take care of it.

Rich: I know what’s best of your here.

Virginia: Nanny state. Totally.

Rich: Yeah. So.

Paul: So the dangerous place here is the spiritual. That’s what they’re keeping us out of.

Virginia: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Rich: I don’t even know. Like, they’ve, they’ve drawn a curtain so tightly around me —

Virginia: Mmmmm.

Rich: That I don’t even know what’s dangerous and not dangerous.

Paul: Well what —

Virginia: Yeah.

Rich: Like I’m a hacker, right, so I like messing with stuff.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: That makes, that makes the, that community gets very upset about Apple, because you can’t get in and sort of get to the innards of the machine.

Rich: But I also have an appreciation of, like, clean, minimalist design, at the same time. So there’s a part of me that’s like, I respect what you did, Jony Ive —

Virginia: Yes.

Paul: Oh, yeah!

Rich: God bless you. And then there’s a part of me —

Paul: It’s the Eames chair.

Rich: That’s like listen to me, I’m an adult. You don’t need to freakin give me the children’s fork here. Like, I can figure this out. Let me play.

Paul: You’re not on an Android, though.

Virginia: I just want to say, by the way, that we are not in a clean, minimalist space, and the pushback, the, like, revenge of the material world, is in full effect. So we’re sitting here with, like, what looks like a kind of frayed Indian-y, I don’t know what this is, blanket, woven in the great spirit of weaving that women invented, in an orange kind of room. There is nothing clean-lines about this place. There’s like, burlap around us right now.

Paul: It’s acoustic properties.

Virginia: This looks like, if you wanted to be, like, the opposite of the Apple Store —

Paul: This is not an Apple space, this studio.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: Yeah.

Virginia: And I think, like, we are in an age of pushback against that Apple design, and it’s gonna look like Star Trek-y really soon, and we’re gonna be in the seventies and start letting our hair down, you know?

Paul: That’s where we’re gonna go? We’re gonna go back to something a little more spiritual? A little more…

Virginia: I think Jony Ive’s gonna put his weight back on, I’m hoping, and you know, not wash his face so often, and things will be, like, I think spiritual in the sense —

Paul: Oh my God, Apple, Apple —

Rich: He does have a scruffy beard.

Paul: But that’s the thing. Are there more —

Virginia: Oh great, a scruffy beard, like carefully cultivated. Make your culture. I mean, I’m not crazy about my brothers and sisters in Bushwick and their ukuleles, but on the other hand, I — [laughter]

Rich: Ouch.

Virginia: Laugh into the mic, so people know you think it’s funny.

Paul: I don’t want to disrupt your flow.

Virginia: No. The laugh helps, remember.

Paul: [laughs heartily into the mic] All right.

Virginia: So, but they have done, you know, an ingenious job, I mean who would’ve known that foodism and butchering your own meat would come at the time of almost an apotheosis of digital life.

Paul: Those two are related. That, those two cultural trends are related.

Virginia: Absolutely. I mean, food is undigitizable. Meat and bones, so far, undigitizable, and like, you just want to dig your hands into it. I will say, I don’t think that one is spiritual and the other isn’t. That’s why I talk about The School of Athens, and we’re being — I’m being super schematic here, so…the book, at least I think, makes greater sense of this. But.

Paul: Well, you can put it down and come back to it. You can pace it out. It’s nice that way. It works.

Virginia: But you know, thesis, antithesis. So like, life’s in the cloud. Our brain is in that deep space. We’re connected to the almost six billion cell phone accounts that, you know, dot the planet Earth. And those are practically unfathomable by our brains, you know, it’s like much bigger than the Alps, you know, it’s like we are into night-sky outer-space the movie Gravity territory.

Paul: Well you make the point that like, it’s not just that there’s too much to read, you basically define yourself by what you’re not reading.

Virginia: Yeah, I mean, we have this idea that our brains are stunted because this, like, canon of neuroscience that keeps telling us about all the brain damage done by cultural objects, by computers, by whatever, by headphones, by connectivity — we believe we’re stunted because who wouldn’t believe they were stunted in the face of this, like —

Paul: There’s so much more than that —

Virginia: Monstrous, god-like thing. Yes. It’s official. Like, even Faust can’t know as much as Google.

Paul: So your response is to go get a sextant.

Virginia: Yes. I mean, I fear, I fear my incompetence and also my, you know what, my lack of connec — I mean, a compass, just look at a compass. Isn’t it pointing to some magnetized part of the poles? You know, it took me a while to be like, this code looks magic, this app looks magic. But then I saw a compass and was just like, this is magic.

Paul: Also magic.

Virginia: Also magic. The poles of the earth exert such a magnetic pull, is this right, that the compass thing quivers in relation to them? Right here in, in wherever we are, in Manhattan, in the city?

Paul: All right, so our technologists listening, they go out and they buy this book, and there’s gonna be a lot of culture in it for them. There’s a lot of culture.

Virginia: There is. I mean, I think that there are more people than we give the world credit for who at least are STEAM people, where the a is for “arts,” as there are STEM people. I mean, I just sat down with a bunch of chemists, Harvard chemists, and wow did they have way-out beliefs.

Paul: Sure.

Virginia: I mean, one of them says he does all his chemistry for the greater glory of God. Ad maiorem gloriam Deum. You know, I didn’t meet an atheist among them.

Paul: You really, you can stretch out that De-um.

Virginia: Deuuuuuuum.

Paul: Yeah, that would work really well.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: OK.

Virginia: We’re doing a lot of Latin. But yes, so there are things that could trip you up and irritate you if you, especially if you don’t like the mention of Jacques Derrida and you just, like, want to close the book.

Paul: Or God? That’s the other…

Virginia: Yeah, God is always annoying.

Paul: It might be, they might be mixed on him. What do they do, if I’m —

Virginia: Just get back to that time where you were just, like, tripping out in college and wondering what else is out there, before you buttoned up. Because our late-night sessions on the internet do not look rational. Look at those autofill Google searches. It’s like, “Why am I so lonely?” “Does God hate me.” The questions are not, like, “How tall is the Empire State Building?”

Paul: So I build web services for a living, I go and I read this very impressive book. What do I do next? I go to a museum? I go to church? What do I do?

Virginia: I think…you know, I want to —

Paul: Tell me how to live my life.

Virginia: [laughter] — want to improve your relationship with the internet. I really do. So like, we call the likes and the hearts trivial. We all think they’re stupid. On the other hand, there is just like a world of support out there for you. Like, getting a Facebook birthday wish feels good. And you probably heart and star and like stuff, and you know, shouldn’t think about it as a small thing. There are ten people on Instagram who like a photo of my daughter. What’s to hate about that?

The other thing is, it isn’t life. Like, life is right here, as Aristotle said. So, you know, a bad day on Twitter’s not a bad day. I’ve gotten pummeled on Twitter before and managed to stay at the beach the whole day and missed, let @page88, my Twitter avatar, my Twitter handle, take that sniper for me.

Paul: That’s true, that @ sign was getting beat up and you were like, at the beach.

Virginia: Yeah. Exactly. It’s like, Philip Roth made a character called Philip Roth, or, you know, you play these characters on TV, in this game, and by the way, play as much or as little as you want, there’s no obligation to post pictures of rompers on Pinterest if you don’t want to. Get off the networks you don’t like. Snapchat, I’m a fail at Snapchat, let’s face it. I don’t really understand it. I’m not doing it very well. And just clear off that thing.

And then also, research. Since it was one of the first Web 1.0 things, that we could look stuff up, we forget how amazing that is. Like, you think you go down rabbit holes of like, what’s my ex-boyfriend doing? No. Go down a rabbit hole of like, “Where do wild horses live and how can I help them?” You know?

Paul: That’s probably much more productive.

Virginia: I mean, it’s amazing to see these videos of wild horses, I’ve got to say.

Paul: What do you learn about wild horses?

Virginia: Well one of them was this pack —

Paul: Do you just watch them? Do you just watch them run off into the —

Virginia: I’m going to make myself cry. No, they live in, they travel in these packs in Montana, and in one case there’s a single mom, like her…what are they, her boyfriend person has like, run out on her, and she’s got a little foal. So another guy tries to come to help her, and he, like, becomes the step-dad. But here’s the thing: the kid is, like, can’t really get to his feet. The horse is having trouble getting to his feet. So the alpha male of the whole thing comes over and, in a flash, puts him out of his misery. He kills it. How does a horse kill a foal? It picks him up and smashes him to the ground. And there’s like, the stepfather and the mother are like, in mourning very briefly, and then they recover. It is…Paul, you have tears in your eyes.

Paul: That’s a very, very sad story.

Virginia: It’s a super powerful story. I mean —

Rich: Where was this? YouTube?

Paul: This was a dream.

Virginia: It originally was on Nature, the Nature channel. And then there’s a piece of it on YouTube. Oof, I didn’t mean to get heavy —

Paul: No, no, no. I think that we’re, there’s really nothing to add to that. That’s it.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: That’s exactly the right place to tell people about how to buy your book so that they can complete this experience.

Virginia: That’s a powerful emotional experience, and we have to stop hating ourselves for loving it.

Paul: Do people still go to bookstores?

Virginia: Yeah! I mean, bookstores are another thing making a comeback.

Rich: They’re social places.

Virginia: They’re social places. Like, we like spines of books. We like dust. We like the mold of bindings. You know, Jony Ive doesn’t like that we like it, but that’s OK. We like it anyway. And yeah.

Paul: It’s OK to want things that Apple doesn’t want for us.

Virginia: That’s right. It is OK to —

Paul: I feel that we’ve forgotten that as a culture.

Virginia: Yeah. I mean, that’s right. They told us what to like. But you know, Tim Cook isn’t, he isn’t as, um, charismatic.

Paul: No.

Virginia: So I’m, so I have a little more of my personality back.

Rich: It’s waning.

Paul: My kids were born the week that Steve Jobs died, and there was a sense of total relief that I couldn’t connect to the story. I was just like, that’s not important to me.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: I was just like, I’m gonna deal with these twins.

Virginia: I love that.

Paul: It was real life. I was changing that first diaper. I was just sort of like, “Yeah, I know everyone’s upset, but here we go.”

Virginia: Yep.

Rich: That stuff.

Virginia: Wonderful.

Rich: I’ve got life to live.

Paul: So Virginia Heffernan has written a book called Magic and Loss from the good people at…

Virginia: Simon and Schuster.

Paul: Simon and Schuster. You can purchase it wherever books are sold.

Virginia: You might go to Amazon. Oh by the way, just one quick thing: I can tell anyone how to make a bestseller now.

Paul: How?

Virginia: You get cross-listed in “aesthetics,” “telecom and sensors,” and “internet groupwear.” You are the only book listed in those, so you are the number one book listed in those categories.

Paul: You are the number one in that category.

Rich: Internet groupwear…?

Virginia: Aesthetics. Internet groupwear, an Amazon category, and “telecommunication and sensors.” That’s with an “s.”

Paul: Can you imagine what they expected from “internet groupwear,” and it wasn’t this.

Rich: No.

Virginia: Internet groupwear and aesthetics.

Paul: The book has a really nice sort of bubbly cover. Very tactile.

Virginia: Undigitizable. I don’t know how they make it, unless it’s 3D printing. Yeah, I —

Paul: No, they have to hit it with a big piece of metal, I think, to make the bumps come up.

Virginia: I know, and that meant they had to make a plate. That was a real surprise from Simon and Schuster, that that was there, because I’d only seen it, you know, digitally in two dimensions.

Paul: You know who would hate that? Jony Ive.

Virginia: Oh my God. It’s so true.

Paul: He would hate —

Virginia: It looks like a rash.

Paul: The cover is very bumpy. He’d hate it. It’s like a rash.

Virginia: He’d just be like, what is this eczema…?

Rich: Flaws.

Paul: But it’s actually very pretty to look upon, and it feels very nice in your hand.

Virginia: Yeah.

Paul: You don’t want to make people feel that they’re going to go to the store and buy a rash.

Virginia: Yeah. I will say when I saw the cover, I was like, there’s no need to read the book if you look at this cover. [laughter] It’s really beautifully designed by this guy Ren Julius —

Rich: It says it all.

Virginia: It says it all.

Paul: Yeah. You’re going somewhere, looking at — you’re going into the world of aesthetics and internet groupwear.

Virginia: By which I mean there is every reason to buy a book with this cover.

Paul: Well sure, you want that, that’s, if you put that on your shelves, you’re going to always have it there to remind you of internet aesthetics and internet groupwear.

Virginia: Thank you.

Paul: Virginia Heffernan. Thank you for coming in —

Rich: Thank you.

Paul: And being our guest here at Traaaaaack Changes.

Virginia: So much fun. Track Changes.

Rich: We went everywhere. We went to Bay Ridge! And back.

Paul: That’s a good place to go. It’s a good place to go. Thank you.

Virginia: You guys are great. Thanks a lot.

Paul: Whoa. Rich.

Rich: Yikes.

Paul: That was cool. It was just cool. That was just cool, to see someone who’s like, thought it through in a way that I haven’t thought it through. You haven’t thought it through.

Rich: Totally. Different, different perspective. Clearly loves and appreciates tech, but also paused and stepped out of it.

Paul: And sees it as part of something else.

Rich: Yeah.

Paul: Sees it as —

Rich: Bigger.

Paul: As a substrate, or as a, as an influence, rather than as the thing itself.

Rich: Right.

Paul: Which is how we are.

Rich: Right.

Paul: So that was, uh….great.

Rich: A lot of fun.

Paul: Virginia Heffernan wrote a book called Magic and Loss. Everyone should go buy that book. I’m Paul Ford.

Rich: Rich Ziade.

Paul: You’ve been listening to Track Changes, the official Postlight podcast. Postlight is a digital studio, and if you need anything you can get in touch with us at [email protected]. We’ll see you soon.

Rich: Bye.