The Internet Isn't Rotting Your Brain — It's the Fullest Expression of Humanity

Go fearlessly into the Internet, but not blindly, says Virginia Heffernan – each corner of digital culture has its best practices. Not learning them is a disrespect.

Virginia Heffernan: The book does have some pragmatic and concrete suggestions. The first is stop hating ourselves for participating in digital culture. It's a real drag on our health and our immune system to spend our time on our phones or on our laptops or in other kinds of digital space using GPS technology thinking that there's something wrong with us for doing it. So that's the first thing that the book really asks people to do it just for an hour or two imagine the Internet is not a neurotoxin, it's not causing brain damage. It's an opportunity and an opportunity to use wholeheartedly, to use with confidence, to use with dignity, to use with all of your humanity. Now each of the forms has its own constraints. So if you're using text online to show up to consumers or to meet your friends then there are certain considerations and they're the considerations that poets have made sense of.

One of the most beautiful things I've ever heard said about how poets construct their sentences, their phrases, their lines is that - this is Helen Vendler the great critic of poetry. She says that every moment after every word any word can follow it next. So in the gap between two words you give the impression or the illusion that any word is possible. And the reader should feel just a slight, slight micron intake of breath like what could come next. So for companies showing up online, surprise, delight. How do you use that little space between words so that you don't – say you are leveraging a cliché like at the end of the day, maybe it's at the end of the millennium, maybe it's a different word there other than day.

When you think of beautiful slogans that capture something in our minds, they're surprising; they're delightful. They're I didn't expect it to go in that direction. And the same is true for Twitter. When you look at political candidates that have used Twitter well, like I must say Donald Trump, you don't know what he's going to say next. He has us in suspense all the time and that suspense is very important. I think brands have had a hard time building suspense because it's nerve-racking a little bit to take those kinds of risks, but it's necessary. As for images, learn the vernacular of a place like Instagram. It's not easy. I just tried the other night to learn the idiom of Twitch, to learn to read a thread as they say on Twitch and most of the vocabulary was entirely new to me. I didn't realize that grill [ph] is a girl, that when Melania Trump was described as salt that that was an illusion to an Angelina Jolie movie from 2010. That this kind of shorthand you don't look at that kind of shorthanded say on Instagram, the grammar of Instagram whether you use filters or not, the move to no filter away from the very highly aestheticized use of the latter filters. That's something that brands should know and are required to know. The third form I talk about is design. So one of the interesting hallmarks of design online is that the expedient design on the World Wide Web, that junkie non-design that you see on some of the early services like Yahoo and AOL that is really determined to read the reader, so while you're involved in it it's collecting data from you and it's trying like a souk, like an open market to kind of pick your pocket at every turn and you have to be on guard against it. That's an experience that's some Internet users like or at least tolerate in order to try to get the resources at those sites.

Then you look at the use of apps that have resurrected Japanese design, Italian design, Scandinavian design and some of the troupes of the 20th century that were associated with higher art. So recognizing that split is very, very important and recognizing also that there's an elitist and a populist split. You spend all your time on apps then you have no exposure to the vocabulary that generated the campaign of Donald Trump or that makes Red Bull such a compelling brand. You don't touch the id of people; you live entirely on these beautiful removed apps and you're missing something from the human experience. So figuring out a way with designed to show up online and maybe show up on mobile is a challenge for brands and for new businesses.

The other parts of the book treat music, treat video, which is obviously an extremely compelling part of the Internet partly because video dis graphed so well onto ads, but YouTube has a grammar almost like nothing else. It can be very opaque. It needs to be studied. You need digital natives or at least people who are like really emotionally drawn to YouTube and Snapchat in order to use it properly and with proper respect for how it works. It's extraordinary to me that a campaign will drop into a form out of nowhere, or you see brands doing this on Twitter all the time, without any understanding of how hash tags work or tagging works. And then at last music. Music is a world of its own and it's probably worth taking a look at the chapter on music at least to understand all the ups and downs of it, but typically digital visual culture and text culture is silent. We don't like unwanted sound on the Internet. We don't like unwanted sound from our phones. We're always being asked to silence them and so music has to be a powerful experience and also a live experience.

Companies that have embraced the return of live culture in the form of conferences, concerts, are doing well; they're embracing the future, that maker culture, foodism, all those things that can't be digitized that like a live concert are the future. The pushback on the Internet is the future.

Virginia Heffernan has been hooked on the Internet since she first heard the sour-lemon screechy tones of dial-up back in 1979, and believes it to be among mankind’s great masterpieces. The journalist and author has watched digital culture evolve into a fully-fledged civilization that is richly detailed, with corners and compartments that are as different as all the world’s tribes. Heffernan doesn’t see the Internet as a "neurotoxin" and she urges people to stop feeling guilty about using apps and websites, as if they’re a cheat from real-world living; a way to waste time but not to spend it. She cares not whether people go online for business or leisure, only that they dive in wholeheartedly, use it with confidence and learn the lingo, style, and constraints of whatever platform they choose to be a part of. Business must be brave; individuals even braver. Don’t just mill around the sanitized designs of apps like Instagram and e-commerce sites, she says, wade in further to websites and platforms that feel foreign to experience the full humanity of a community that is different from you – but will adopt you if you drop the right syntax. Don’t half-ass it; become a digital native. Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.


Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

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