Why the Internet Is the Greatest Achievement of Any Civilization, Ever

Cast off your Luddite gloom. The Internet is simply the greatest thing to ever happen to the world. It incorporates every element of art, culture, and ingenuity, taking humanity to a wholly new era.

Virginia Heffernan:  I see the Internet as the great masterpiece of human civilization, to which we're all contributing all the time the nearly four billion of us with wireless access across the globe. And the reason I call it art is that the building blocks of this enterprise, the Internet, seem obscure, it seems like this must be the tubes or code or a complex surveillance state or operation of various huge tech companies. In fact what we're looking at and interacting with are ancient forms, including text and short form text that for centuries has been known as lyric poetry. And two-dimensional images that bear are a lot of resemblance to frescoes and even cave drawings that we now see the same tropes being resurrected on first Flickr and then Instagram and Snapchat. We see on YouTube we see performance and it music that might have belonged to the ancient Greeks. And, of course, we see music in the form of digitized music, MP3s, Lossless music streaming on title. So it's very difficult to me to see it as not art.

These are exactly the building blocks of civilization, the artifacts that have determined civilization, an increasing civilization. So rather than see us as going to more coarseness and barbarism with the Internet I see this as increasing civility, increasing organization and a natural progress of civilization.

The Internet does have the hallmarks of a move that we see in the culture since ancient times to increasing abstraction. So online where certain interactions might have taken place in an actual mob with actual fisticuffs, now you see those things happening on Twitter in the so-called Twitter mob with a kind of symbolic aggression that can be just as unnerving to witness. But as far as damage to physical bodies it's much kinder. And so there is a great book about the arguments for capitalism before it's triumph up by a writer Albert Hirschman. And he points out that capitalism had a sweetening effect. He calls it a sweetening effect. Dusar [ph]. It brought a level of – commerce brought a level of civilization to what might have been a war like interaction among peoples. I see the Internet on a continuum with that. I also like many other writers, especially early writers about the Internet see a religious and almost theological component to the Internet.

I came to the Internet by chance in 1979; ARPANET era, the era of the eve networks. I was a child. I lucked into a so-called dumb terminal that I could dial in with a modem and a coupler to a mainframe computer in the middle of my New Hampshire town. And when I looked at that screen, that dark, dark background and then the phosphor green letters in the front I wanted to know what was out there. I wanted to know what was in that squeal and crash of information I heard on my modem, I heard on the coupler on the telephone. And that speculation about what that deep space behind the letters might comprise or what the Macintosh and iPhone interface is keeping from us, you know, what that friendly interface is hiding from us, what that mystery back there is that can't be explained in simple engineering terms, it's at this point indistinguishable from magic as Arthur C Clarke said.  

I believe that the form of the tradition that the Internet partakes of is realism. That doesn't mean that it actually represents the world. Photography is a realist form. It's not deliberately artful. It purports to represent the world as it is. Then you look at daguerreotypes photos, you look at Matthew Brady photos of the Civil War and you see all kinds of art, all kinds of posing, all kinds of formal conventions that hamstring it, even as it claims to represent the world as it is. Now, the same is true of film. The resistance to three-dimensional film recently has said well film already accurately represents the world. Well, the introduction of prospective in the renaissance made painting more "realistic," depth is an actual component of experience. So to say that 3-D that adding a third dimension, that adding depth is not a way to more accurately represented the world, at least short sales or represents like a high investment in the realism of two-dimensional film. A real credulity about how well we're representing the world as it is.

And that illusion, the illusion that we're getting closer and closer to more realistically representing the world is one that we have all the time. Every new technology, including science and the compasses and sextants of analog culture claim to represent the world as it is. And the arts have followed that too, except for that defiant pushback on the realist forms that we see with impressionism or say punk music. I see in the rise of vinyl, the renaissance in vinyl sells a love inaccurately representing musical symbols. So the so-called representative form that is the MP3 compressed musical technology aims to be super true to the idea of high, high, high fidelity, sharp realist representation of music. Well, the vinyl sound, the muddy or sound, the more mediated sound, the sound of that signals that there are dust particles and air and depth and grooves has a certain humanness to it that the impressionists captured when they left off trying to capture the world as it is and captured a subjective experience of the world. So yes, I believe that the illusion that the Internet not only represents life accurately but is life, is an illusion and it's an illusion we should be very aware of.

Virginia Heffernan, journalist and cultural critic, believes the Internet is one of the great advances not only of our current culture, but of any culture at any point in history. The Internet allows for better documentation of the world around us, and we are slowly getting closer to a completely accurate documentation of history. Heffernan compares prior historical documentation to the crackle of vinyl records: they are a representation of reality created by humans but with a low fidelity to reality itself.


Technology, including the internet, is slowly evolving to be better at documenting what life is like. There are 4D movies, iPhones that can create holograms, and apps to document police encounters (such as Hands Up) or put dog ears on a selfie (Snapchat.)

As Mark Fischbach, online Youtube personality known as Markiplier, said back in December, 2014: "The global, shining goal of the Internet is to combine everybody and to let everyone talk with everyone, and unite, and make cool stuff together. I didn’t know it would happen this quickly." He’s quite right. The Internet works best when everyone can contribute, and it lets people across the world interact and learn about other cultures, and other ways of thinking.

Just a few decades ago, sound in movies was a brand new thing, and color wasn't even thought of. It was not that long ago that historians filmed real life Civil War veterans doing the now famous rebel yell. As Heffernan points out, the Internet and similar technologies are just illusions of pure documentation, like video of Civil War vets. What's more, the Internet is just getting better...

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

Why the singular “They” is Merriam-Webster's word of the year

"They" has taken on a not-so-new meaning lately. This earned it the scrutiny it needed to win.

Pixabay by pexels
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Merriam-Webster has announced "they" as the word of the year.
  • The selection was based on a marked increase in traffic to the online dictionary page.
  • Runners up included "quid pro quo" and "crawdad."
Keep reading Show less

'The West' is, in fact, the world's biggest gated community

A review of the global "wall" that divides rich from poor.

Image: TD Architects
Strange Maps
  • Trump's border wall is only one puzzle piece of a global picture.
  • Similar anxieties are raising similar border defenses elsewhere.
  • This map shows how, as a result, "the West" is in fact one large gated community.
Keep reading Show less

Public health crisis: Facebook ads misinform about HIV prevention drug

Facebook's misinformation isn't just a threat to democracy. It's endangering lives.

Photo Credit: Paul Butler / Flickr
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
  • Over the years, Facebook's hands-off ad policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its political ads.
  • Unregulated "surveillance capitalism" commodifies people's personal information and makes them vulnerable to sometimes misleading ads.

LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.