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.

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.

Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Keep reading Show less

Mixing human + animal DNA and the future of gene editing

"The question is which are okay, which are not okay."

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.

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