• Fiona Prior

‘Magic and Loss: the Internet as Art’ and ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ – an unusual alignment

Updated: May 1, 2020

Magic and Loss: the Internet as Art’ and ‘The Phenomenon of Man

Virginia Heffernan, author of ‘Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art’ (2016) has written a book that presents the internet as a multi-creator work; an artwork to which we – each and every user of the internet – contributes. While reading, I couldn’t help thinking that there was something in ‘Magic and Loss’ that echoed another, much older text, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘The Phenomenon of Man’. (*‘The Phenomenon of Man(1955) was published after the author’s death mid-20th century, postponed as Teilhard was a Jesuit priest, and portions of his thesis hinted at an evolutionary theory that did not quite fit with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.)

Strangely, this 20th century scientist/theologian and Heffernan, a 21st century journalist/intellectual were writing about a very similar idea of creation, though the entities they describe exist on opposite sides of our computer screens.

I completely understand why Heffernan presents the internet as an ever shape-shifting multi-creator artwork. The internet reflects our curated selves (think Facebook, Instagram, emails; all ‘considered’ forms of communication) and our non-curated, sometimes secret selves (think those porn sites every teenage boy with web access covertly visits, and all the silly stuff you read and surf that you’d be embarrassed to share with friends). Add to this very specific data capture; for example, where we log on, what credit cards we use to online purchase, where we work, with whom we communicate … and what manifests is a multidimensional entity that is in our collective image and behavioural likeness. An ever-evolving snapshot, ever-updating by way of new technological abilities, new user generations/geographies, and new trends and obsessions – in the moment we can glimpse our collective selves behind that screen in all our awfulness and beauty.

Teilhard de Chardin’s much older text ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ may seem an incongruous comparison at first glimpse but ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ hinted at a similar vision of co-creation to that of Heffernan. Being a Jesuit, he saw this collective collaboration as our psychological/spiritual evolution towards an ’omega point’; a point which Teilhard believed was when our fully evolved world ‘brain’ converged with divinity. Take out the theology (though it would be a shame, as it is beautifully conceived) and from a more operational framework his text was about the world being a network of interconnected, collaborating minds, ever evolving with all other lifeforms in a massive thinking/co-creating web.

Heffernan’s co-creation lies behind our screens, while Teilhard’s co-creation is in fact our physical and spiritual existence, on our side of the glass ... and beyond I guess, dependent on our beliefs. As ‘Wired’ magazine put it so succinctly, ‘(Teilhard) set down the philosophical framework for planetary, Net-based consciousness’ and with 21st century eloquence, Heffernan has given us its on-line 'portrait' through the looking glass.

Whichever author you prefer, it is motivating to find two such disparate intellectuals presenting the proposition that we co-create our world.


Last week's 'Life after COVID-19' had some interesting responses.

Please see the take of Clem S:

" Thinking about the BNW is so interesting. A few observations on your take:

  • Information monitoring: balance to the Police State issues

  • I'm less taken by the WFH impact on office - I think people will still want to socialise: think HK post SARS as one model of impact?

  • Agree 100% on technology. Will accelerate change for sure. Even my mother now has an email account, and quite chuffed she is too 😉

  • Governments will trend away from globalisation to autarky. Even AU will have incentives in place to manufacture: state driven not consumer driven?

  • Not sure about UBI. Adjustment could be higher unemployment for a while. But NewStart will definitely have to rise. Agree lots of industries simply won't revive (Myer - if they have more than 10 stores when they re-open, I'll be amazed)

  • Geopolitics: what happens in Europe? What happens in Indonesia (4th largest country in the world)

  • Population: alternate view is the increase in domestic violence; the "why bring kids into this world"; and the number one environmental issue at the moment is too many people??

Anyway, there is lots to think about!"

A number of people suggested that post COVID-19 financial transactions will be entirely electronic, ie paper money is dead.


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