‘Magic and Loss: the Internet as Art’ and ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ – an unusual alignment
Updated: Mar 17
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 text, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ (1955). ‘The Phenomenon of Man’ was published after the author’s death mid-20th century as he 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 and so publication was postponed.
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 described exist on opposite sides of our computer screens.
I completely understand why Heffernan presents the internet as an ever shape-shifting multi-creator entity. The internet reflects our curated selves (think Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, emails; all ‘considered’ forms of communication) and our non-curated, sometimes secret selves (think those porn sites every teenage boy with access to the web covertly visits and also all the silly stuff you read and surf that you’d be embarrassed to share with friends). Add to this the very specific data capture of where we log on, what credit cards we use to online purchase, where we work, with whom we communicate … and all this manifests as a multidimensional entity that is in our collective image and behavioural likeness. Ever-evolving, ever-updating by way of new technological abilities, new user generations, new user geographies, and new trends and obsessions – we can glimpse our collective selves behind that screen; who we are and what our multi-denominational human culture values in all its awfulness and its beauty.
Teilhard de Chardin’s very old ‘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 Heffernan. Being a Jesuit he called this collective collaboration our 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 is truly poetic, and it would be a shame to do so) and from a more modern aesthetic framework his text was about the world being a network of interconnected collaborating minds, clad in flesh and bone, ever evolving with all other lifeforms as a massive thinking, holistic network.
Heffernan’s co-creation lives behind our screens, while Teilhard’s co-creation, as ‘Wired’ magazine put it so succinctly, ‘set down the philosophical framework for planetary, net-based consciousness’. Heffernan calls it a multi-authored artwork while Teilhard’s creation was far more a theological proposition through the eyes of a scientist. Whichever, what a wonderful surprise to glimpse so much similarity between two favourite authors.
To purchase The Phenomenon of Man, click here.
To purchase Magic and Loss, click here.
So far so interesting. These two authors are of course not alone in the concept that we are multi-creators of our existence.
And optimism lies within both theories. I can’t say that the representation of 'us' I see offline or online is worthy of such a convergence in any sense of 'divine' but it certainly is an aspirational theory and maybe with a little less cruelty and darkness (on web and in life), and a little more careful curation and respect of humanity and our environment, we will be worthy of a divinely co-created existence.