Strange as it seems, it may have taken augmented reality to open our eyes to the real world. Journalist Virginia Heffernan recalls visiting Massachusetts recently, following a Pokémon through the streets, when she looked up and noticed a plaque she’d never seen before. The game had pushed her beyond what she knew, and unlike most apps, invited her to physically venture outside the narrow confines of comfort, towards real-world discovery.
Heffernan is known for her view of the Internet as a work of art — and not just any work, but an unmatched masterpiece, the greatest achievement in human civilization. Like any great artwork, she believes apps and digital platforms act like great artworks by inviting us to take risks. And just like art, you can’t always explain why you like or are drawn to a certain piece or style — it boils down to a feeling. To instinct.
That sense of appeal and natural instinct plays a large part in the success games like Pokémon GO (which requires little onboarding to play, you just dive in) and platforms such as YouTube. Heffernan cites an early user of YouTube called Geriatric 1929, a former RAF pilot who felt an intuitive click with the video-sharing site the moment he stumbled across it. As a pensioner, for him it brought back the sensation of using radar and sonar in the war to communicate with invisible bodies in his heyday. He felt he had been waiting decades for the technology and it was finally here.
The Internet’s sweetest spots are the ones where you’re thrown into a current of excitement or commonality with thousands or millions of other people, diving headfirst into something that feels almost as involuntary to you as breathing. There’s nothing elite about it, it’s inhale-exhale; you play beside children, across class divisions, and above political opinion. “When I argue that the Internet is a work of art I don’t argue that it’s good for our health,” Heffernan says. “I don’t argue if it’s good for society, good for one of the parties or another, good for America, good for globalism. I argue that it’s art and art leads us to places, it changes us and asks for a willingness to be changed.”
Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.
Virginia Heffernan writes regularly about digital culture for The New York Times Magazine. In 2005, Heffernan (with co-writer Mike Albo) published the cult comic novel The Underminer. In 2002, she received her PhD in English Literature from Harvard.