This could be a somber exercise, examining the ashes of Pompeii rather than glimpsing the City on the Edge of Tomorrow. But Heffernan is a gleeful trickster, a semiotics fan with an unabashed sweet tooth for pop culture, who believes we shouldn’t confuse grief over the passing of our favorite technology with resentment because some digital alchemy failed to preserve analog experiences ... Loss means plenty to mourn — at one point Heffernan trips into a memory hole for the cord-tangling days of gabbing on the house phone. That nostalgia feels outmoded in places ... That’s what makes Magic and Loss hold together: It embraces the internet as a work in progress. It’s an enjoyable snapshot, perhaps imperfect, but always dangerously close to receding from view as we scroll onto whatever’s next.
Plenty has been written in both these veins. The internet is a gee-whiz wonder that will change everything (that’s the magic part) or a force destroying and dumbing down culture (the loss). Ms. Heffernan tries to avoid both extremes, mostly by choosing off-beat examples ... The author is at her best pointing out the natural but silly inclination of elites to denigrate much internet fare ... Sometimes all these explorations can be a bit much ... Nonetheless, Magic and Loss is an illuminating guide to the internet.
...some of the most engaging parts of the book are the broadly autobiographical sections in which she reconciles the apparent contradictions of her own dual identity as both an early adopter of networked technology and a literary academic ... her book is at its most satisfying when it’s letting the air out of inflated rhetoric about the death of this or that cultural form ... Heffernan’s enthusiasm for the whole digital panoply is often infectious, but the experience can at times seem less like reading criticism than browsing an exceptionally well-written series of product reviews. In this sense, the book never really gets close to fulfilling its stated aim of understanding the internet 'as an integral part of our humanity, as the latest and most powerful extension and expression of the project of being human.' What Heffernan does come to an understanding of, and writes wonderfully about, is the internet as an integral part of her own humanity.
Heffernan aims to do for online life what Susan Sontag, Marshall McLuhan, Lester Bangs, and Pauline Kael did for the fields of photography, media, music, and film...This romantic futurism—an aggressive lightheartedness—regularly comes up against more ontological questions and unsavory case studies that I wish Heffernan would tackle, but which wouldn’t quite complement her argument. 'I’ll go on treating message boards like novels until I am persuaded otherwise,' she writes in defense of casual online discourse. This is a lovely approach, and Yahoo! Answers may well be the great satirical novel of our time. But this approach is also very detached from the emotional states that lead people in crisis to solicit the company of strangers on, say, medical message boards. This type of oversight is endemic to Magic and Loss, which relies on a division between the offline self and the online presentation of the self...Magic and Loss is actually a bit difficult to critique because it does not commit to its own thesis; the boundaries of the argument and subject are undefined, which makes it difficult to know when the book strays and when it succeeds.
Magic and Loss is a slim book, but jam-packed. Heffernan is a brilliant thinker — though her language is clear and bracing, I found myself churning hard to keep up with the pace of her extremely intelligent mind ... At her best, Heffernan calls into question the snobbism and classism that have fueled some of the most derisive anti-internet strains ... Magic and Loss is part cultural criticism, part ethnography, and just as much personal essay. Heffernan’s dismissal of certain culture-wide laments often rests on incisive analysis — but, at other times, it has to be acknowledged that we all care about different things; we are all differently sad.