Malcolm Gladwell and Virginia Heffernan on the Internet, Identity, and the Future of Facebook
“The thing that we assume is the permanent feature of the internet—the fact that everyone’s on it—strikes me as a ridiculous assumption. Why does everyone have to be on it?”
Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of five books of nonfiction, has a penchant for making the familiar surprising by revealing the hidden forces behind human behavior. He recently joined Virginia Heffernan for a live Heleo Conversation at the National Arts Club in Manhattan. Virginia is an acclaimed cultural critic and author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art, a new book which takes on the incredible significance of the digital world. Together, they examine the surprising changes in online culture, cybersecurity, and whether we’ll care about Facebook in ten years. Read the condensed transcript below or view the full video at the bottom.
Malcolm: Given the enormousness of the topic, the internet as art, we thought we would do something a little bit fun. We would go back and forth asking each other one-word questions. The conversation will flow from there.
Virginia: I like it. It’s a little bit competitive.
Malcolm: My first one-word question for you is: Athena.
Want more conversations with the world's great thinkers? Click the shiny blue button!
Virginia: Athena, my very first online handle. I was nine years old. It was the Arpanet era, 1979, and as luck would have it, John Kemeny, one of the co-authors of BASIC, was the president of Dartmouth College, in my colonial college town. He really wanted to put in a mainframe. The town was very protective of its schoolchildren and worried. In exchange for putting in this computer, he had to make a promise to the parents that he would give us a lecture on BASIC so we could fulfill parents’ greatest expectation in 1979: work for NASA. So I dialed into this mainframe with the idea that I was going to learn BASIC and work for NASA—and got waylaid by chat, the fundamental function of the internet.
Malcolm: Why did you choose Athena?
Virginia: I was nine, chubby, and freckled. I wanted to splash on the scene and talk about Reaganomics. It was an authority-gathering measure. You don’t go on as “Sad Brunette Girl.” I get to ask you about Jam Guy.
Malcolm: My first screen name. This was the mid-90s. My screen name on Echo was Jam Guy, because I am half Jamaican. Echo, as you may recall, was home to a series of extraordinarily nerdy discussion groups. One of my inaugural posts was a thousand-word post on where exactly New York City could put a rail line to JFK airport. I was so proud of it. Then I logged back in to see who had responded and someone had written below it, “Jam Guy posts for me.” I was filled with inexplicable joy; the world—or at least one person—had responded.
Virginia: That’s right. You were sending a signal out to the universe.
Malcolm: The universe responded, “Posts for me.”
Virginia: That’s powerful. I love it. I remember your email was “My Jamaican Guy” with some underscores. I asked you if it was myjamaicanguy@aol and you said, “Not AOL, Hotmail.”
Malcolm: Even to this day I have an aversion to AOL. All right. Next question: 2026?
Virginia: 10 years from now… I think we are in for a long time of anti-digital culture and I think it’s digging in already. Things that can’t be digitized, meaningful, beautiful things like mindfulness and food-ism and making your own ukuleles or whatever people do. (I hate food-ism, but I know other people like it.)
Vinyl and live music, and things that die and decay. I talk to vinyl fanatics and sound engineers about what’s missing from MP3 sound and what the vinyl sound carries. They are describing decay. They are describing the degradation of the signal.
You may know the people at Google are trying to really hack death. They are closing in on a set of supplements that are going to make is so there no mortal coils to slough off. Drop the conceit of mortality. What we miss are things that die, like each other.
The last thing I’ll say about the LSD breakfast that some people in Silicon Valley are taking. Picture an iPhone interface—if you take LSD, it’s so extraordinarily banal you can hardly stand it. Your eyes slide off it, apparently. The first guy that did it to break his Facebook and phone addiction said, “The faces of people on the bus became so fascinating.” He didn’t want to look at Facebook. I think you don’t need the LSD. A face is a lot more interesting. You look better than my phone.
Malcolm: Very comforting. We have a whole series of social media platforms that dominate our imagination at the moment. I’m wondering about how you think they will fare a decade in the future. Will we care about Facebook 10 years from now?
“Facebook is a really wonderful retirement community.”
Virginia: Facebook is a really wonderful retirement community now. It used to have this youthful vibrancy. Unfortunately that’s all gone. People just post pictures of their late fathers and have reasoned conversations between regular Republicans and Democrats. There is not a lot of pain there anymore. I feel like it will stay like that. Isn’t there a Nathaniel Hawthorne story where everyone dances and is dead forever? That’s going to be Facebook. Snapchat has done a wonderful job of creating things that die and vanish which we didn’t think we needed and craved. Now we do.
Instagram realized, unlike the Flickr aesthetic, that there was a desire for images that looked degraded, polarized, overexposed to sunlight or that they had actual mineral properties to them.
I’m not sure if that will stay forever as a simulacrum of the dying world, or if we’ll bounce off it entirely. You see this with the return of darkroom photography. As simply a network, like a means of exchange and YouTube. The PayPal diaspora that gave us Peter Thiel also gave us YouTube, the idea that these are just units of exchange. A photograph is a unit of exchange, a lump of text is a unit of exchange, an update, a tweet. I’m not sure what will ride those systems but I think they’ll continue at this kind of high velocity because at this point it’s like finance. It’s the way the world talks to itself.
Malcolm: I read this book the other day about the history of the telephone. From the 1880s through the 1920s, everyone involved with the telephone totally gets it wrong. They think in the beginning that it’s just for business. They get that you could call stores on the telephone. That makes total sense to them. They don’t get that you would call your friend and gossip. In fact they actively discouraged people from using the telephone for social purposes, for literally the first 40 years that the telephone existed.
Malcolm: The other thing is they didn’t understand that it would be useful to people who live in the countryside. Because they didn’t understand its social nature, they didn’t understand its geographical function. As opposed to now, where if you’re living in a farm in Nebraska, of course the telephone is your lifeline to the world. They thought, “It’s just urban. It’s not rural at all.” It took forever to string the countryside. Not for financial reasons, but because they didn’t think the countryside was interested in it
If you are of the mind, as I am, that we don’t get any smarter, then that’s very sobering. You think, well if they didn’t get the telephone for 40 years, what are they not getting about the internet? When I look at Facebook, Snapchat, et cetera, my base assumption is if they exist at all 10 years from now they will exist in a way that is unrecognizable to us now.
Virginia: I think you’re right. This thing about the telephone makes perfect sense to me, that they would forget to wire the places that needed it most—the same is true of cable television.
Next question: Hillary?
Malcolm: I’m not speaking of Hillary globally, rather, specifically about the email controversy. This has bothered me from the beginning. The state department was hacked first by Mr. Snowden. Then two years ago, the state department had to shut down its servers because it couldn’t get rid of Russian malware. We’re in a situation where essentially the contents of the files of the state department are now in the public domain and the servers are in the control of Russians. In that situation, the Secretary of State chooses to have some of her email reside on her Blackberry.
The only rational reading of that is that her information is more safe on her Blackberry than it is on her state department server, right? The whole controversy is about getting upset at her for moving her information from a demonstrably unsafe place to a safe place. Now, the only way you can have that conversation in public life is if your connection to the problem of internet security is completely broken. Nobody wants to talk about the fact that in one enormous area, the internet is not just a failure but a complete and utter fuck up. It is a disaster. Every single day someone hacks more information. Basically it looks like there is no organization in the world that can effectively protect its data from someone who is determined to hack it, right?
“It is now routine for hospitals to have their medical records stolen and held for ransom. We are in a moment of complete and utter breakdown.”
Malcolm: The OPM hack two years ago—we think the Chinese made off with the files on 15 million Americans who applied for National Security Clearance. When you apply for a National Security Clearance you tell the officer, personnel, and management everything about yourself that can possibly be told, including every person of consequence you’ve had meaningful relationships with. In other words, what the Chinese got when they hacked those 15 million was a download on what every person who was critical to our national defense cares about, thinks about, has talked to.
It is now routine occurrence for hospitals to have all of their medical records stolen by someone and held for ransom until the hospital pays. We are in a moment of complete and utter breakdown. At this moment what is the thing that we are concerned about—the fact that a candidate for public office moved her emails to a safer platform? This is complete and utter lunacy.
Virginia: Maybe we go to the dark internet next.
Malcolm: I think anyone who’s concerned about security in the near future is going to drop out of the internet. It’s not inconceivable you could start another internet that was safe. It would look different. The thing that we assume is the permanent feature of the internet—the fact that everyone’s on it—strikes me as a ridiculous assumption. Why does everyone have to be on it? I don’t want my bank to be on the internet.
Virginia: Everyone being on it—and the original idea of information’s freedom and the diversity and heterogeneity of internet users—is part of the security. The argument is that in order to protect women fleeing female genital mutilation who can’t get to computers otherwise or need secure email, you also have to have pornographers. And the fact that we all communicate, including presidents, using Gmail, makes it anonymous like a city, because you’re instantly less trackable that way. You can hide in plain sight.
Malcolm: But institutional data strikes me as being utterly vulnerable at the moment—as opposed to Gmail. I’m a big track and field fan. Two weeks ago, a bunch of Russian hackers hacked the International Drug Enforcement Agencies files, and every day they’ve been releasing the confidential records of world class runners. What drug exemptions they’ve applied for, etc. It’s just preposterous, there’s no meaning to the word confidential anymore. I don’t know whether people have fully wrapped their minds around the fact that institutional data, the door is open.
Virginia: I think that’s right.
Malcolm: At what point did we agree to a world in which the door to every important institution holding our private data was opened. When did I sign off on this?
I was at an IT conference, talking with these guys who do computer IT security for major corporations, and not a single one of them had satellite radio in their cars. “No way I’ll do that, that’s how they get in.” Okay: Photoshop?
Virginia: The first talk I gave about the book was to my daughter’s first grade class. I said, the magic in the title is the amazement you see when you discover a new app or feature. When you first saw Pokemon Go. The loss is that depressed, dead feeling when you’ve been on the web too long. One kid’s hand shot up and he said, “Why don’t you look like your picture?”
I said, “That’s exactly right. My picture is a confection that is not me. I had my hair colored and had done a thousand skin treatments.”
Malcolm: The picture’s amazing, by the way.
Virginia: Tell it to the pixels, they just really painted that thing right. I had a full makeup job and lots of hair stuff done and then I was in a studio and the guy took a million pictures and he chose one, and then made changes all over on the computer… I mean, John Singer Sargent would have painted a more realistic likeness. But it’s very important to me—that is my Athena now. She goes out there and takes sniper fire for me, she’s whatever she needs to be, looks strong, looks whatever, so I can lead my life offline. I think it’s very important that instead of receding offline, you put in placeholders that are authoritative and a little bit authentic, with a few vulnerabilities, but not too many, and they don’t look so staged.
“It’s the most human of impulses to separate, over time, our version of reality from actual reality.”
Malcolm: It reminds me of what we know about memory. Which is that memory is not based on the event, it’s based on your recollection of the event. It’s a crucial insight about memory, it sounds banal, but it’s totally revolutionary. When you remember an event, what you’re remembering is the last time you spoke about the event, so to the extent that you change your recollection of the event every time that you tell it, you change your memory of it. That’s why as stories get retold, the memory changes along with it. When Brian Williams tells that story about Vietnam—for which he was pilloried in the most outrageous way—he was doing what we all do. If you watch the way he had told that story over time, he had advanced in precisely this way, putting an ever more idealized version, unconsciously idealized, out in the world. In the beginning, he’s watching the helicopter being attacked, by the time he’s told it like ten times, he’s in the helicopter. That’s what you were doing with your image.
There’s nothing banal, vain or false about that, that’s simply something human. It’s the most human of impulses which is to separate, over time, our version of reality from actual reality.
Virginia: I like Instagram selfies for the same reason. Instagram selfies are supposed to confirm that there’s a lot of narcissism around, but I’m not sure. I was way too self-conscious to let someone take a picture of me and put it somewhere, much less take it myself, and have people see me posing for the camera, like this is how I want to come across. It seems like this extraordinary vulnerability to me.
Malcolm: We’re incredibly intolerant of this fundamental desire of human beings to improve on their experience through the use of their memories and the tools of their memories. For some reason, we have a prudish, puritanical response to people’s very understandable desire to tweak. If I can tweak my picture on the internet, why can’t I tweak my memories on the internet?
Virginia: One thing I keep thinking of is Jony Ive’s boast that his touch screen is oleophobic. It hates our oil, the secretions. It hates our bodies, basically, and who hates the disgusting, hideous miracle of life more than Apple? They just want clean rooms and clean things. I feel like there’s backlash against that.
I think that we want smudged, greasy things with oils. It’s a design concept, rashes and eczema. I’m seeing it new on the iPhone 8.
Malcolm: I have three things to say about Gawker. Number one, my entire life has been spent working for journalistic organizations, the Washington Post and The New Yorker. Over the course of 20 years, I’ve had the following conversation—let’s say, conservatively, 30 times—in which my editor says to me, we’re going to have to have our lawyers look at that, and the lawyers look at that and say, you can’t say that, we don’t get to say it. And I say, come on! I’ve got to say that! And the lawyers say, no no no, we’re gonna get sued, and I say, but it’s true, and they say, yeah, but it’s not worth it.
I say okay, I change it. 30 times I’ve had this conversation. At Gawker, clearly, that conversation never happened.
For 30 years, not just me but everyone working for The New Yorker and the Washington Post and countless other organizations around the world have changed their stories, not because they’re wrong, but because you get sued when you say nasty things. Even if you’re sued for wrong reasons, it’s not worth it, so you change it. Gawker didn’t have that. Why am I supposed to cry the blues for them if they didn’t want to change it after the lawyers said don’t write that?
“Gawker chose to get sued over publishing a video of a guy having sex with his best friend’s wife. Is that the rock we want to die on?”
Point number two: there is an exception. The exception is that every now and again, the lawyer says to you, we will get sued—but it’s worth it. Why? Because there is a point of principle involved. So the Pentagon Papers comes along and the New York Times and the Washington Post have discussions with their lawyer. The lawyer says, you’re gonna get sued, and they say, you know what, on something of this political and social importance, that is a risk we are willing to take. Gawker chose to get sued over publishing a video of a guy having sex with his best friend’s wife. Is that the rock we want to die on?
Point number three: Gawker is a website. If it gets sued and put out of business, why don’t they just start over? If the Washington Post got put out of business, it would literally take hundreds of millions of dollars to get it back into business. You have printing presses, distribution systems, a fleet of trucks. I mean, a website is a bunch of people in a room with a server, not even a server, with an Amazon services account. The whole point of the internet is that if you sue it and it goes out of business, then you turn around and you start Gawker Two. Isn’t that the point?
Virginia: I’m with you. I have had a more diverse tour through journalism than you, including Yahoo News. To my surprise, journalism hadn’t just become media, we knew that, but media at Yahoo had become marketing. What sticky thing can you do to pull people into use Yahoo’s other services that will make them spend money?
We didn’t have any lawyers because this was marketing. When Judith Miller went to town on why we should go to Iraq, she stayed around the Times for a year and a half afterwards. At Yahoo, if you said the wrong thing, it was like being a PR person or marketing person, it was just off-with-your-head firing. There was no lawyer—I don’t know if Gawker ever had a lawyer, I mean until they got sued.
Malcolm: If they didn’t have one, they were literally taking that risk.
Virginia: There’s the downside, but then there’s also the upside. When I was a fact checker at The New Yorker, I heard people say, I hate that you’re doing this, but I know that you’ve got to do this. I remember with Jeff Toobin’s OJ reporting, it was just like, “Oh you’re going to make my life hell, but I know you’ve got to report this.” So the upsides and downsides weren’t represented I don’t think at Gawker. It wasn’t like we have to do this for some crusading first amendment, this is the Pentagon Papers thing. Although, Nick Denton spins it that way sometimes.
Virginia:Yeah, well, both of us have been lampooned by Gawker, but I’m the only one willing to say what they said about me.
Malcolm:What did they say about you?
Virginia:They said that my views would be funny coming from a dreamcatcher-making, batty old aunt living in the woods. Someone who writes for the New York Times, for shame.
Malcolm:I love that you remember that, and the I’m still trying to figure out what it means.
Virginia:I had to look up dreamcatchers, but they also said something about macrame so I put it in. Next question?
Virginia: Ben is my son. Recently, I got him a phone, but he decided he doesn’t want a phone because it’s feminizing, because only girls get addicted to their phones. I thought that was an interesting sign of things to come. The same thing happened with the novel, with a lot of great art forms.
Malcolm: There was a point that the novel became feminized?
Virginia: It was feminized in the 18th century. In the 19th century too, George Eliot and Jane Austen, and then it became muscular for a brief period in the 20th century. By feminized, I mean a good thing—so I’m glad we got our phones back from you guys who are too manly to have smartphones.
Malcolm: This idea takes me back to the misunderstanding of the telephone in the early years and that the internet may have some surprises for us as it evolves. And this feminized thing is an unexpected detour that technology could take. For example, one of the most interesting things about driving is how it’s become feminized in the last 15 or 20 years.
Virginia: You mean because we’re further and further away from the mechanisms of the car?
Malcolm: A car was defined as a masculine object through the first 50 years of its experience and was engineered deliberately to appeal to men. It required a level of technical expertise, the steering took physical strength, the imagery of the car was all about macho testosterone. I was driving a 15 year-old car with a stick this weekend. When you do it, you’re reminded, just 15 years ago, it was physically taxing to drive a car with hydraulic steering. Five years from now you won’t drive it at all. The whole thing has been redefined. If the phone gets redefined for your kid’s generation as a feminine object it could take it in directions that you can’t imagine.
In a battle between the structural features of a piece of technology and cultural notions of gender roles, gender roles win every time. There is no technology in the world that can stand up to those.
The conversation above has been edited and condensed. Full video below.
Want great ideas delivered to your inbox?
Get conversations with the world's top thinkers directly to your inbox.
While you're at it, keep up with us on Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.