Life Online

All School Read with Virginia Heffernan

It was fitting that the 2011 All-School Read (ASR) had to be accessed online, through Middlesex’s new website, given that the topic at hand was the Internet’s influence on life, communication, and relationships today. 

Once the new academic year was underway, the School gathered to reflect on the ASR in its entirety. After a nighttime screening of the film, The Social Network, in the Wood Theatre on September 23, an Assembly the following morning featured New York Times’ journalist Virginia Heffernan, who helped frame the day’s discussion and whose columns for the “Opinionator” blog were included in the ASR.

Before beginning her remarks, Ms. Heffernan surprised adults and students alike by asking everyone to take out their smartphones and cell phones (typically not allowed in Assembly) in order to post their thoughts and comments to Twitter during her presentation. Once that process had been initiated, she reflected on the state of online use today, calling it a “crossroads” between analog and digital life.  “The catastrophe has already happened,” she stated, referring to the tectonic shift toward all things digital. “The old regime of media, publishing, and education that once set our expectations is over. You can stop fearing it and worrying about it. Your sorrow and sadness can begin.”

When starting to write her forthcoming book, Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet, Ms. Heffernan said she had intended to take a purely positive approach to the Internet.  But after hearing people speak nostalgically about the sound of vinyl records and other “analog” experiences, she came to realize that her premise could not be that simple. “We are living in exponential times,” she observed. “You might feel excited by the digital possibilities, or you might feel that you don’t want any part of it. These are two legitimate responses.” 

Describing her own enthusiasm for e-readers and apps – as well as for the quality of landline phone calls – Ms. Heffernan seemed at times to epitomize the ambivalence many feel about the Web; but, she resolved to offer three options to take toward the Internet, which she pronounced “the great masterpiece of humanity.”

Eschewing the digital world entirely was the first and “least exercised” choice, while a second alternative involved avoiding the marketing world of Web browsers by using ad-free apps on a mobile device instead. The third option was to embrace the Web with all of its social networking and its mix of information, advertising, and commerce.

“It’s an amazing time to be alive and working,” Ms. Heffernan concluded, advocating the third option. “The catastrophe has happened. It’s behind us. The best is no doubt ahead of us.”

After answering several questions, Ms. Heffernan joined a panel of six students who offered their differing responses to questions, from how they felt about the Internet to how technology has affected their lives – and how Middlesex might change if everyone turned off their phones and computers for a week. With more quandaries than time to ponder them all, Mr. Scheibe encouraged everyone to post their final comments on the ASR through the Middlesex website, bringing an analog experience to a digital close.

All School Read with Virginia Heffernan
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