Public Mystery

Endangered species

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I do a lot of driving and, as a result, a lot of listening to podcasts. One of the handful of shows that I closely follow is 99% Invisible, a popular, well-produced podcast covering various topics that have some connection to design and architecture. Their episodes frequently inspire in me some lengthy introspection, as well as the occasional manic outburst of pessimism. (To be fair, my negativity is rarely related to the episode content itself, but usually in response to some pattern of social ill that I see playing out or reflected in a small way within the content of the episode.)

As was the case when I finished up a recent episode: “Mojave Phone Booth.”

Essentially, in the late ’90s, a guy learned of an isolated phone booth out in the Mojave Desert from a zine. After determining it was a real phone booth, he created a small webpage dedicated to this uniquely situated piece of communications technology. Over time, as the popularity of this odd phone booth exploded, more and more people traveled to see it. Ultimately, because of the amount of visitors it was attracting, it was removed entirely from the location where it stood.

As it is, I already have concerns about modern technology’s pervasive and thorough quest to catalog, analyze, and scrutinize our world and how it’s slowly eradicating our sense of the unknown and unknowable. What were previously far-off, mysterious regions of the planet can now be casually perused via Google Maps. As we continue to render all spaces and moments into recorded and instantly summon-able digital artifacts, we simultaneously run the risk of making those places and times a bit banal and more “known.”

I see this fear of mine playing out, in a sense, in the above story of the Mojave Phonebooth. Bringing something unique into the forum of the Internet runs the inherent risk of leveling massive amounts of (likely fickle, short-lived) attention onto it. And if the existence of that thing is closely tied to obscurity, then its survival suddenly becomes very fragile and tenuous. That familiar adage, slightly edited, is also true here: “Given enough eyeballs, all enigmas could be shallow.”

I realize this is largely just one side of the double-edged sword that is our Internet. The protocols and search engines that enable me to find and enjoy obscure netlabel music are the same that create opportunities for an occulted strangeness to be mobbed into oblivion, and I’m aware that it’s difficult to get one characteristic without the other. Still, I can’t help but lament that our technology is enabling us to heap potentially-destructive levels of attention on to niches of the world that can only really exist within some obscured shroud of mystery. And if there’s one thing that modern society hates, it’s obscurity.

Image: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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