Online Lies Magic?

I’m halfway through John Stilgoe’s excellent 1998 book Outside Lies Magic. In the first line of the book, Stilgoe urges the everyone to go outside, “beyond the trap of the programmed electronic age so gently closing around so many people at the end of our century.” (Again, 1998!!!) The book is a real pleasure: half a guide to exploring and noticing, half travel writing. The protagonist, “the explorer”, is both you the reader and Stilgoe himself, wandering through abandoned rail tracks, underneath highways, and along backroads.

Stilgoe leads the curiously named Visual and Environmental Studies department at Harvard, and his classes are legendary. I recall two moments, once in junior year and the other as a senior, sitting in a packed room of people hoping to get admitted to one of his small seminars, and feeling instantly discouraged. Friends who took his classes spoke of them in glowing terms, and many remain close to him.

Reading his book, I see now that I wouldn’t have been ready at that time anyway. It has taken me awhile to get here, but now I find my mind open, absorbing, curious, and ready to explore. Stilgoe’s “explore everything” mantra resonates most loudly today, in a way that I might have quickly dismissed in my college years.

Sidenote: I also love that he calls out cycling as one of the best ways to explore, a topic I presented on myself at SVA in 2015.

Stilgoe pushes us to explore the landscapes all around us. Look closely, he says, and you might encounter some hidden trace of a historical moment, or unearth something that teaches you about business, physics, technology, or human behavior.

I totally agree, but I also think that today, 20 years after this book was published, we are much more adept at doing this. We have Netflix shows and podcasts that focus on unearthing curious facts about our environment, about science, about design, about psychology, about history. (Is there a name for this trend? Little-knownism?)

Where else could we use the explorer’s mindset today?

Can we use it in the digital world, as we navigate through apps and websites? Interestingly, the Internet offers us much less of a historical trace, the quality of the urban environment that Stilgoe describes as a “ palimpsest, a document in which one layer of writing has been scraped off, and another one applied.” Software gets constantly updated by regular release cycles, with all previous traces wiped out, replaced by the freshest copy of the experience that developers and designers want you to have.

But look closer, dear explorer, and you find ways to unearth digital history. I am reminded of Marcin Wichary’s recent Twitter open call for interfaces that accidentally preserve memory. The palimpsest of a digital thing lies in its release notes, in its copies on the Wayback Machine, in Google caches, in people’s personal libraries of screencaptures, in version control features.

Where else can we look closer, where it hasn’t already become fashionable to do so?

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