It’s difficult to pick just one thing to hate about the internet, but if I had to, I’d say it was how overwhelmingly relevant everything is. Everywhere I turn online I see content I should click on. Advice for the stressed, advice for the sleepless; news of impending horrors, both environmental and political; pictures of friends and pictures of strangers who feel like friends even though they’re not (but I click all the same). The modern web has become a machine for trapping attention, and it feels like hell.
I blame myself for this constant need to click (though God knows I also blame, in no particular order, my job, the modern workplace, and capitalism in general) but I think everyone knows the feeling. And if they’ve been around long enough, they know that the web wasn’t always this way. Before the money and the apps and the algorithms moved in, there was more ... amateurism. Exploring online felt unguided and adventurous. You’d stumble on corners of the web that had nothing to do with you or your interests. Places that didn’t care for your attention and therefore didn’t cater to it. It was an escape.
More and more recently, I find myself looking for ways to recapture this feeling. Often it feels like a bullshit enterprise. This sort of digital archaeology was pronounced dead years ago, and trying to pick out bits of Genuine Online from the glue trap of targeted ads and sponsored content seems self-deluding. (“This is just what the web is now! Don’t over-think it and try to differentiate!”) But sometimes, you can still find gems of unfamiliarity, and I’d like to introduce you to my latest favorite: Radio Garden.
Radio Garden is, essentially, Google Earth for radio. You click and drag a 3D globe around, and zoom in on local stations around the world. Every dot represents a feed you can tune in to, and, using the options in the top left of the webpage, you can switch between live streams, historical content, jingles, and recorded interviews. Live streams are the most engaging, and in a few minutes you can browse everything from Ugandan pop to Norwegian evangelical rock to Japanese J-pop to Indian astrological advice. It’s a genuine cornucopia, with nearly 10,000 stations available to tune in to.
Now, this isn’t exactly an odd, old corner of the web. (Radio Garden just launched last December and is run by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.) But to me, exploring these unfamiliar stations recaptures that same feeling of exploring GeoCities or Angelfire archives. When you tune in to a radio station in a language you can barely identify let alone understand, there’s a pleasure in knowing that this content is not for you. It’s not trying to hold your attention or get you to click or like or subscribe, and that means there’s no obligation to care about it. You can float in, like a ghost through the window, listen for a while, and then drift away on the static.
This is, apparently, an old pleasure. One interviewee on the site describes how, as a teenager, he would “trawl through” stations on his parent’s radio and “find a delight in hearing languages I didn’t understand.” I think there’s relief in this sort of irrelevancy. In fact, both words share a common root in Latin — the verb relevare, meaning to lift up, alleviate, or free from burden. The old web excelled as this sort of pleasure, but if you look hard enough, you can get your fix on the new web as well.