W. David Marx on the easy globe-trotting voyeurism of the Places tab
In the summer of 1977, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman overheard his friend Ralph Leighton claiming to know all the countries of the world, and so he threw down the ultimate geography question: “What ever happened to Tannu Tuva?” Leighton assumed he was being fooled: There was no such country. But as a young philatelist, Feynman knew Tannu Tuva for its unique triangle-shaped stamps. And then soon after, the kingdom fell off the map. Racing to an encyclopedia for answers, Leighton and Feynman learned the Soviet Union had rolled in and turned the once independent kingdom into the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In the article, they saw something even more exciting: Tuva’s capital city was named Kyzyl — no vowels. They had seemingly found the most obscure place on Earth. From there, they embarked on a legendary nerd quest, right in the middle of the Cold War, to find out everything they could about this mysterious plot of land at southern edges of the Soviet Union.
As told in Leighton’s 1991 book, Tuva or Bust, the information barriers they faced around Tuva turned a simple intellectual inquiry into an “adventure.” The first step was to read Asian travelogues to learn about travels to Tuva — in which they discovered almost no past explorers ever went there. Feynman and Leighton then special ordered books from the Library of Congress, scoured a single hand-drawn map of Kyzyl for landmarks, hunted for clues in small black-and-white photos, and used a Tuva-Russian-Mongolian dictionary to translate epistles back and forth with Tuvan scholars. In 1988, after posing as museum curators and buttering up a Soviet museum officials by taking him to Disneyland, they finally received an official invitation to go to Tuva. The invitation, however, arrived just a few days after Feynman succumbed to cancer.
In an interview weeks before his death, Feynman explained his interest in Tuva as a “game”: “It’s not serious. It doesn’t involve some deep philosophical point of view. ... It’s just the fun of having an adventure to try and go to a land that we’d never heard of.” As Tuva or Bust makes clear, the prize was, very literally, the friends they made along the way. And despite never reaching Tuva, Feynman’s legacy remains tied to the region. Leighton helped place a “Feynman Rock” in the Tuvan steppe, and in 2009, Bill Gates founded Project Tuva to digitize Feynman’s physics lectures. For a generation of nerds, Tuva became a symbol for the never-ending quest for knowledge. And the quest marked Feynman and Leighton as hero desk explorers who would attempt to venture to the ends of the earth to learn something new, however obscure.
Here at the 30th anniversary of Tuva or Bust, the entire Tuva adventure now feels like an antiquated entertainment of an earlier age, akin to stories of great-aunts losing their favorite aggie shooter in an epic game of marbles. If we consider their Tuva adventure an “obscurity game” — the playful collection of information through overcoming obstacles — the Internet has ruined all obscurity games. The world wide web turns information into a pure utility. In the early 1980s, finding Tuvan maps, photographs, and texts took weeks, months, and years; it now takes seconds. The whole appeal of Tuva was its esoterism, and on the Internet, nothing feels truly esoteric.
There are fewer information asymmetries to exploit for entertainment, and this also means fewer legendary crusaders for obscurity. Feynman and Leighton are not the only hunters for the arcane; millions of people in the 20th century made themselves cool through similar acts of cultural arbitrage. To be “hip” denoted access to exclusive information others didn’t have. Bobbito Garcia’s now-classic oral history of New York sneaker culture — Where’d You Get Those? — takes its very title from information asymmetry. In the small town of my own youth, to simply possess a Dinosaur Jr. album brought exalted status.
Turning information barriers into a form of play, however, tends to have strange effects on the other side — those considered to be “unknown.” Real people, places, and things become reduced to obscure objects of desire. The actual Tuvan people serve only a supporting role in Tuva or Bust. But this is what the Internet has also changed: Tuvans can now tell their own stories. The actual Tuva Republic remains remote; to get there on land, Wikitravel suggests a 76 hour train from Moscow, and then a four-hour taxi ride from Abakan in the Republic of Khakassia. But Tuvans have smartphones and Internet connections, and they broadcast. The Tuva-curious can go to the Places tab in Instagram, choose Kyzyl, and scroll through hundreds of color photos from the last 24 hours.
The photos are far from exotic. The content — from arguably one of the most obscure places on earth — is painfully familiar, further proving the point “we’re really all living the same life.” Women strike sultry poses with AirPods and filtered faces, square-jawed bros mug in angular jackets and shades. Besides occasional appearances of the “Center of Asia” monument and khuresh wrestling, there are TikTok dances, pregnancy portraits, junky boutique product shots, cafe cappuccinos, workout routines, yoga positions, creative makeup tutorials, pizzas and cakes, Landcruisers, and pastry-making classes. (Okay, there is an inexplicable video of a guy eating chalk.) The easy globe-trotting voyeurism of the Places tab may be the best feature in Instagram, but Leighton and Feynman would have surely found the Tuva photos frustrating. Kyzyl uploaders crop their footage so tightly that you get almost no sense of the scenery. This is surely intentional: Russian news clips about Tuva on YouTube reveal barren steppe and urban squalor. Within the glossy bizarro world of Instagram, Soviet-era plazas can only make an appearance if they work as flattering framing for fashion poses.
So, thanks to Instagram and other mobile apps, we can do what Feynman and Leighton couldn’t: make easy visits to Tuva, albeit virtually. But clicking on a tab can’t be an adventure. Moreover, is the content from Tuva something that can hold our attention for a decade, let alone an hour? The Tuvans are now too much like us to be a good object of a fascinating obscurity game. And this is an inevitable outcome: If we can see Tuva on Instagram, Tuva can see us right back. To become global villagers of good standing, Tuvans have decided to adopt the conventions of Internet glam. Mark Zuckerberg indeed “brought the world closer together” — in an assimilation of flexes. Judging by Instagram, Tuvan youth would rather express themselves in the universal language of global glamour than live in yurts or throat-sing. The Internet, then, appears to kill the obscurity game in two ways: by de-gamifying knowledge through leveling information barriers, and also providing the information and platform for the once-obscure to become ordinary.
Thirty years ago, Tuva or Bust turned a remote Central Asian area into a metaphor for the human quest for knowledge. Now Tuva is becoming a new metaphor: a clear example of how the monoculture of the Internet age spreads to every corner of the earth. But we can’t blame the Tuvans: Do we really expect citizens of obscure places to remain forever the objects of obscurity?—By W. David Marx