We are living in a new age of discovery. The world is changing faster than we can record, analyze, and understand; cultures are evolving, shedding old traditions, adding new elements, and becoming very much alike everywhere; technology is changing our concept of what we consider remote and is providing easy access to places that were off the map a generation ago; geo-politics is a drama of countries growing together in massive conglomerations just to split apart and collapse; cities are growing like weeds; our climate is observably changing and we are engineering ways to control it; wild lands are becoming parking lots, rivers are running red, and people in some countries are wearing respirators because the air is no longer safe to breath.
We are in an era of rampant and uncontrollable flux, just about everything is changing beyond recognition within our lifetimes, and in this planetary upheaval there are new discoveries to be made every day, everywhere. We live in wild times. So wild, in fact, that even the most outrageous and earth shattering developments are often taken as normal fare.
The age of discovery did not end with the turn of the 20th century, it was just getting started. The collective human community has covered the globe, we’ve made the maps, now it’s time to figure out what to do with them. Discoveries small and large are everywhere, as myriad groups of humans are piled on top of myriad groups of humans, once impenetrable environments are turning into cities, and a global concept of modernity is being juxtaposed over a thousand diverse local cultures. Any person who goes out into this world and says that the age of exploration is over is making amends for their own lack of curiosity.
The amount of discoveries to make right now is so mind blowing that it’s easy to see it all as one, constant blur. Modern exploration is like learning a foreign language. At first, everything is a continuous static of gibberish, but the more you learn the more diverse and unique the sounds become. Likewise, the more you learn about the changes that are sweeping the planet — locally as well as globally — the more you will be able to see, appreciate, and discover. The modern world is an explorer’s dream, it’s a new place each time you look at it.
There are new things, new contexts, and new adaptions to be observed, recorded, and conglomerated into a mass body of (your) knowledge everywhere, but this age of discovery is not just about the new, it’s also about old. While you may not be the first person from your culture to see and record a place, an aspect of culture, or a tradition, there’s always a chance that you could be the last. The modern explorer moves through the world on a tightrope, dangling on the cusp between the uber-modern age and history — ever bouncing between what was, what is, and what’s becoming.
The goal of exploration has always been the same: travel, observe, experience, record, and contribute to the collective worldview of your culture. There has perhaps never been a more important time for people to have a deep understanding of the world outside the bounds of their own countries, and voices beaming back defacto records of this planet in hyper-flux are needed more than ever.
The problem with the information age is that it has made us think that we know everything already, it makes us believe that we no longer need to explore. Why ask a question when you think you already know the answer?
All cultures iron-clad their world-views through mutual, internal confirmation. The way you see the world is often built up by confirming your assumptions, information, and knowledge with that of the people around you and the media sources you collectively trust. This is normal, it’s the way we “same page” the members of our group, but it’s a collassal barrier if you truly want to go into the world and explore. Asking questions rather than being satisfied with assumption is the first step to breaking through the walls of acculturation.
Modern exploration is not about being first, it’s about being new. It’s about making fresh observations and sharing them in an original way. There are still places in the world that you can get to “first,” but what’s the point of this when you will invariably be so remote that what you discover is rendered irrelevant by its shear distance from just about everybody. Modern exploration is not about going to where no person from your culture has gone before, it’s about seeing the subtitles of the human condition and being able to share them in a way that not only enriches your own culture but prepares it to better engage our world. Modern exploration is about going out in well-trod streets and finding out what’s going on.
“What do I want to learn here?”
This is the question I ask myself when traveling. I don’t ask “Where do I want to go?” or “What do I want to do?” as these two variables will fall into place as soon as I answer that first question.
I wanted to learn about an obscure Taiwanese Island just off the coast of mainland China, so I went to Kinmen. I wanted to learn about China’s “ghost cities” so I visited them all over the country. I became curious about the architectural knock-offs and copycat cities that China has been building, so I went around and checked out a few of them. I want to learn about how Chinese society is adapting to the paradigms of the globalization era, so I peak through this looking glasses whenever I can. I want to learn about Tibetan cultural revitalization, so next week I will go to Qinghai. I want to find out more about rare earth, so later this spring I will go to Ganzhou. The objective of modern exploration is not the place, but what can be learned in that place. It’s the same now as it’s always been.
In a hyper-changing world there will always be something new to discover, there will always be something new to investigate, there will always be something new to explore. I remember hearing a story about a fledgling photographer in NYC who was moaning one day about how everything has been photographed already, about how there is no longer any way to expand the boundaries of his art. I burst out laughing: How is it possible that everything has been photographed already when so many new things are being created every day?
Right now, biologists are discovering new species at a faster rate than ever before. Right now, we are on the brink of potential world war on multiple fronts. Right now, historically poor countries are becoming global powers. Right now, we’re seeing the beginnings of a leveling out of financial disparities between rich countries and poor. Right now, “globalized culture” is changing the social face of the entire planet. Right now, cultures are accessing technology and information that they couldn’t get close to even a few years ago. Right now, there are global patterns of change that can be observed and analyzed. Right now, the bulk of humanity is playing on the same field. Right now, we are doing so many things that our species has never done before. Right now, we are facing an era unlike any in history.
These are interesting times.
Keep your beginner’s mind, allow yourself to be surprised, realize that you don’t understand what’s right in front of you, value first-hand knowledge and experience over what you read, be a hawk for subtleties, shed your culture’s worldview, ask questions even when you think you know the answer, have a plan of learning at each turn, and realize that this world is as incomprehensibly complex, vibrant, diverse, and interesting as it has always been.
This is what I mean by redefining exploration.
I want to document these global and local changes. I need help. I’m covering the globe with correspondents for Vagabond Journey. If you’re interested, contact me.