What We Mean By Modern Exploration


As kids we were inspired by the history of exploration — we gazed at the night sky, pored over atlases, immersed ourselves in historic tales of daring and discovery, and imagined our own adventures in distant lands. We were inspired by teams of polar explorers composed of men with fantastically frozen beards, and rocket-building teenagers blowing up their fences before turning into NASA rocket scientists.

But as adults we understand just how complicated, exploitative, and often brutal those past ages of exploration were. When we founded Hidden Compass we set out to confront the reality of what exploration has meant historically, what it means today, and what it could mean tomorrow.

Story Highlights

  • While we have been inspired by exploration endeavors of the past, we also recognize that the history of exploration is rooted in colonialism and conquest.
  • The potential of our new age of exploration lies in embracing a search for understanding, ethical and intellectual frontiers, and a diversity of relevant voices.
  • The future of exploration can leave the legacy of conquest in the past and build a foundation for a more connected and collaborative world.

Hidden Compass storyteller Hayli Nicole explores an ice cave. Photo courtesy of Hayli Nicole

An Age of Understanding, Not Conquest

We are living through a new “Age of Exploration,” but this one has the power to be fundamentally different from the ones that came before. At Hidden Compass, we recognize that past periods of discovery were rooted in colonialism and conquest — of other peoples and of nature itself. The examples are unending: “Henry the Navigator” expanded the wealth and territory of Portugal, colonizing West African islands and ultimately beginning the Atlantic slave trade; hundreds of people followed in the footsteps of Sir Edmund Hillary, climbing the tallest peak on Earth with little to no regard for the religious and spiritual significance of the mountain; and today, modern governments of countries like Tanzania continue to expell Indiginous groups from ancestral lands to pave the way (sometimes literally) for conservation and international tourism.

We see an opportunity to move toward a more equitable approach to exploration. Rather than a quest for conquest, we see modern exploration as a quest for understanding — one in which questions like “What can I take?” are replaced by questions like “What can I learn?”.

More than Physical Frontiers

For many, the word “exploration” conjures up images of resource-intensive travel to faraway places — yearslong endeavors to explore the poles of our planet, or even our more recent Apollo missions to put humans on the moon.

“We were inspired by teams of polar explorers composed of men with fantastically frozen beards, and rocket-building teenagers blowing up their fences before turning into NASA rocket scientists.”

Certainly, exploration can be about physical frontiers — of places we’ve barely begun to understand, like the deep sea and most of outer space. But in our search for a deeper understanding of our world and our place in it, frontiers have become ethical, intellectual, biological, and technological. From cross-cultural collaboration, to environmental management, to the nature of human consciousness, today exploration means so much more than just going somewhere.

Global Voices and Global Perspectives

In the “Global Century” it is in many ways easier than ever to communicate across borders and cultures, but that doesn’t mean it happens enough. Too often we only hear from “experts” talking about cultures and environments that are foreign to their own. Certainly there is value in the stories of outsiders, but to truly foster deeper understanding, global conversations must make space for people to tell their own stories. We need to listen to voices from local communities, from Indigenous and queer individuals, and from racially and ethnically diverse perspectives. This isn’t about checking off boxes of representation, but about focusing on those whose experiences are relevant to the issues at hand.


We see the potential for modern exploration to increase our connection and understanding across cultures and continents. Certainly, there are legacies of past endeavors that should remain in the past, but there is much we can build upon and so much to add — whether it’s a search for understanding, an investigation of new frontiers, or a championing of diverse and relevant narratives. 

While we were inspired as kids by the history of exploration, today we are inspired by the future of exploration. 

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