3 Things I Learned from a Year Around the World

I’m a scientist by training, and traveling 24/7 provided ample time to observe the world and its people. Free from the mental burden of a daytime job and (most) academic obligations, I did and watched and spoke and thought. After a year , here are three things I have learned from my travels:

One: People are generally good.

IMG_0732
A kid poses while working a market stall in Jakarta.

It’s easy to be cynical about people in the world, now moreso than ever, so it’s easy to dismiss this first one as some bland attempt at higher moral values. But the goodness of people and their willingness to help when you need it is one of the most humbling and powerful parts about real travel. From the guys who picked us up as hitch-hikers stranded in central Java and refused to accept what little money we had to our cabin-mates who generously shared their food with us on the trans-Siberian rail between Ulan-Ude and Krasnoyarsk, people were incredibly kind to us when we needed help.

2-IMG_6498
These fine folks watched our stuff while we went swimming on a beach in Chile.

And it wasn’t that they felt we were in a position worse than theirs — as foreigners travelling, we are clearly well off and could repay them. We could have easily repaid the women in Goryachinsk who took us into their dacha for the night, or the man in Panama who paid for my bus fare when I miscalculated how much it would cost to fly to the airport and this was the last bus we could catch to be on time for our flight. They could tell we could repay, but that wasn’t the goal. Kindness was.

IMG_2527
A Russian couple we met while camping in Stolby insisted on sharing their food with us, including making fresh salad each night.

That being said, those who are most eager to help you often don’t have your best interests in mind. These are often people looking to ingratiate themselves to you and then harness reciprocity to get something from you in return. A great example were the luggage carriers in Probolinggo, Indonesia: guys who would hang out where the jeeps dropped off tourists and eagerly offered to help carry luggage. They not only expect a tip, but are often in cahoots with men who sell fake tickets at the bus station and will direct you to purchase tickets from them, expecting that their first favor to you will blind you to what’s going on. In these situations, I often got a “weird” feeling that was difficult to ignore, and it was worthwhile to listen to it.

 

Two: Water is a problem everywhere.

IMG_7051
A reservoir in France; you can see where the water line once was.

“Water, water everywhere, and not enough to drink”. We may live on a blue planet, but nearly everywhere we went there seemed to be less water than ever before. Locals in Cartagena and Medellin noted it was a dry year, while friends in Australia spoke of drought and described this year’s wildfires in New South Wales. The trees in many cities and towns in Bulgaria showed signs of water stress, with curled brown leaves and wilted young branches. And driving through France, it was hard to miss the chalky white marks along reservoir edges marking old water lines, now feet above the current water level. Much of the world is getting hotter, and drier.

IMG_7045
Markings of waterlines suggest there’s been a steady decline in water here.

20171003_162442
There remnants of a hillside brush fire in Macedonia.

And where there is water, it is often polluted or perceived as polluted. Of the 28 countries we visited, we had to drink bottled or filtered water in more than half of them. We purified our water in Mexico, Central and South America, all of Asia, and parts of Eastern Europe because we were advised not to drink the tap water. Even in places where we were told the tap water was fine to drink in Chile and parts of Russia and Central Europe, we would often find locals drinking bottled water. Even if the water is drinkable now, in many places people don’t trust it because it wasn’t drinkable before. That’s a hard mindset to change, especially when people don’t see it as a problem to solve but an inevitability.

20-IMG_20170118_160353
Bottled water is an inevitable requirement in many countries…

IMG_2176
…but guess where those water bottles end up?

Three: It isn’t just the poor vs the rich, it’s rural vs urban.

IMG_2078
An abandoned machine in the town of Nikolaevo, Bulgaria.

The wealth disparity in the world is another thing that’s hard to miss when you’re traveling, regardless of what country you’re in. The paradigm of the poor versus the rich is an ancient one and continues to this day. But now there’s a twist: it’s not just poor versus the rich, but it’s the rural versus the urban population. Nearly everywhere we went, the poorest people in the cities still had far more opportunities and resources than the poorest people in rural areas. Those who can travel to cities to work and sell goods, packing buses, trains, and roads.

IMG_3562
People board a bus bound for the city in Ecuador.

This divide in wealth makes sense, because historically anywhere a concentration of goods and information arose a city would follow, and in turn a city would seek to increase the amount of goods and information at its disposal. But now there’s a new twist: information flows more freely than ever before out of cities into rural areas. 4G phone speeds may not be accessible everywhere, but you can surf the web in towns along the Baikal shore in Siberia and get cell signal in the Andes. Rural people (and everyone, really) have faster access to more information than ever before — including clear representations of life in the city, with all of those resources, with all of that wealth.

IMG_3419
Men laying fiber optic cable in a more rural area in Colombia.

They know what they’re missing out on, and that can’t feel good. The next challenge for us in tackling wealth disparity will be to build technology that facilitates the flow of goods more easily to rural areas. Otherwise we could have a lot of angry people on our hands.

IMG_3171

Ars Electronica Festival 2017

IMG_0120
A robot stops walking in response to a barrier (hand) placed in its path at ARS Electronica Festival 2017.

Growing up as a kid, the question was always whether you went into science or art. It was this weird dichotomy in learning, where there was the precision and quantitative of math, biology, chemistry, and physics, and then the interpretative and creative of art, music, language, and history. Two ways to understand the world standing in opposite sides and never mixing, like students at their first middle school dance.

I understand now that this separation is artificial and that the skills needed in each field intermingle – there is creativity in science, and precision in art – but the world seems to still cling to that science-art dichotomy, where ne’er the two spheres shall meet. After all, we don’t often talk of the exacting quantitative precision of the artist’s work, nor do we speak of the creative interpretations of the biologist’s findings. But why? Why don’t we more often unite these two disparate worlds, or acknowledge that the separation is artificial and never really existed at all?

For me and anyone who has ever had this thought, Ars Electronica is the dreamland you never knew existed, where the artificial barriers between art and science dissolve. It’s a year-round museum in Linz, Austria, but every fall Ars Electronica hosts a festival showcasing the creations that arise from the fusion of art and science. Here science and technology create art and history, and art and history build science and technology. From synchronized drone aerobatics to temporary electro-conductive arm tattoos that control your smartphone, the ARS Electronica Festival is four days of wonder, thought, and inspiration. Here’s what we captured in our visit*:

20170907_185549
Repurposing of industrial robot arms for shadowplay art.

20170907_193600
Doge overlooks a cryptocurrency gathering.

20170908_183702
The LightSail II in the Linz Cathedral, an interactive mesh-and-PVC pipe construction the size of a whale that responds to touch by varying sounds and projected images.

20170910_224716
The crowd in the basement of POST CITY for the Ars Electronica Festival Concert.

IMG_0081
A robot constructs a three-towered sculpture for nothing but concrete chips and string, while its creators look on from the right.

IMG_0089
RFID-reflective clothing, meant to protect your identity in the wireless future.

IMG_0105
A demonstration of DuoSkinDuoSkin, conductive temporary tattoos that enable you to control your smartphone or other electronic devices. Here, a man demonstrates skipping songs and changing the volume on a phone’s music playlist.

IMG_0130
A man reloads markers on an industrial robot arm repurposed for sketching.

20170907_162119
A woman interacts with a display that explores the ability of machines to read and respond to human needs.

20170907_184313
An artist explains his interactive darkroom-and-flashlight display.

20170907_140231
Visitors watch and film a synchronized drone show.

IMG_0315
Attendees at the festival’s seminars, which explore everything from the ethics and law of AI to art created from AI learning.

And a couple of videos:

It can be a little overwhelming to visit the ARS Electronica Festival for the first time, so here are some useful tips to help you get around:

  1. Trust but verify – we sometimes got mixed answers from volunteers as to where/when things were happening. Ask a few people to get a good idea of when/where the big events are.
  2. English speakers welcome – Many of the most fascinating events are in Austrian, but they offer free real-time translations! Grab a pair of headphones on the way into the room, or ask a volunteer on hand if they have any.
  3. Don’t buy a metro pass – Your ARS pass includes free travel on some of the city’s trams, at least from the Linz Train Station to the ARS Electronica Museum and back. (Applicable to full festival pass, not sure about 1-day passes)
  4. The ARS Electronica Concert is amazing – The concert runs late into the night and you might be tempted to skip it if you’re relying on the train to get home. Go for at least a few hours because it’s amazing and absolutely worth it. Tickets are free with the 4-day pass and can be picked up at the ticketing/info booth area in Post City.
  5. Leave time to explore – While most of the events are focused in Post City, there are events throughout Linz for ARS Electronica. Leave time to see those and to wander around Post City without any direction, because stumbling onto something unexpectedly can be thought-transforming.

20170908_100747

* I understand copyright law is a bit more strict in Europe, so if you’re an artist or copyright owner whose work is listed above and want it taken down, please email me.