Engineering Eudaimonia

The first three days of 2018 were unlike any I had ever experienced. I was in Laos visiting the town of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rich urban character and remarkably well-preserved architectural and cultural heritage. As I wandered the side streets — with its human-scale temples, humble homes, cool cafes, and seamless integration with the local ecosystem — I was struck by just how good this town made me feel. It was a sense of well-being so unique that it was almost palpable, yet difficult to put into words. What I found so striking wasn’t just its visual appearance, but also its acoustic ecology, its friendly residents, and its simple cuisine. As others who have visited Luang Prabang before me have noted, I learned after I returned home, it’s the kind of singular place that can elicit this sort of response for no other reason than just being there.

The experience reminded me of what the acclaimed architect and urban theorist Christopher Alexander described as architecture’s ability to heighten one’s sense of being in the world. Under ideal circumstances, Alexander contends, the built environment could help people “feel their own existence as human beings”; a certain kind of existential experience can arise between building and individual.

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The Dark Green City

Photo by Nicolas Haro

Smart urban technology has the potential to transform our cities — but watch out for unintended consequences.

What would cities look like if they were built from scratch, from the internet up? This is the question being asked by Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. What’s emerging from this thought experiment is a new approach to city-building, one that sees urban districts as platforms for testing and refining technologies that improve quality of life. Sidewalk Labs’ mission, it claims, is not to create a city of the future, but to create the future of cities. Continue reading

Closed to openness

Re What’s So Scary About Free Speech On Campus? (Nov. 14): I imagine that many of the so-called “social justice warriors” on college campuses would probably identify as left-leaning liberals, as I do on most issues. The irony, however, is that their reflexively irrational (and sometimes violent) opposition against anything they deem to be “offensive” demonstrates some of the most intolerant and illiberal behaviour possible.

Many of their arguments aren’t just intellectually dishonest – they’re corrosive to the very liberal values they think they’re defending.

Their illiberal ideas and behaviour perfectly demonstrate why we desperately need a new centre, one that defends secularism, science and free speech against their common enemies on both the left and the right.

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail.

The Architecture of Truth

IMG_2703 (Mark Bessoudo)

[Note: This was initially published in THE CUBE Magazine Issue B: Truth]

Misinformation can now be spread effortlessly through the echo chambers of social media at an unprecedented scale and velocity. However postmodern these assaults on public facts may seem, they are, in fact, nothing new. The “post-truth” narratives and the construction of alternative realities are merely a reflection of a much deeper and more systemic problem, one that did not originate in the twenty-first century.

The problem is one of human cognition. We have a tendency to exhibit numerous biases, fallacies, and illusions — the very lifeblood of post-truth narratives. These behavioral and cognitive errors aren’t flaws in the system; rather, they arise as a result of being built into the very cognitive machinery that allows us to think. So while problematic post-truth narratives may appear to be imposed on us from outside or above, they are actually more of a collective manifestation of our default cognitive setpoint.  Continue reading

Equivalent progress for technology and human institutions

“The humanities are far more powerful than most people believe,” writes New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in response to Donald Trump’s plans to cease all funding for the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I couldn’t agree more with Kristof’s sentiment — and I’m an engineer.

Civilizations may indeed be built up from the resources and materials that constitute the technologies, industries, and cities within it, but I would argue that this infrastructure is really just an outward manifestations of the ideas, beliefs, and values that are embedded within the minds of its people.

Not only do we need the arts and humanities now more than ever, but we will need more of it in the future. The advent of powerful new technologies like artificial superintelligence, for example, will demand that its creators first be able to think clearly about (or even solve) some very old problems in moral philosophy.

As someone who understood this quite well once remarked, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.” These words of wisdom were, in fact, voiced by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t the current one. These were the words of Barack Obama.

Terror lives here

Re: Manchester suspect latest second-generation citizen to attack European city

It is absurd, naïve, and wholly insufficient to place blame for the Manchester terrorist attack on a “feeling of cultural dislocation”, particularly when the suspect in question was a British citizen who was born, raised and educated in Manchester. Cultural dislocation is a genuine phenomenon, no doubt. But to connect it to the coordinated and preemptive slaughter of innocent people is the height of intellectually dishonesty.

Like many jihadis before him, the Manchester bomber was a middle-class, university-educated, soccer-loving European citizen. These facts alone prove the point that Islamist terrorism isn’t a matter of poverty, education, or lack of economic opportunity. Rather, it is the direct result of a person’s specific beliefs about specific doctrines, particularly those related to jihad, martyrdom, and Paradise. Furthermore, the jihadis are themselves telling us this, ad nauseam.

Until this fact is fully absorbed, any attempts to counter Islamist terrorism will be futile.

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Note: An edited version of this appeared as a letter to the editor in The Globe & Mail

In Nepal, a chance encounter showed me the value of trusting strangers

Patan Durbar Square (Photo Mark Bessoudo).jpg

[Note: This essay appeared in The Globe & Mail Travel section.]

Hello, my friend!”

“Ugh,” I groaned under my breath.

“Friend!” the voice came again.

“Don’t make eye contact, don’t make eye contact,” I repeated to myself after realizing that the cheery enthusiasm was indeed directed specifically at me.

This may not be the type of response you’d expect to such a kind invitation. I fully acknowledge that. But it was the last thing I wanted to hear at that moment.

I was on my own, happily exploring the central plaza in Patan, the third-largest city in Nepal. This is a region where many people rely on tourism to make a living. It’s not uncommon to be hounded to buy a trinket, ride a tuktuk, take a tour. I was generally stoic about the whole song and dance. I accept that it’s all part of travelling abroad, a kind of social contract. But having to continually (and politely) decline such solicitations – as I had been for the previous few weeks throughout northern India and Nepal – can be fatiguing.

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