You Are Now Disconnected: Smartphones and the City

Smartphones are all-consuming vampires, sucking our mental energy and leaving city dwellers disoriented and alienated. But they’re here to stay — so how can urban designers use their immense power for good?

We are living in a time of unprecedented visual distraction. In the modern urban environment, our attention has to battle with myriad layers of signage and communication — some useful, some not — from billboard advertisements to traffic lights. At the same time, an even more pervasive source of visual pollution can be found in our own hands. The constant drip, drip, drip of digital diversions originating from our smartphones and other devices is reshaping how our minds behave and function, and how we perceive the world around us.

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Is Travel Ethical Amid Climate Change?

Re “Travel’s Climate Problem,” by Andy Newman (Travel, June 9):

The “tragedy of the commons” — the term used to describe a situation in which individuals act in accordance with their own self-interest at the expense of the common good — is often used to explain the persistence of modern environmental problems. If only we had more data, facts and knowledge of the unintended consequences of our actions, the thinking goes, we would make better choices that would benefit everyone.

I’ve come to realize that this is wishful thinking. Even with a clear understanding of the consequences of our actions, a vast majority of people will still seek to have their desires satisfied rather than extinguished. The desire for travel is no different.

In his “Confessions,” St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. “Grant me chastity and continence,” he pleads with God, “but not yet.”

To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, “I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet.”

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Note: This appeared as a letter to the editor in The New York Times.

Image by Antoine Maillard

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.