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.

Good Writing Matters, Mr. President

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Re “It’s the Twitter Age. Let Trump Have His Way With Words,” by Farhad Manjoo (State of the Art column, Aug. 28):

It’s not as if Donald Trump is an articulate, thoughtful or composed person who just happens to make spelling errors on Twitter. That would be forgivable.

The problem is that his tweets are like a mirror held up to the inner workings of his mind: nonsensical, unintelligent, erratic and dangerous.

The end result is a barrage of tens of thousands of tweets going back almost a decade that are full of not just spelling errors, but also a cascade of other public embarrassments: one-word sentences that operate more like dog barks, poor word choices, odd (or missing) punctuation, factual mistakes and outright lies.

This is unforgivable for a president. End of story.

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

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.

Plato for Plumbers

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[Note: This essay appeared in Issue #13 of New Philosopher magazine and was chosen as the winner of New Philosopher Writers’ Award XI ‘technology’.]

“To be an engineer and nothing but an engineer means to be potentially everything and actually nothing.”

José Ortega y Gasset, History as a System (1934)

It’s a truism to remark how much our world is becoming increasingly technological, exponentially complex. The pace of change is evident in our everyday experience. From the grand feats of transcontinental flight to the mundane tasks of flushing the toilet to the seemingly miraculous joy of accessing the world’s knowledge through the smartphone in your pocket, we are at once passive and active participants in a landscape that has become progressively mechanised, digitised, and automated.

Behind the scenes, this technical infrastructure is being planned, designed, constructed, and maintained largely by one type of person: the engineer. Whether we realise it or not, it is the humble engineer who now forms the clay which moulds not only our external environment, but also our mind’s interior realm. As we enter the geological era known as the Anthropocene, the engineer has also become, perhaps unwittingly, an ecological force on a planetary scale.

There’s just one problem: at almost no point in their education, training, or practice are engineers given the proper intellectual tools with which to reflect, in any meaningful way, on themselves, each other, or their world-transforming enterprise. Engineers, and the general public, rarely stop to ask: “Should we do this, simply because we can? Is this actually good for the betterment of humanity or for the planet?” Continue reading

On value

Stepwell (Edward Burtynsky)

The president of the University of Windsor, Alan Wildeman, wrote an op-ed stating the case for a liberal arts education, sending a warning that we ignore the humanities at our peril. Even though I’m trained as an engineer, I fully agree with this sentiment. However, I found that unlike many prominent journalists who have also recently defended the liberal arts (for example, see Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”, Nicholas Kristof’s “Starving for Wisdom” and Frank Bruni’s “College’s Priceless Value”), Wildeman falls prey to the very type of reductionist mindset that a liberal arts education supposedly seeks to overcome: that of unfettered, neoliberal, free-market capitalism. This betrayal of the very values he seeks to defend is unfortunate and exasperating, particularly since he is by no means alone.  Continue reading