The Post-Truth Era

To say we’re living in a complex world would perhaps be an understatement. Complexity and contradiction are the pervading forces of contemporary society. So it would come, perhaps, as no surprise that something rather peculiar, yet also seemingly fitting, would emerge from such a unique epoch as this.

The ancient mathematician Pythagoras once said:

Reason is immortal, all else mortal.

Unfortunately, our era has somehow managed to kill rationality. In its place, we have inserted “feelings”. Welcome to the Post-Truth Era.

Post-Truth is becoming the new buzzword in the world of politics – specifically the 2016 US Presidential election. Trump’s ability to use emotive language in passing known falsehoods off as facts has been at the core of his notorious rise in popularity. The Economist has a wonderful article that examines this phenomenon from a political angle.

However, I feel that this idea of post-truth is infiltrating other parts of our society. I’m certainly not arguing for an abolishment of emotion, or for the cultivation of a generation of stone-faced, unemotional robots (although, let’s face it, robots would do a far better job at this civilisation thing than us humans have in the last few decades). But the replacement of all rational thought by pure emotionalism has brought into question our ability to think critically, to closely examine what’s being presented to us.

Rationality doesn’t sound so fun. The word feels like it’s implying you to actually use that computer-thing encased in your skull to do a bit of intellectual work. Emotion, by contrast, triggers soft ideas of pure idealism, of hope and an essentially cleaner path to seeking truth. And yes, emotion is a crucial part of what makes us human, of what defines our character and our compassion to fellow humans. So it’s perfectly fine in some, more social situations.

But when it comes to critical things that affect society – politics, but also ideas, debates, discussions around issues of epistemology, ontological arguments, education, the state of our nation – then it’s absolutely crucial that we still approach these topics from a critical, rational viewpoint. It’s inevitable that our emotional side will, to some extent, factor in our opinions and the reception of other’s opinions. The challenge comes in listening to the opposing or other view, then processing it with a critical sensibility. Or at the least, analyze it critically before passing any emotional judgements.

A lot of what’s happening in our society – both global, and in the local context (South Africa, and the global south in my case) is a direct result of irrationality overtaking our sense of judgement on multifaceted and interlinked issues. It’s when we let our emotions take control that we become vulnerable to the Thought Police (which is another issue all of its own), who will then proceed to slice and dice our very language until it resembles a form that is emotionally sensitive to every single issue affected by every human being, thus emptying it of any credibility, logic or rationality.

Post-truth operates through a series of logical fallacies that inject emotive propaganda, aimed directly at inciting one to make decisions with their heart and not their head. In our constant effort to seek truth, to understand our world and the complexities and intricacies of our society, we need to actually think first. In this era of digital noise, where we are susceptible to a swarm of emotion, of mindless chatter and the sharing of the minutiae of every person’s daily life, have we become so intellectually drained through technology that we’ve forgotten this very primal human trait?

Truth lies in the world around us.

– Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

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Utopian Illusion

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

Plato, The Republic

There are many illusions that exist like a thin veil obscuring the reality of society. Political correctness is just another layer that serves as a distraction from the bleak truths we are sometimes afraid to confront. Chief amongst those illusions is the notion that freedom, equality, liberty – these ideals we hold so dear to our sacred conception of “democracy” – can bring about a utopian society where everyone’s needs are satisfied.

Utopia cannot exist because it is the product of human creation. We are a flawed species, and thus any system we invent will inherently have its problems. Like there is no ideal form of government or any singular, perfect philosophy, there can only exist the pursuit of the utopian ideal, but never any true attainment of the ideal.

Things in nature exist in duality; for there to be good, bad must exist as its counter-balance. For there to be day, there must also be night to give it meaning. It’s a sentiment best captured in the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching:

“Everyone recognizes beauty

only because of ugliness

Everyone recognizes virtue

only because of sin”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)

We would only seek to fool ourselves further if we were to believe in the illusion of a utopian society. Plato himself, the paragon of Western philosophy, denounced the notion that the democratic state is the apogee of government. Our society is far more complex, nuanced, multifaceted to be easily controlled by a single system.

Once we can accept these limitations, and embrace the complexity of modern society, understanding that nothing will be perfect, and nothing can be perfect, we will truly begin to move forward. The stagnation felt by many as we struggle to enter a world that is seemingly wrought with inequality, despair, hoplessness, with unfair economic systems that only further the class gaps, leads to this yearning for the antithesis of the dim present – that is, the utopian dream.

Utopia, and its sibling, perfection, are ideals to strive toward, not something we can ever truly grasp. It’s like that notion of design as being a function of infinity: it’s something that has no end to it in and of itself. It’s a system that will forever be held just beyond our grasp, as we progress towards it.

“One may look for fulfillment in this world

but his longings will never be exhausted

The only thing he ever finds

is that he himself is exhausted.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)

Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.

Red Civilisation: Our Future among the Stars

Maybe we’re on Mars because of the magnificent science that can be done there — the gates of the wonder world are opening in our time. Maybe we’re on Mars because we have to be, because there’s a deep nomadic impulse built into us by the evolutionary process — we come, after all, from hunter-gatherers, and for 99.9% of our tenure on Earth we’ve been wanderers. And the next place to wander to is Mars. But whatever the reason you’re on Mars is, I’m glad you’re there. And I wish I was with you.

–Carl Sagan, Cosmos

Contemplating a life on our neighbouring Red Planet has always fascinated me. In 2009, I presented a talk for my English class on colonizing Mars, and the research I gleaned from that exercise has fuelled my imagination ever since. After reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book Cosmos, and watching the brilliant reboot of the series hosted by one of my favourite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, I have once again begun to think about what it would be like to build a society on Mars.

Earth’s human population is increasing at an alarming rate. This is having significant spiralling effects on other aspects necessary to sustain life: the depletion of natural resources, subsequent environmental damage, and myriad health problems. In essence: our planet is being hotly contested for the sustenance of our precariously built civilisation.

Thus we have two options: to seek out solutions to our current predicament (which is hastily being done by passionate people from diverse professions). And to seek out other possible places for habitation.

The latter option is both absurdly outlandish and deeply compelling to those with an affinity for the creation of something new.

Human beings have always been nomadic – we’ve always had the impulse to explore, to go beyond the horizon and discover things. It makes sense, then, that the quest for Mars has always been on our roadmap. It’s just the challenge of getting there that’s been the obstacle on our path. We’ve made significant steps, though: NASA’s Mars rovers, the most recent of which, Curiosity, is doing a sterling job of understanding Mars. The robots getting us closer to that ultimate goal of finally stepping on this mysterious red world…

But when (and not “if”) we get there, what will our civilisation be like? We have the opportunity to start fresh. To reimagine our politics, to create a new culture – to develop, if you like, a “Society 2.0.” After a generation, we will be the Martians. And the shaping of anther planet will take our species from being shaped by the evolutionary forces of the Cosmos to being the shapers of worlds, the creators of entire planets, and disseminating our species further amongst the stars.

It’s an exciting and immensely frightening prospect. Perhaps there will be friction between those who dwell on the “home planet” (Earth) and the new society developing on Mars. What will interplanetary economics be like? Could there be a possibility of trade between both planets? And, of course, management of resources has the potential to spark the fires of war. The surface area of Mars is equal to the entire landmass of Earth; if our population continues its exponential rise and we end up shunting a fraction of that off to another world, there will inevitably come a time when Mars itself will be facing similar challenges. And discoveries of precious resources could be another reason for planetary invasions and dissent between both worlds… Of course, issues of religion will also be a major factor: religion was, after all, a major component of historic expeditions to new worlds. Now, with the momentum of science and the advancement of technology, would we be able to transcend such things, or to effectively update our philosophies to encompass dual-world inhabitations?

The contemplation of future societies amongst the stars is filled with rhetoric. But it is these questions that can spark further debate about the sociocultural aspects of inhabiting other worlds. Imagine travel brochures offering getaways to Olympus Mons… “experience fabulous Valles Marineris…” New architecture for a new world, new means of transport, living, working, entire professions rewritten for a red planet…

I leave you with this message for Mars by Sagan:

“The gates of the wonder world are opening in our time…” –Carl Sagan