How "Discreet, Unobtrusive Technology" Will Transform Cities
William J. Mitchell and the members of the MIT Smart Cities research group are creating innovative ways to change how we live in urban areas through, in part, the application of new technologies that enable urban energy efficiency and sustainability, and enhance opportunity, equity, and cultural creativity. Smart Cities research is particularly concerned with the emerging roles of networked intelligence in fabrication and construction, urban mobility, building design and intelligently responsive operation, and public space. The group explores the new forms and functions of cities in the digital electronic era, and suggests design and planning directions for the future.
Bill Mitchell: The fundamental thing about cities, they change very slowly, even under a lot of stress and even when you have a lot of innovation. A number of years ago I was a consultant on a movie, you may remember, called “Minority Report,” that Steven Spielberg did about, it was about the future of Washington D.C. He sort of started out the conversation by saying, “Well, what’s Washington D.C. going to be like in 50 years?” And the honest answer was, not a lot different for me. You know, the way it is now. He said, “Well we can’t make a movie about that. We have to you know, invent some things like cars driving up the sides of buildings and all kinds of stuff like this.”
I think, and if you think of some of the big transformations that have taken place, let’s say over the last 50 years. Probably the biggest thing that’s happened to cities has been – well, I’m not sure it’s the biggest, but a massive thing that’s happened, has been in the overlay of intelligence by the Internet, mobile phones, personal computers, and all this kind of thing. In some ways, it’s almost invisible. You can take a city and it’s functioning in a completely different kind of way because everybody’s talking on their mobile phones and they're all text messaging and they're all tweeting. Functionally it’s working on a totally different kind of way. It doesn’t look that much different.
I never believe in sort of Buck Rogers fantasies of the future of cities. They never happen and it’s just as well, because we’d be extremely unhappy if they did. It’s not just a matter of some massive sudden technological transformation; that never happens. What cities are, are a sort of intricate layering of the work of many generations, one on top of another, and so, it’s subtle transformation and inflection of cities rather than whole scale transformation that’s really important. I mean, maybe the big dramatic thing is something that goes against people’s expectations. I would say the important technology of the late 20th century and the early 21st century has been extremely unobtrusive. It sort of disappears in your pocket and disappears in the woodwork. The mobile phone is a revolution, but basically you don’t even see it. The little automobiles that we are talking about; little, quiet, unobtrusive things that fit into the city without fundamentally transforming what I think a city needs to be. So I think the big surprise I think to a lot of people is going to be... The really effective technology that transforms our lives is going to be this discreet, unobtrusive technology that does very interesting things for us, but without making cities look like some sort of science-fiction fantasy.
Cities won't look like "some sort of science-fiction fantasy," but it's likely that technological advances and information overlays will change the way we live in significant ways.
Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.
'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.
Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.
Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.
Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.
Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.
The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.
Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.
Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.
Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.
Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.
As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.
The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.
Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.
I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:
For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.
Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.
- We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
- When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.