by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohamad Fakri Zaky Ja'afar
[Department of Architecture, Faculty of Design and Architecture,
Universiti Putra Malaysia]
The current global civilisation is based on systems that are devoid of humanness. Otherwise, the reactions would not be the same. Our economy, politics, law, architecture, engineering, and medicine are based on a system with no essence of humanity.
The approach in D-Zine Trend Magazine is to focus on humaneness in humanity. Remember the keyword – "INSAN".
This is a written text of a speech given as a welcoming remark to new architecture students by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Mohamad Fakri Zaky bin Jaafar, The Head of Department, Department of Architecture, Faculty of Design and Architecture, Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM). Written and delivered in an online zoom session on 26/10/2020.
Dear Students, welcome to the department. You are here with dreams, and dreams are made of stories. It is nowhere to be found amongst the currently available atoms in the whole universe. The COVID-19 pushes everyone to find new perspectives on life, economy, society, self, and values. I am Zaky Jaafar, the Head Department of Architecture, welcoming you to our home. You are here for a reason. You are here for more than just getting information and getting the skills to be a future architect. You are here because you want to elevate your inner being to the highest achievable level you can attain.
You are more than whom you think you are. You are a human born with the necessary capacities to achieve the highest level you can be, the best 'HUMAN'. Apart from your grades and certificates, each of you is a human being, and you have stories, memories, sentiments, passions, pains, fear and love.
We are in VUCA Times – VOLATILITY, UNCERTAINTY, COMPLEXITY AND AMBIGUITY. People have realised, there is no single approach in education that could solve our future needs. We have advanced so much in technology as a species that we have reached Industrial Revolution 4.0 (IR4.0). People seek for what is next, as they have identified the next agenda in education, which is to focus on humanity, on the development of the human self.
This brings me to the first story – alternative to humanity.
Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr launched Architecture for Humanity (AFH) in April of 1999. Seeing what happened in post-war Bosnia, they embarked on an effort to provide for the need of the displaced people. They managed to garner help from all over the world to help designing schools and community facilities to help the poor, the displaced people. Yet you can't help to wonder about the other side of the coin. Is there an architecture NOT for humanity?
All this while architecture is not for humans? If you notice lately, the word humanity or humanitarian has a negative connotation to it. It is often a rallying cry for addressing the crisis in humanity. When we hear the phrase "humanitarian efforts", we often think of all the help provided for people who suffered from war, hunger and poverty. Why does the humanity term is used here in the first place? I believed the default systems are lacking the essence of humanness. The current global civilisation is based on systems that are devoid of humanness. Otherwise, the reactions to the crises would not have the word humanity. Our economy, politics, law, architecture, engineering, and medicine are based on a system with no essence of humanity.
Now, this is instead a radical proposition, but I urged you to read on this.
(The approach in D-Zine Trend Magazine is to focus on humaneness in humanity. Remember the keyword – "INSAN".)
So, what is an INSAN? Our second story.
It consists of two stories. Listen to these two stories, side by side. Insan is the Malay word (derived from Arabic) on the essence of humans. We need to be particular about this term since the word humanity has slightly different meanings these days. We are all informed on what it means to be human, but do we? Let me bring you to two movies that dwell on this issue. First is the Bicentennial Man (played by the late Robin Williams), a movie about an artificial intelligence robot that learned human behaviours for 200 years and desires to be human.
Then The Matrix, a movie about a human who lives with an artificial life story fed into his brain to make him think he is fully functioning in the real world. Both stories are unsettling. Would you accept the robot as a human? Or would you accept the false story fed into Neo's brain as a valid life for a human? This brings us to the question of what we meant by the word human.
We are, of course physical, we have a biological suit, a body. We are also metaphysical, as being told by almost all religions and spiritual systems in the world. Even people who don't believe in God believed in a creative essence that pushes the universe forward. We all agree that we have passions, we have dreams, we know love, we hate pain, we run from fear. However, modern science has successfully separated these two aspects of human existence for 500 hundred years. It was Renee Descartes who did the separation in the 17th Century. It was so successful that the modern world thrived technologically, materially. We created machines that led to industrial revolutions. We even managed to reach the moon—such a magnificent story for technology.
Another aspect of Descartes's philosophy is called reductionism. It is a worldview that pushes you to think of humanity as a mechanical clock, that you can take it apart and put it back together, and it will work just fine. However, this is not true for humans, just like Dr. Frankenstein tried to create a human from different biological parts. But he made a monster instead, a monster struggling to find his place as a human being—sad story.
The consequences are dire. Another facet of reductionism is that you can view any problem in isolations of its parts. This isolation pushes us away from our ability to think holistically. We judge a phenomenon by its small visible and measurable parts. We believe prosperity can be measured by GDP, and we believe intelligence can be measured by CGPA or the number of As we get in our exams. We produce amoral technology, which means morality comes from whoever has access to the technology. This trend can be seen in knowledge and education. We are currently focusing on information and data. We focus on the brain. We forgot how to use our heart, instinct, emotion, our soul and spirit. We lose the big picture.
Technology is a double-edged sword. The good and the bad of the sword depend on the human who is holding it. If we develop a system, whether engineering, economy, law, or architecture, void of human essence, it will result in catastrophe. When we lose the big picture, we will see war, climate change, poverty, and hunger plaguing our modern civilisation.
Suppose we develop our civilisation as a mechanical system for mechanical beings. In that case, we will have many architects but no affordable houses. We will have many engineers but lack infrastructure for the poor. We will have many accountants, but corruption and embezzlement still happen. We will have many manufacturing and food productions, but many people will still be hungry and poor.
So, what does the word HUMAN (OR INSAN) do?
And this brings me to the third story.
This story was told by an industrial designer. It illustrates what does a system achieves when we dig deep into our human conscience. There was a problem transporting a specific medicine in the UK. It required unique jars of a particular size and design. The problem was, in transit and handling, there were many cases where these jars broke, and it cost a lot of money to the government. Then, they developed management procedures and protocols, not unlike ISO or any quality management system, to handle these to minimise the broken jars' incidents. However, accidents still happened. So the designers were approached by the government to design an unbreakable jar and at a minimum cost. During his research, he surveyed the hospitals around the country on the data of broken jars. He found in all hospitals, despite all the quality control, there were still many cases of broken jars, except one. So curiously, he went to the particular hospital started asking around. Upon investigation, he found that all the same procedures were in place.
Eventually, he approached the nurses and workers and asked around. They pointed out that they were briefed by an old matron with a peculiar training style on their first day of handling the jar. He interviewed the matron and asked how did she do this. She said to everyone she trained, "when you hold this jar, hold it as if you are holding a baby". That was it. What she did was invoking the 'human' aspect of the workers. When the humanness of the workers was invoked, no single jar was broken.
This is the power of the real meaning of humans; that you have passion, sentiments, love, fear and a lot more. This power, when evoked, will help civilisation do many beautiful things; the least is mitigating humanity crisis. The power of humanness can do things that otherwise no ISO or management systems or technique or technology could do.
So how do you bring INSAN ' humanness' in modern knowledge, in education?
This brings me to my last story.
Remember the Disney movie Ratatouille? Anton Ego was the food critic in the film. Ratatouille is a story about a rat who has excellent cooking skills. But the restaurant keeps getting harsh reviews from Ego, who has a personal disagreement with the philosophy of the founder of the restaurant. To the point that his judgment sometimes was blinded by prejudice. Eventually, he was invited to the restaurant and asked to sample a signature dish, ratatouille. When he tasted it, the taste evoked the memory of his loving mom during his childhood. In short, the taste reached his soul. He changed his perception afterwards; he became a different person. The meal is just a simple concoction of ingredients with specific chemical reactions, but the taste has reached his soul beyond his tongue; it evoked memories. His inner being, his humanness, was touched. This changes his personality.
The challenge for us lecturers is giving information that reaches knowledge and wisdom beyond our sensory and cognitive domain. This challenge will inspire, move us all to do great things. The challenge is to open up our heart, soul and inner being to be receptive. It has been almost 500 years since the separation between the mind (metaphysical aspects) and the body (physical aspect) of a human.
I want to conclude with the message that we have to strive to evoke humanness in us: our inner selves, heart, soul, and spirit. In everything we do. We are all different, yet if humanness is the common language, we will start to relearn. There is a higher possibility for a better world. We would not need to use the word "human" only to mitigate civilisational crisis anymore.
So please try to use your whole being, passion, heart, values, soul, and spirit to weigh and elevate the information you received to the level of wisdom, of meaning. Evoke the metaphysical being in you. So that you remember, in the future, when you draw a line for your next building, you are not drawing just a line, but you are creating meaning; you are telling a new story. You are nurturing a human being. You are drawing a BIG PICTURE.
Look for meaning, not just information. Revel in arts, paintings, poetry, dance, and literature. They help you to think about the bigger picture and rejuvenate the channels that reach deep in your heart and soul.
For citation purposes: Ja'afar, Mohamad Fakri Zaky. (2021). Evoking Humanness: The Lifestory of Humanity. D-Zine Trend, Volume 1 (Issue 1). https://www.dzinetrend.com/v1-1-evoking-humanness-the-lifestory-of-humanity