Saturday, October 18, 2008

Utopia or Oblivion with Buckminster Fuller

I’m making a list of people who helped me ruin my life. Marshall McLuhan convinced me that in this high tech age you can live anywhere and be a successful writer. Not really: constant on-site ass-kissing in NYC or LA is still required. Buckminster Fuller convinced me to try writing about large-scale connections and trends. Bad idea: when successful books are about toothpicks or salt, such writing is harder to get published than it is to finish. On the other hand, Fuller could start talking about salt and end up with the universe, the way you’d never thought about it before.

McLuhan was briefly big-time famous, but Fuller was a quieter force for decades, with his greatest fame on college campuses in the 60s and 70s. (I heard him and observed him closer up at M.I.T. in ’73 or so.) Talks of that time were excerpted in Hugh Kenner’s still classic book, Bucky, and in Calvin Tompkins New Yorker profile, which is as good an intro to Fuller as anything you'll find. Its reprinted in a new book: Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe, edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller, and published by the Whitney Museum of American Art with Yale University Press.

These days Fuller is best known for the geodesic dome, and one of the essays here is on his contribution to architecture. There are lots of illustrations and photos, since it’s basically an exhibition catalog. But Fuller also introduced the concept of “synergy,” (the whole unpredicted by the parts before they work together) long before corporate consultants pounded it into fairy dust. His ideas on computers and information were practically a blueprint for Google and Wikipedia.

And he gave us “spaceship earth.” The thing about that is he meant it literally, and on many levels. The key to Fuller is that basically he was a sailor. His spaceship earth wasn’t some airy metaphor: earth is a ship that depends on efficient design to stay afloat and keep everyone aboard alive on the food etc. it carries. Ships are designed to make the best possible use of the space within them, as well as of the basic forces of the planet and the universe. (Hence another of his influential ideas: “doing more with less.”) Most technology originated because ships used it (or wars did, or both.)

Which is why he coined the phrase, “utopia or oblivion.” The planet has to be ship-shape or it will sink. It’s an either/or choice.

Fuller was unique. He started not only with first principles, but by re-thinking first principles. He accepted nothing as axiomatic, though he developed his own axioms--and almost his own language. Reading him raw is a very different experience, but having it done it, very worthwhile. The fullest Fuller for me was his Ideas and Integrities.

Kenner makes much of Fuller's childhood experiences as a boy with very bad (and for a long while, uncorrected) vision, whose main relationship was with boats and the sea on a small island. Because he could see only shapes and he had to figure out how those shapes functioned and related to each other, he developed his kind of logic, and his intuition for basic forces and big patterns. Having grown up partly deaf, this rings true to me. Kenner also maintains that Fuller was able to mesmerize large crowds for hours at a time because he was very responsive to the mood, even to individual moods in the audience.

I hope this book helps revive interest in Fuller, particularly when computers and the Internet are providing tools that his vision could guide to profound purposes. This book provides reevaluation and solid overviews of his influence, especially in how he related to both scientists and artists, but it’s just an appetizer for the depth and breadth of his ideas.

Though an essayist here writes that he “remained at heart a traditional humanist,” Fuller called himself “a comprehensive anticipatory design-science explorer.” We need more of those.

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