This is the second of a set of twelve course notes written in 1993 and revised across 1994 and 1995 for Technology and Human Existence, a half-semester first year option on the philosophy of technology.
Richard Buckminster Fuller on Innovation, Agility and Restless Human Being
You will recall that in the my first set of notes I distinguished three positions or attitudes to technology. On the right there was the technophile position, that is, the position of those enthusiasts who think technology can do no wrong. In the centre there was the moderate centrist picture according to which technology was neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad. And on the left there was the radical position of those who think that technology is an autonomous force whose tendency is bad, at least if left unchallenged. In this set of notes, I want to discuss the article in Teich by Richard Buckminster-Fuller1 in order to give you an example of a relatively modern day technophile position. Actually, this article is a chapter from his book Utopia or Oblivion: The Prospects for Humanity. I am not going to interpret what Fuller says in all its gory detail.2 Rather, I want first to extract from the article those attitudes and beliefs which make a person an enthusiast for technology. I then want to go to a deeper level of interpretation in order to isolate the conception of what it is to be human which underlies Fuller’s technological enthusiasm.
Now at first, you may think that Fuller’s article is just a rather crazy exercise in technophilia, not to say technomania. But this would be unfair. Fuller is not just sketching a few weird ideas as to how technology has put us in a position to find radically new solutions to the housing problem. He is of course doing this, but he is also doing more. For there is a deeper side to what he is saying here. So in order to understand what Fuller is doing here, we need to distinguish two levels at which he is working. The first is the relatively superficial one of describing what he takes to be a more sensible way of living on this planet, and of indicating what technological means would realise it. Let us look at this level first.
At this superficial level, Fuller’s article is simply an essay on the problem of world housing. In true technophile spirit, he begins by saying that those who think the problems of world housing can only be overcome by political means overlook the far vaster prerogative of the inventor. Such people think these problems are political ones, and for this reason they by and large fail to solve them, or only solve them inadequately. What they must realise, according to Fuller, is that the inventor or innovator, that is, the technologist, is the person who can solve them most efficiently. For these problems are best solved by technical means.
Fuller thinks that these days people are coming to realise this. They are starting to appreciate that any political or social problem is ultimately a technological one and that consequently such problems are best solved technologically. This is why our age is more congenial to the inventor than any other. Previous capitalists and businessmen, for example, sought to prolong the life of their machines, and thus disliked the inventor. But today this is changing. According to Fuller (p.137), “(b)usinessmen now find change profitable. Inventors are becoming respectable.”
One wonders how true it is to say that in the past inventors were not quite so respectable. The nineteenth century, for example, could truly be described as the age of the great inventor, for example, Watt, Stephenson, Brunel, Faraday, Edison, Benz and Marconi, to name just a few. But whether Fuller is right in thinking that the past was less congenial to the inventor than the present is not important here. What is important is his claim that these days the inventor, the technologist, is becoming so respectable and so capable that people are beginning to see that he or she can solve problems traditionally regarded as political.
Fuller now goes on to give three examples of how the technological imagination could help us to solve world housing problems. For Fuller, the problem of world housing consists in simply in this: how to use available space in a way which allows one to house the maximum number of people in the most space-efficient way. From this point of view, it is senseless to sprawl horizontally outward across the land, as people have done in the past. The totally unplanned character of this style of urban development results in a senseless loss of prime farmland and the unbalancing of the ecology. Obviously, Fuller has identified a quite problematic feature of urban growth, namely, its unplanned and ill-considered character. Since many cities arose as the trading centres of agricultural districts, their outward expansion has meant the loss of good arable land—a development which would only be rational if the amount of land available both for housing and for farming were limitless, which it clearly is not.
According to Fuller, it is only our myopia, our native conservatism, which makes us stick with this urban madness. We can and should build vertically, both upwards into the air, and downwards into the earth. Fuller describes massive living towers from one to 2.25 miles high—towers which are built first in aeroplane factories, fitted with temporary wings and then flown into position.3 Carrying the logic of this one step further, he says we can and should take to the water; we can and should build floating cities of tetrahedral form, cities which would be indefinitely expandable and which would provide each family with 2,000 square metres of living space. We can and should dome our existing cities over, giving them thereby a milder climate and thus making them more energy efficient. Finally, we can and should take to the air by living in things called geodesic spheres, huge spheres constructed out of metal which would float in the air in much the same way as a hot air balloon does, except that in this case the energy needed to keep the air inside the sphere warm would come from the sun.
Clearly, these suggestions are bizarre; in and of themselves, they are not worth any great consideration. About them specifically one need only say that whether or not they are technically feasible, they would be awful places to live in. Fuller is in fact proposing that we build and dwell in flying or floating mega-blocks of flats. And the experience of town planners in regard to mega-housing complexes has not been very good; in New York they have actually dynamited many mega-housing experiments from the sixties. What is really interesting about these figments of Fuller’s technological imagination and the various arguments and statements which precede his description of them is the fact that they bundle together and display so well certain assumptions and attitudes characteristic of technological enthusiasts like Fuller. These assumptions and attitudes are at least five in number:
Assumption 1: Technology is an ability to control in a quite strong sense.
For the technological enthusiast, technology is not just humanity’s ability to use natural processes as they occur in nature; it is primarily humanity’s ability so to speak to take these natural processes out of nature and put them into a human environment of control. The difference between a windmill and a nuclear reactor or a steam engine is not merely one of technical sophistication. There is a conceptual difference. The one is a device which only works by being embedded, by being located, in certain natural cycles of nature; you have to build your windmill where there are lots of strong winds, and the thing only functions when the winds blow, which is something you cannot determine. The windmill’s functioning is thus dependent on the vagaries of nature. But the steam engine and the nuclear reactor are at least attempts to escape this dependence. They are devices or artificial environments into which certain types of natural process, namely, combustion and nuclear fission, can be inserted and allowed to take place in certain desired ways. In particular, both are devices or environments for reproducing certain types of natural process in ways which have certain desired effects without having certain undesired ones. Provided these artificially reproduced processes can be sustained by a regular supply of fuel; and provided the environment of control in which they are located operates as designed, both these technologies allow humanity to free itself of the various natural cycles and chance happenings which constitute its environment and over which it has no, or very little, control. They thus embody the ability not merely to use nature in clever ways, but to escape nature to some degree. And they allow this partial escape by reproducing natural processes in environments which allow humans to direct the course of these processes in certain desired ways and directions.
It is the ability to extract and control natural processes that most impresses the technological enthusiast. For such a person, this is the very essence of technological capability. Technology itself is thus a means of freeing oneself from the vagaries of nature through copying in a controlled way its most fundamental processes.
You can see this understanding of technology at many points in Fuller’s essay. But it is perhaps best illustrated by his talk of the “black box” which, by enabling people to reproduce artificially the conditions and processes which enable them to survive, frees them of their dependence on natural environments; it enables them to go practically anywhere.
Assumption 2: Humanity’s technological ability is very great, in fact great enough to solve all of humanity’s problems.
This conviction is what underlies the incredible optimism characteristic of technological enthusiasts. You can see this optimism shining through at several points in Fuller: according to him, Malthus has been shown wrong. It is physically possible to employ the Earth’s resources, recyclable and non-recyclable, to make all humanity physically, economically, and continuously successful within 20 years. He also claims that “Technology has increased living standards, and given a higher standard to increasing numbers of people. And he then says, “Take away all the inventions of humanity and within six months half of humanity will dies of starvation and disease.”4 (p.141) In general, he believes that technology holds the key to solving all significant world problems.
But the conviction that our technological abilities, understood as the ability to insert natural processes into artificial environments of control, are very great, manifests itself best in the attitude of technological enthusiasts towards the safety and reliability of technological systems. Clearly, if you believe that humanity’s technological abilities are very great, you will also believe that it is possible to ensure a very high degree of reliability, certainty and safety in the operation of technological systems. Thus it is that the technological enthusiast tends to have absolute confidence in the possibility of technological systems which are genuinely fail-safe.
What do I mean by “fail-safe”? Many technological systems have particularly disastrous consequences if they break down in certain ways. Thus, such systems must be provided with safety mechanisms which prevent certain kinds of failure and provide backup systems which compensate for failure. To provide such systems with such safety mechanisms is to make it safe against failure, hence the name fail-safe. Now your average technological enthusiast is quite nonchalant about the possibility of genuine failure-safety, i.e., of anticipating in advance and preventing all really disastrous failures and breakdowns. Indeed, they tend to see technologies which positively require elaborate failure-safety as the very best examples of technology. This is not surprising, given how they understand technology. For what else could best demonstrate humanity’s massive technological ability than systems which tame very dangerous natural processes?
Once again, Fuller’s essay provides good examples of this kind of confidence in the possibility of genuine fail-safe technology. For his living contraptions are clearly systems which need quite extensive fail-safe measures. If, for example, the air conditioning systems in his enormous living towers go wrong, if the power fails, then this will most likely cause a massive catastrophe. So, too, if the floating city starts breaking up as a result of being hit by a massive tidal wave or the geodesic sphere starts losing altitude in a sudden and extreme cold snap. So these contingencies must be anticipated and allowed for by the installation of numerous safety devices designed to prevent such failures.
We should note in passing that in contrast to fail-safe technology, one can distinguish what one might call safe-fail technology. This is the kind of technology which is safe in failing. That is, if it fails, it does cause not disaster. Solar power generation would appear to be safe-fail; if anything goes wrong with its functioning, then it does not wreak havoc. Nuclear power generation, on the other hand, is clearly a technology which must be made fail-safe.
Assumption 3: Technology is intrinsically liberating.
Technological enthusiasts believe that the tendency of invention is to make it easier and easier for us to do or obtain more and more of the things we want.5 As Fuller puts it on p.152, technology gives us more for less. It takes over mechanical, onerous or difficult tasks which would otherwise be done, if at all, by human beings. And it can often perform these tasks more quickly than human beings. From this the technological enthusiast concludes that the implementation and use of technology is essentially liberating, a process of freeing humans from their natural chains; as Fuller puts it on p.155, “The comprehensive introduction of automation everywhere around the earth will free man from being an automaton.”
Two things are important to note about this third characteristic belief of the technological enthusiast. Firstly, this conviction and the notion of freedom implicit in it, have an essentially utilitarian character. For the technological enthusiast, what really counts is happiness, understood as the satisfaction of one’s important needs and desires.6 This has consequences for the concept of freedom: if what really counts is simply the satisfaction of one’s important needs and desires, then surely freedom consists merely in the ability to satisfy such needs and desires. In short, freedom is simply freedom from external constraint, from being restricted by outside forces while trying to satisfy one’s needs and desires. These utilitarian conceptions of freedom and of the ultimate ends of life explain why traditionally, technological enthusiasts have seen human freedom and material abundance as going hand in hand. For material abundance is nothing other than access to the means of satisfying one’s needs and desires. It thus a kind of freedom itself.
Secondly, this third characteristic belief entails the view that the inventor is a source of social progress. You can see this conviction in Fuller, on p.137, where he goes on about how the old capitalist fears the inventor.7
Assumption 4: Technology works best when it is allowed to develop and implement itself freely; technological innovation should not be fettered.
This conviction is really implicit in the three previous ones. Fuller’s commitment to it appears on p. 137, where he says, “Inventors pay no attention to man-made laws, only to physical laws which alone govern what man may ultimately do in the universe.” If you think about it, the word “may” here cannot be just another way of saying “can”. For if this were so, then Fuller would only be saying that the physical laws of the universe alone determine what is physically possible for man to do. This is obviously a quite empty statement, it is a tautology. So the word “may” must mean here something like “moral or ethical permission”. Thus, Fuller must be saying here that invention is, at least ideally, subject to no moral restriction, only to the restrictions of nature. In other words, invention must be allowed to take what course it will. And he no doubt thinks this because he believes that technology and invention are intrinsically liberating, intrinsically a force for the good. If this is so, then clearly it would be wrong to set limits to them.
Assumption 5: Technology can do what politics does better, and therefore ought to replace it.
Characteristically, technological enthusiasts show a great disdain for, and mistrust of, politics. Thus, Fuller speaks disparagingly of the lethal and debilitating biases of politics. (p.137) Similarly, he says that technology has increased living standards, and given a higher standard to increasing numbers of people such that if you “(t)ake away all the inventions of humanity … within six months half of humanity will die of starvation and disease”. But if you “(t)ake away all the politicians and all political ideologies and leave all the inventions in operation … , more will eat and prosper than now” while they race on “to take care of 100% of humanity.” (p.141)
Technological enthusiasts like Fuller display such disdain and mistrust for politics because they regard political involvement and activity as basically a matter of deciding upon, and attempting to implement, various measures designed to realise certain given, socially desirable goals. That is, politics and political action consist solely in deciding upon and implementing various measures which will bring about certain goals already regarded in advance to be worthy of realisation. An example provided by Fuller himself can be used to make this concept of politics and political action clearer. It is quite clear in advance to everyone in this society that a lower road toll is a worthy social goal. On Fuller’s conception of politics, political decision making and political action consists in working out and implementing efficient means of realising such pre-given goals. In other words, for Fuller and others like him, politics and political action are pretty much like the problem-solving activity engaged in by the technologists: they are nothing more than a matter of deciding upon, and then implementing, the best means of realising things identified in advance as desirable. But if you have this view of politics, then politics and political action look like rather poor ways of solving practical problems which could be far more efficiently solved by technology. If we look once again at Fuller’s own example of the road toll (on p.141), we can see this attitude in action: Fuller claims that all the punitive measures, driver education and moral cajoling in the world largely failed to reduce the road toll in America. What finally achieved this was good engineering: the construction of a national system of highways. Fuller says on p.140 that it is his “lifelong resolve to accomplish tasks by reforming the mechanics of the physical environment rather than by trying to reform man.” In a similar vein, he speaks on p.141 of his “commitment to progressively reforming only the environment”, where “(p)olitics undertakes only to reform man.” Basically, he says these things because he believes that to act politically is just to adopt certain means in order to bring about certain ends recognised as worthy in advance. Given this conception of what politics is, it is an easy matter to show that it would be better to give up politics altogether and use technological means. Of course, the question is whether this is not a too restrictive conception of political action.
Although they may not seem to do so, these five convictions and attitudes open not one, but dozens of cans of worms. In later notes, I hope to come back to some of the issues which these convictions and assumptions raise. But in the meantime, let us move on to consider the deeper side of Fuller’s essay. By penetrating to this deeper level, we can identify the ultimate source of Fuller’s technological enthusiasm, and thus the ultimate source of the five convictions just discussed.
If you have read this article, one thing will have surely stuck out quite prominently: Fuller’s attack on the idea of a fixed or static human existence. Now in one way, this is just one part of his attack on the irrationality of past practices of land use. In one way, Fuller is simply attacking the idea that the only realistic or rational place which for human housing is the Earth, the land, itself. The attack on a fixed or static human existence is simply an attack on a human existence quite literally bound to the land.
But in another way this attack is more radical. It can be seen as an argument to the effect that past modes of living have actually been rather inappropriate ones which humanity has only adopted because it could not have survived otherwise. And thus the whole article can be read as an essay on what sort of creature human beings are and what sort of existence is appropriate for them. Fuller is in fact making certain claims about the essence of humanity, and on this basis arguing that we are being held back from realising our true natures because we cling to an old fashioned notion of appropriate human existence. This old fashioned notion conceives appropriate human existence as static and in particularly as geographically rooted—as bound to this particular plot of land, this particular valley, this particular town or this particular country. Of course, in the past humans have had no choice but to live lives which were fixed and static in this sense. But this is no longer true. Our present technological sophistication and prowess gives us for the first time in human history a choice. And Fuller thinks we should exercise this choice and opt to break with the past; we should shake off the shackles of outmoded conceptions and take the chance which technology gives us of living in a state of permanent mobility and transience. For he believes that such a life corresponds much better to what we as human beings essentially are.
What then does Fuller regard as our essentially and uniquely human characteristics? The universe is for Fuller a fundamentally dynamic place, a ceaseless process of change and movement. And he sees the individual human being as just a microcosmic embodiment of this ceaseless change and flux. As he puts it on p.142, “(b)oth man and universe are indeed complex aggregates of motion.” Now when Fuller says that a human being is a ceaseless process of change and movement, and thus an essentially mobile creature, he does not mean that a human being is engaged in satisfying a certain fixed set of desires for such things as food, water and shelter. For this is how animals exist: they have certain basic desires for certain types of food, for water, certain types of shelter, etc., and their entire lives revolve around fulfilling this biologically fixed set of desires. And because they are thus fixed in what they desire, they are bound to specific environments, those, namely, which provide them with the things they desire. Thus, because they have fixed sets of desires, they are essentially static and fixed in their existence. So we see that when Fuller implies that humans are distinctively mobile and transient creatures, he must ultimately mean that humans, unlike animals, are not locked into any fixed set of desires, habits or styles of life. Human beings, like all animals, do have certain basic needs for food, shelter, warmth and the like. But unlike animals, humans can and do continually reshape their basic needs into quite specific, individual and fundamentally variable desires for things which do not occur naturally, but have to be made. The koala bear’s basic need for food expresses itself as a biologically fixed and relatively inflexible desire for a certain kind of eucalyptus leaf. But in human beings the basic need for food becomes in one person a quite specific and possibly quite transient desire for Chinese cuisine, in another a desire for fish and chips.
But why do human being express their natural needs in an ever-expanding and changing set of culturally-conditioned, and to this extent non-natural desires? Fuller appears to think that humans have at least one genuinely fixed and unchanging desire. True, he never expressly mentions it, but he certainly appears to hint at it when he speaks of human beings as ceaseless striving to spread out, to enjoy more and more of the Earth and “to occupy ever greater regions of the universe.” (p.155) The desire I am thinking of here is the desire for novelty. It seems that tor Fuller human beings are creatures essentially in search of the new, the challenging, the exciting; they are always striving to experience new things, to do things in new ways and to move out beyond the horizon of their present existence. It is this desire which makes them such avid tourists and such avid inventors and experimenters. The mere desire for an easier life, for obtaining the same old things in easier ways, cannot explain the continual expansion of human technology and the unending variety of human culture. Rather, what explains this is a fundamental desire for new things and experiences. Humans create culture and make technological artefacts not because they want to make life easier, but because they want to free themselves from the old in order to experience the new and different.
Evidently, if humans essentially strive for the new, then it is clear why Fuller is so convinced that technology and the inventor, not politics and the politician, hold the key to human progress. For it is precisely technology which enables humanity to free itself from the same old daily grind. It reduces the amount of time humans have to spend at one fixed place or at one fixed activity in order to ensure their survival. And it enables humans to roam further and faster in pursuit of the new. As Fuller puts it, technology enables humanity to survive at ever less cost and effort, it “giv(es) man more and more for less and less.” (p.152)8
Moreover, it is also clear why Fuller believes that humans should live in mobile habitats9 in which they will “dwell locally for periods during their world-around peregrinations.” (p.154) For if human beings strive for the new, then clearly they will want maximum mobility. The conception of a human being as having some privileged place where he or she is at home, a place which is somehow part of the individual’s identity as this particular and unique human being, can only be a hindrance, a failure to appreciate that, to quote Fuller once again, “(m)an was designed with legs—not roots.” (p.142) Relatedly, the conception of housing, of a house, as more than a purely functional machine or tool for living must be a misconception. Indeed, it must be an obstacle which prevents people from being what they really are. And this is why Fuller is so concerned to attack allegedly outmoded conceptions according to which a certain building, valley, town or country is “home”, i.e., that privileged place where one wants to live one’s life.10
Now it seems to me that there is something drastically wrong and inhuman about this conception of our humanity. I’m pretty sure that most of you will agree with this assessment; I would ask anyone who does not agree to reflect a little on Fuller’s comparison of life in tomorrow’s “dwelling machines” with the stopovers made by transit passengers at international airport hotels.11 But what precisely is wrong with this conception? In order to work out this out, we need to consider one important thing we sometimes if not always mean when we say that such and such a building, valley, town or country is “home” for us.
Clearly, in calling something “home” we never mean a certain building, valley, town or country just in their capacities as mere physical entities. We are not just talking about a certain lump of wood and bricks, a certain arrangement of hills and rivers, a certain spatial arrangement of buildings or a certain geographic arrangement of cities and towns. We are talking about these things not in their capacity as physical entities, but as places with a certain significance or meaning for us. And very often this meaning or significance is an intrinsically social one: we do not mean a certain building, but rather a place where we along with certain other people, children, cats and dogs come and go or have “in living memory” come and gone. On such occasions, the word “home” thus indirectly refers to this group of individuals to which we belong, to its individual members with their various habits and quirks, their individual histories and experiences, and to the group itself with its collective history, customs and experience.
Now when I speak of “home” as a place where certain people come and go, I obviously do not mean this in the sense in which Flinders Street Railway Station, Melbourne, is a place where certain people come and go. Rather, I am talking about a place where individual people have quite specific loyalties towards, and feelings for, one another, where they share a sense of solidarity and common purpose in their interactions with one another. In fact, “home” is the place where this solidarity and common purpose are expressed; if there were no such place or common location, then there simply would not be this social unit, there simply would not be this solidarity and common purpose.
Of course, as a matter of fact very few towns and not all that many houses are “home” in this sense. No doubt we are often idealising a fair bit when we speak of “home”. But that we often do idealise is not relevant here. What is important here is simply the fact that we often do use the word “home” to mean this sort of thing, namely, a certain location to which a unified social life is anchored by bonds of solidarity, familiarity and common purpose. For this usage reveals a sense and purpose to having a fixed and static existence which Fuller simply ignores. It shows quite clearly that a life without such common locations and fixed centres would be a life lived apart from all solidarity and collective social action. Fuller’s implicit account of what we are as human beings simply discounts this whole human dimension and the values which it embodies. What we miss in Fuller’s picture of humanity is precisely the desire for a genuinely social life within which each member is recognised as playing their part in the maintenance and advancement of the whole. Relatedly, we miss the recognition of human solidarity and participation in the maintenance and improvement of an ongoing social whole as essentially human capacities and virtues.12
Now all these lacks in Fuller’s implicit picture of humanity reveal that at least his brand of technological enthusiasm rests on a very radical kind of individualism. Fuller’s individuals are radically private individuals; being so interested in experiencing the new, they have no time to stay put13 and play their part in some kind of ongoing social whole which is necessarily centred around, or anchored to, some common place or location. This is not to say that they do not and cannot form groups; it is just to say that their groups are temporary voluntary associations united only in the pursuit of some one specific purpose, associations which dissipate once their purpose is attained. Precisely in this context, a particularly good example of such voluntary associations would be the groups individual tourists sometimes form while on holiday: once the holiday is over, the group falls apart.
Clearly, in saying that Fuller’s attack on a fixed and static human existence commits him to a radical individualism, I am saying that it is, at least implicitly and possibly without Fuller’s being aware of it, an attack on the idea that the appropriate form of existence for human beings is an essentially social one. This, too, needs to be understood properly. I am not saying that Fuller’s individuals cannot exist in, or form societies, at least not if by society you just mean a group of people who depend upon one another and who bump into one another every so often. Obviously, all those people who bump into one another at Flinders Street Station or in any other public place can be dependent on one another in various ways: If the person who bumps into me is someone whose opinion my boss respects greatly, then the continuation of my employment will be directly dependent on this person and what they think of me. So I had better not abuse them for bumping into me. But neither this person nor I nor all the other people at the station that day form a society in the sense of a cohesive group of people living and working together, each prepared to contribute to participate in and contribute to the advancement of the group as a whole. In this stronger sense of the word “society”, Fuller’s individuals do not and cannot form, or exist in, society.
This is a very important point. For just as we can distinguish two senses to the word “social group” and two senses to the word “society”, so, too, we can distinguish two senses to the word “public life” and “public sphere”. In the one sense a public life is merely the kind of life led by some public figure, be they politician or film star. But in another and richer sense it is the life of a person for whom participation in discussion and decision-making about courses of social action is an essential part of what they are and want to be. Relatedly, in the one sense the “public sphere” is nothing more than the place where such institutions as the newspapers, T.V. or Woman’s Day direct their spotlight. But in another, richer sense the “public sphere” is that ongoing network of discussions and communications in which people live public lives in the richer sense of this word. Now in my opinion, Fuller’s theories and ideas leave no conceptual space for the idea of a public life and a public sphere in the two richer senses. The thought I want to leave you with is whether this might not be a common fault of all technological enthusiasts. I would say that if it is, this is only consistent. For in later notes I will argue that modern technology itself has a persistent tendency to undermine society and public existence in any rich sense.
Richard Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the Geodesic Dome, was born 1895 in Boston, U.S.A., and died 1983. He had a diverse career as a U.S. naval officer in World War I, as a salesman and failed businessman in the 1920’s, and turned in the 1930’s to architecture, philosophy and invention, in particular, to the invention of new kinds of houses which would allow people greater mobility, more effective use of the land. In general, he advocated a world science of design which would, he thought, prevent ecological disaster and encourage conservation of resources. His biographer, Martin Pawley, suggests that his ideas provide a framework for both “… ecologists and environmentalists in their new Green political prominence …” and “… the withdrawing forces of industry … .” (Buckminster-Fuller, London: Trefoil Publications, 1990, p.15) ↩
On p.138 Fuller speaks of anti-entropy. Clearly, this concept is defined in opposition to the concept of entropy, and thus, in order to understand it, one must understand the latter concept. The concept of entropy was first formulated in thermodynamics; very roughly, it expresses how unstructured, how unorganised, a physical system is. An entity such as a living organism, the universe in its present condition, or a container filled with two gases which have not yet begun to mix are relatively highly structured and heterogeneous entities. The different spatial regions of an organism or the present-day universe display significant differences: here is my arm, down there is my leg and in here is my heart. So the different regions of my body contain quite different things. Similarly with the universe: here is the sun, there a planet and somewhere else a galaxy. And as long as the two gases in the container have not yet mixed completely, different spatial regions within the container will be different from other regions. Such situations of high qualitative difference corresponding to different spatial regions are cases of systems with low entropy. And they contrast markedly to such situations as the one which exists when I have died and returned to dust, the universe has cooled down to the point where matter is evenly distributed throughout it, and the gases in the container have mixed to the point where at each spatial region their concentration is the same. Such situations of homogeneity have little structure; they are said to have a high entropy. Now anti-entropy is just the negation of entropy; whatever has a high entropy has a low anti-entropy and vice versa. Thus, a living organism, the universe in its present condition and the container of gases not yet mixed have high anti-entropies, whereas I after my death, the universe after its heat death and the container of gases after their complete intermixture have low anti-entropies. Clearly, to say as Fuller does that human beings are sources of anti-entropy is to say that they are sources of order and structure in the cosmos; they introduce and maintain order, structure and heterogeneity in a universe which itself tends to disorder, unstructuredness and homogeneity. ↩
See p.146. ↩
This latter is a systematically misleading remark (because too general and imprecise). Inventions include such things as elementary public health measures, e.g., sanitation, canalisation, etc. And it is actually such technologies which have been responsible for the biggest increases in life expectancy. ↩
We will need to question whether this is in fact so. Is life becoming easier through technology? Are we working less and enjoying more? If so, in what sense? ↩
Thus, Fuller sees his task as using the Earth’s resources and energy income in such a way that all are supported, all enjoy the Earth, its historical artefacts and beautiful places, without one man interfering with another, without one man enjoying the Earth at the cost of another. ↩
One could also mention a third important point here, namely, that it would be wrong to confuse the conviction that technology is intrinsically liberating with the previously mentioned conviction that humanity’s technological ability is very great, so great in fact that it can solve all the world’s problems. Even if technology can solve all these problems, this does not mean that after these problems have been solved, people are better off or freer than they were previously. ↩
This conviction of Fuller’s is basically number five on our list of the central assumptions made by the technological enthusiast. This gives us good reason to think that the other four can also be deduced from Fuller’s conception of what humans essentially are. ↩
See p.150. ↩
Note that this does not preclude the possibility of feeling one has two “homes”. This is the painful situation where one is torn between two places. ↩
See p.150. The expression “dwelling machine” is used by Fuller, who has taken it from Le Corbusier. ↩
One might want to object that while an intimate, supportive and collective kind of social existence does need the kind of spatial anchor which we sometimes mean by the word “home”, it does not follow from this that the common location must be an absolutely fixed one. There could, for example, quite possibly be a genuine human community living on some kind of spaceship racing through space. But if this is so, then it cannot be correct to suggest that Fuller, in attacking a fixed and static existence, is undermining the very possibility of a genuinely communal, intimate and mutually supportive social unit.
Now this objection is quite correct in the general point that the notion of “home”, of a common place or locality around which human intimacy and solidarity can crystallise, is a relative one. It is wrong, however, in the conclusions it draws on Fuller’s behalf from this point. For when Fuller calls upon us to give up the fixed and static existence we have led thus far, he can only be calling upon us to give up an existence thus far led entirely within one and the same environment and locality. Now the notions of an environment and locality which he intends here can only be relative notions; that is, by environment or locality he must things which can themselves move around, hence can themselves exist at different points in space at different points in time. For quite obviously, the environments and localities to which humans have remained so regrettably fixed have been moving around all the time. After all, throughout the entirety of their previous static existence, the Earth they have lived upon has been rotating on its axis and revolving around the sun; in so doing, it has taken all these fixed and static environments only with it. Indeed, as Fuller himself recognises, our planet is itself a large spaceship racing through space; thus, when he objects to humanity’s previous fixed and static existence, he must be objecting just as much to kind of existence illustrated by the objection’s example of the spaceship. This example is therefore not at all compatible with what Fuller is saying. ↩
“Who wants to gather moss anyway? asks the around-the-world-flying man! Plenty of time to raise moss when you are dead.” (p.101, The Buckminster-Fuller Reader) This is, as Winner aptly puts it on p.287 of his book Autonomous Technology, “… the image of hyperactive life in the technological society. … Members of the society are able to do more things, more efficiently, over farther distances, at much faster speeds. The busyness of the daily everything enhances freedom. It is, furthermore, what most people want. They are persons “on the go” with “all systems go.” More, farther, and faster is the formula for virtue in the modern age, our frenetic equivalent of the areté of the Greeks of the piety of the Puritans.” Note how well Fuller’s celebration of speed and hyper-activity, as characterised by Winner, accords with contemporary enthusiasts for the hyper-connected world of the Internet! (Comment added, January 9th, 2016) ↩