Sunday, October 16, 2016

You Belong to the Universe

by Drew Martin
There is a special place in the heart of our curious culture for outside artists, offbeat thinkers, and genius visionaries because they break us from run-of-the-mill tradition. Dr. Bronner, the cure-all soap prophet, comes to mind as one such character. Similarly, and more famously, there was Buckminster Fuller, the self-professed “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” who had a six-decade-long mission to “make the world work for 100% of humanity.” He is best known for promoting geodesic domes among his multitude of inventions and insights. 

Fuller has been dead for more than three decades but a recently published book breathes new life into his ideas that challenged the woes of transportation, housing, and warfare. The title of the book, You Belong to the Universe, comes from a ‘voice’ that spoke to him as he was about to take his life. At the age of 32 he felt that he was a failure. He was a new father without career prospects. One of his soulless gigs was as even an asbestos flooring salesman. He figured that his wife and child would benefit more from his life-insurance policy than his existence. So he walked down to Lake Michigan to drown himself but then he heard a voice say “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe.”

The author, Jonathon Keats, tries to tease fact from fiction that still surrounds Fuller. One thing is tragically true: the death of his daughter at the age of four pushed him farther into his mission to fix the planet. Everything became a solvable problem. Weaponry could become livingry, and almost everything could be worked out through biomimesis, by copying nature. One problem, was that the human mind was not expansive enough to comprehend everything, which is where his notion of something like the Internet would prevail. His “two-way television” would be a “mental prosthetic” for humankind. MOOCs (massive online open courses) would replace schools and decision-making computers would supplant politicians. His ideas were at times far-fetched, and often pure fantasy. They were so design driven that they ruled out other human decisions other than his own. And often, his ideas simply did not work. His geodesic domes leaked. Modern materials such as plastic were toxic. His famous three-wheeled Dymaxion car crashed and burned. Even his 80-hour documentary never got very far.

Fuller was very interested in education. He toured the country giving lectures, which might run eight hours long and were said to have "a raga quality of rich nolinear endless improvisation full of convergent surprises." On learning, he questioned the impact of specialization.

"Society operates on the theory that specialization is the key to success, not realizing that specialization precludes comprehensive thinking."

A concern with comprehensive anticipatory design is understanding all the consequences that emerge from the original approach of a new idea; the whole life cycle. Fuller noted that "the most natural technology can wreak havoc on the habitat that nurtured it." 

At times I wish Keats would have gotten more personal with Fuller's life, but even so I often enjoyed his own input such as this note about design and information.

"People find the simplicity of infographics seductive, a comforting respite from the deluge of data. In the name of convenience, judgement is outsourced to statisticians and designers rather than being taken as the responsibility of each viewer. As a consequence , the increased amount of data is paradoxically making more people less knowledgeable. And it's happening as the complexity of the world around us makes personal engagement more urgent."