“From this point on I, you’re warned that most of the things I’m saying are not… I don’t get out of the books. I’ve had to do it mostly by exploring and experiment.” -Buckminster Fuller: San Quentin Prison, 31 Jan 1959
It may just be an artefact of my personal filter bubble, but lately it seems R. Buckminster Fuller is back in the news a lot. There’s a ‘live’ documentary, an exhibition in SFMoMA, a new round of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge is gearing up and so forth. I’ve been a fan since I first read a compilation of his essays about 5 years ago, and this project has been sloshing around in the back of my mind ever since. Time to put it out.
…everything Fuller was talking about 40 years ago is completely in the air now. It’s striking. The world really has caught up with him. - Sam Green
People say Bucky was so far ahead of his time that many of his ideas are most relevant today. I would agree to a certain extent, but while Bucky held in his mind a grand, detailed, comprehensive plan of the universe, he was just a guy. A guy born in the 19th century whose ideas were largely shaped by the first world war. He says he never prepared for any of the talks he did and unfortunately, it shows. Just off the top of my head, here’s a few of the issues one might have with old Buckminster Fuller:
- The great detailed mental map of the world and it’s systems that he apparently possessed did not translate well into speech, much less to paper. While able to hold the attention of any crowd in his better days, Bucky’s prose is hard to parse at the best of times. Between a few gems of succinct expression his writing is generally long-winded and often borderline incomprehensible. The overuse of self-created neologisms and over-hyphenation doesn’t help either.
- Many of his ideas have been scientifically proven wrong. This tends to happen when you just make shit up as you go along. Now I’m sure Bucky would be the first to admit his error & adjust his mental model to fit new facts when faced with them, but he’s not around to do so, his bad ideas taint the good and leave his work as a whole vulnerable to quick ridicule.
- He focused on saving the world through invention, technologies and artifacts, believing that social & political problems would simply solve themselves as a consequence of the new world being built around them. This error in thinking is common among technologists, if it was true we’d have fixed the world a while ago by now.
- His interpretation of and use of language around the concepts of god & the universe leave the door wide open for his ideas to be conflated with metaphysical hokum, providing fertile ground for sacred geometry conspiracy cultists, free energy crackpots, ‘resource based economy’ dimwittery and many other such (most often well meant) misdirections of people’s time and energy.
Despite all that I do still believe there is much of great value to be distilled from Bucky’s work, and in particular breaking down his ideas into sentences normal humans can actually understand. The world he envisioned in which humanity realises its true wealth and redesigns its environment in order to work towards its maximum potential is still a possible one, we can at least start on the path towards it at any rate, and in many respects we already have.
The Breaking Bucky series of posts will not be about pointing and laughing at the ideas of a dead 20th century thinker. Not exclusively anyway. What I hope to do with this instead is hold various parts of Bucky’s ideas up against the light of the 21st century and see what still holds up. What has already been implemented in the world, what has already found even distribution, what still requires distribution, and what ideas have simply become quaint paleofutures.
Announcing projects before you’ve done them is generally a stupid idea, but here you have it. This is the thing I intend to write about for the time being. Fortunately as Bucky considered himself a comprehensivist there’s enough of his rambling out there to cover most areas of subject matter that interest me, hopefully it proves fertile ground and Breaking Bucky part 1 is out soon…