Buck to the future

He’s a forgotten hippie idol, a sage of 1960s counterculture. What can we learn from Bucky Fuller’s faith in technology?

Marshall McLuhan, that other great hippie hero, heralded Fuller as ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of our time’

.. He compiled many of his sage-like musings – as well as his laundry bills and other irrelevancies – in 4.5 tonnes’ worth of scrapbooks, known as the Dymaxion Chronofile; in this manner, he recorded his life in 15-minute chunks for more than 60 years.

.. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’

.. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.

.. He was a keen neologist, believing in the capacity of new words and phrases to create fresh imaginative possibilities, using his terms like struts to hold up his ideas.

.. Long before Occupy Wall Street, Fuller noted that the richest 1 per cent of people grew even richer at the expense of the other 99 per cent.

.. So much was invested in the status quo that no one – designers, industrialists, financiers, scientists – worked hard enough at the fundamental task of original thinking. Meanwhile, the planet was tumbling towards a crisis, running out of energy and fouling up the environment. In other words, we’re in for ‘an absolute revolution of humanity’, as Fuller put it in Everything I Know.

.. The house, which cost $6,500 and weighed three tons, didn’t have to be hooked up to municipal lines for electricity, sewage or water. In a world without borders – an ideal world, in Fuller’s view – the Dymaxion House could be airlifted to a fresh location on a whim.

.. The house was to be mass-produced on factory floors, out of plastic and metal, each unit indistinguishable from the other as a matter of principle and to keep the cost down. But throughout the 1930s, most of the processes and materials required to build the house – light, strong plastics; high-tension alloys; bioreactors – didn’t yet exist.

.. The Dymaxion House remained perpetually imminent, a Fullerian prophecy of how people could and should live. Fuller imagined that efficient, modular construction would liberate its residents, so that they could spend their newfound free time learning and thinking. But the design made no allowance for the owner’s preferences, or for how topography and weather varied from place to place. For an avidly industrialised society, the home, and the human within it, had becomepure machine.

.. And when his inventions – the house, the car, the bathroom– proved stillborn, he became a futurist. In the 1960s, he stopped building things he thought the world required and started forecasting those requirements instead.

.. His concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’, an attempt to convey the fragility and celestial loneliness of the planet and its ecosystem, was an inspiration for the publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, the magazine that became the counterculture’s manifesto-in-progress.

.. With a nimble system of education, environmental design and efficient planning, Fuller was convinced that scientists and corporations could do more with less. His thinking was analogous, in some ways, to that of McLuhan, who celebrated the way mass media was extending the notion of the human being.

.. Fuller’s advocacy of technology as a salve for the wounds of modernity found a fierce critic in the sociologist Lewis Mumford, who longed for a more organic humanism. The two men proposed such contrasting versions of the future that Horizon magazine wondered, in 1968: ‘Which guide to the Promised Land? Fuller or Mumford?’

.. In an acid passage from 1956 that might have been aimed squarely at Fuller and his bubble-domed cities, Mumford wrote:

If the goal of human history is a uniform type of man, reproducing at a uniform rate, in a uniform environment, kept at a constant temperature, pressure and humidity, like a uniformly lifeless existence, with his uniform physical needs satisfied by uniform goods… most of the problems of human development would disappear. Only one problem would remain: why should anyone, even a computer, bother to keep this kind of creature alive?

.. This was the quintessential Fuller paradox: he doubted our ability to mend our imperfections, but he was confident in our facility to develop technologies that can outwit them.

Life as a Verb: Applying Buckminster Fuller to the 21st Century

Fuller consciously, even obsessively, documented his own existence, referring to himself as an experiment: “Guinea Pig B,” as he phrased it. The Chronofile, assembled by Fuller and his assistants, is perhaps, Keats says, the most comprehensive record of any individual’s life. Now maintained by Stanford University, it challenges scholars with 1,200 linear feet of boxes containing manuscripts, drawings, and tapes of lectures (as well as overdue library notices and grocery lists). Fuller’s was not a life unrecorded. But it is a life practically un-examinable in any comprehensive way.

.. Yet peeking through that smokescreen of self-mythologizing in fact provides ample evidence that, even when it came to basic moments in Fuller’s life, the visionary designer was anything but a reliable narrator.

.. For instance, central to Bucky Fuller’s story was a winter evening in 1927 when, beset by financial woes and a string of business failures, he resolved to end his life in the icy waters of Lake Michigan. A voice, telling Fuller that he “belonged to the Universe,” convinced him that his life had purpose. Returning home in a trance, he then remained silent for two years (maybe); wrote 5,000 pages of notes (maybe); became a vegetarian (maybe); started to lecture, publish, and craft his own legend (certainly).

.. Readers who possess sufficient fortitude to brave the Chronofile, writes Keats, might be disconcerted at how little of Fuller’s autobiography agrees with facts.

.. Yet for someone whom left-leaning university students embraced as an iconoclastic advocate for international peace and cooperation, his professional life was enormously shaped by the military.

.. Fuller designed and patented his Dymaxion World Map. Eliminating the spatial distortions of traditional Mercator projection, Fuller broke the world into 20 equilateral triangles, projected onto a multi-sided polyhedron, which could then be unfolded and flattened. As Keats describes it — inexplicably, the book does not have illustrations — Fuller’s Dymaxion map was a “remarkably neutral platform.” One could use it to center the world around any one point instead of privileging a particular country or landmass.

.. Fuller’s dome design swiftly became a symbol and instrument of American power.

.. He became an example of what Keats might call a “world-changer”, a person with an expansive view of our planet’s systemic shortcomings and how Big Ideas — specifically, Fuller’s — could fix them. His lecturing stamina became legendary. Picture a sprawling TED talk lasting for hours with dozens of ideas, concepts, and neologisms projected at the audience in a manic torrent of words.

.. they acted not as visionaries but what I have called “visioneers.” The former offer only speculations, informed or not, about what the future, especially the technological future, might hold. The latter work to bring these over-the-horizon conjectures closer to physical reality.

.. For example, Fuller’s car anticipated, according to Keats, today’s use of biomimesis, in which features from nature are incorporated into designs.