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.

The Decay of Twitter

Ong’s great scholarly focus was the transition of human society from orality to literacy: from sharing stories and ideas through spoken language alone, to sharing them through writing, text, and printed media. His work catalogued the many differences between these two cultures: that orality treats words as sound and action, only; that it emphasizes memory and redundancy; that it stays close to the “human lifeworld.” In literate cultures, on the other hand, words are something you look up; language can stray more abstractly from objects; and speech, freed from memorable epithets like “the wine-dark sea,” can become more analytic.

.. To describe oral communication that was filtered through high technologies like radio and TV—technologies that could not exist without literacy—he coined the term secondary orality. To Ong, secondary orality was one of the great media phenomena of the 20th century.

.. “The rot we’re seeing in Twitter is the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective ‘we’ treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims,” she writes.

.. In other words, on Twitter, people say things that they think of as ephemeral and chatty. Their utterances are then treated as unequivocal political statements by people outside the conversation.

.. Rather, it’s a collapse of speech-based expectations and print-based interpretations.

.. This tension also explains, to me, why the more visual social networks have stayed fun and vibrant even as the text-based ones have not. Vine, Pinterest, and Instagram don’t traffic in words, which can be reduced to identity-based magnum opi, but in images, which are a little harder to smoosh.

.. At some point early last year, the standard knock against Twitter—which had long ceased to be “I don’t want to know what someone’s eating for lunch”—became “I don’t want everyone to see what I have to say.”

Marshall Mcluhan: 3 transformed elections

Twice before in the last hundred years a new medium has transformed elections. In the 1920s, radio disembodied candidates, reducing them to voices. It also made national campaigns far more intimate. Politicians, used to bellowing at fairgrounds and train depots, found themselves talking to families in their homes. The blustery rhetoric that stirred big, partisan crowds came off as shrill and off-putting when piped into a living room or a kitchen. Gathered around their wireless sets, the public wanted an avuncular statesman, not a firebrand. With Franklin Roosevelt, master of the soothing fireside chat, the new medium found its ideal messenger.

.. What’s important now is not so much image as personality. But, as the Trump phenomenon reveals, it’s only a particular kind of personality that works—one that’s big enough to grab the attention of the perpetually distracted but small enough to fit neatly into a thousand tiny media containers. It might best be described as a Snapchat personality. It bursts into focus at regular intervals without ever demanding steady concentration.

.. all three see a modern political discourse that is broken by a lack of physicality and shared context, as well as by a focus on charisma and emotion over content.

.. Is this what 2016 will look like—a mess of politicians bombarding their voters with Twitter battles, Instagram selfies, Snapchat updates, and Youtube videos? Everyone fighting to have the loudest voice and largest personality?

If Carr is right, our methods of reading and sharing news almost guarantee it.

Interview with Ted Nelson

Ted Nelson’s writing reminds me of the alternative history science fiction of Philip K. Dick, whose novel, “The Man in the High Castle,” described a United States which lost WWII to Germany and Japan. Ted Nelson maps an alternative history for personal computing. Unlike “The Man in the High Castle,” though, Nelson offers a romantic vision; more along the lines of what if Hitler had never risen to power in Germany? Am I being a little extreme here? Well, yes, a tad: comparing Microsoft to Nazism. Yet things could have been different, so very different…if more people had not only read Ted Nelson, but acted upon what the man was saying.

.. “It’s a Wonderful Life”? That is, I believe, the longest script in history. The amount of dialogue that flows is inconceivable. It’s a long film, but the amount of dialogue is much greater than anyone would dare write today.

What does Nelson think of Marshall McLuhan's read on computers?

He was totally ignorant. We once had lunch. I really liked him as a person, but he didn’t get it at all. What I hadn’t been warned was that you don’t get a second sentence in with McLuhan. So I started to talk about hypertext and he launched into his speech #340: “Well, a computer is completely invariant in its processes and unable to change its behavior in any way.” Which is completely wrong. He just didn’t get it, and the interesting thing is that some people take him as the visionary of hypermedia. In great fact, he was not. He was extrapolating his distinction between radio and television and print into realms he did not even dimly comprehend.

.. The word “reality” is usually political, meaning that what I choose to say is significant and I insist you acknowledge me. There are many aspects of reality and what is right there right now is not necessarily going to be prevailing if we can build a better system. So that is why I do not countenance most of today’s so-called web standards, because they’re crap. We need something much better and it is my duty to try to make a different reality which can supplant that other reality.

.. Tim Berners-Lee fashioned a way of pointing at conventional files and conventional directories via path names, visible to the user, over the Net. To me the notion of files and hierarchical directories is an unfortunate tradition that messes up the very nature of content.   .. The book should have a title and be retrievable from anywhere without the so-called URL

McLuhan: the Playboy Interview

The result has considerably more lucidity and clarity than McLuhan’s readers are accustomed to — perhaps because the Q. and A. format serves to pin him down by counteracting his habit of mercurially changing the subject in mid-stream of consciousness.

.. But other authorities contend that McLuhan’s stylistic medium is part and parcel of his message — that the tightly structured “linear” modes of traditional thought and discourse are obsolescent in the new “postliterate” age of the electric media.

.. There’s really nothing inherently startling or radical about this study — except that for some reason few have had the vision to undertake it. For the past 3500 years of the Western world, the effects of media — whether it’s speech, writing, printing, photography, radio or television — have been systematically overlooked by social observers.

.. The content or message of any particular medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb.

.. What do you mean by “acoustic space”?

I mean space that has no center and no margin, unlike strictly visual space, which is an extension and intensification of the eye. Acoustic space is organic and integral, perceived through the simultaneous interplay of all the senses; whereas “rational” or pictorial space is uniform, sequential and continuous and creates a closed world with none of the rich resonance of the tribal echoland. Our own Western time-space concepts derive from the environment created by the discovery of phonetic writing, as does our entire concept of Western civilization. The man of the tribal world led a complex, kaleidoscopic life precisely because the ear, unlike the eye, cannot be focused and is synaesthetic rather than analytical and linear.

.. Typography, by producing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, also created Henry Ford, the first assembly line and the first mass production. Movable type was archetype and prototype for all subsequent industrial development. Without phonetic literacy and the printing press, modern industrialism would be impossible.

..But isn’t television itself a primarily visual medium?

No, it’s quite the opposite, although the idea that TV is a visual extension is an understandable mistake. Unlike film or photograph, television is primarily an extension of the sense of touch rather than of sight..

.. The secret of TV’s tactile power is that the video image is one of low intensity or definition and thus, unlike either photograph or film, offers no detailed information about specific objects but instead involves the active participation of the viewer. The TV image is a mosaic mesh not only of horizontal lines but of millions of tiny dots, of which the viewer is physiologically able to pick up only 50 or 60 from which he shapes the image; thus he is constantly filling in vague and blurry images, bringing himself into in-depth involvement with the screen and acting out a constant creative dialog with the iconoscope.

.. A girl wearing open-mesh silk stockings or glasses is inherently cool and sensual because the eye acts as a surrogate hand in filling in the low-definition image thus engendered. Which is why boys make passes at girls who wear glasses.

.. The people wouldn’t have cared if John Kennedy lied to them on TV, but they couldn’t stomach L.B.J. even when he told the truth. The credibility gap was really a communications gap. The political candidate who understands TV — whatever his party, goals or beliefs — can gain power unknown in history.

.. As the preliterate confronts the literate in the postliterate arena, as new information patterns inundate and uproot the old, mental breakdowns of varying degrees — including the collective nervous breakdowns of whole societies unable to resolve their crises of identity — will become very common.

.. Our entire educational system is reactionary, oriented to past values and past technologies, and will likely continue so until the old generation relinquishes power.