Not many people get their faces on stamps - in fact to guarantee it, you have to be a monarch - but this month, the US-born inventor and techno-utopian Buckminster Fuller is being honored by his own Postal Service. 12 July also marks the birthday of the great man, who died in 1983.
Fuller's actual inventions come secondary to his reputation as a popular, homespun philosopher of science. At times vilified as a fruitcake and a show-off, he later taught to appreciative audiences and represented the United States delegation in meetings with top Soviet scientists. (This was before the days of Air Miles). Although it's true that Fuller's reputation has never quite shaken off the hucksterism, and at times his writing reads like a very bad weblog, this was an extraordinary achievement. Fuller was a more profound critic of contemporary capitalism than any of the communists he can have met.
That's because Fuller came to represent - much to the horror of his peers - the creativity and imagination that we like to think propels scientists at their best. And these are qualities we look for in vain from popular scientists and "futurologists" today.
Since biology sought to replace physics at the top of the "listen to us, or else!" scrap-heap, the business of science has been relegated to something of a clerk's job. Once it used to be nutty physicists who demanded our attention, and they sure were fun. Now it's all about watching whitecoats map out a predetermined sequence, and that's no fun at all. But this reductionism isn't really what science is all about, and it's hardly a vision to inspire our kids. As for today's futurologists, or "big thinkers", they're now indistinguishable from shifty financial advisors, and they're careful not to say anything that might disturb the next bubble. Which, they sincerely believe, will make us all rich and wise.
Robert Anton Wilson, who knew Fuller, once told your reporter that Fuller went a year without speaking. The chap who emerged from this purdah certainly wasn't short of words.
For Fuller was propelled by wilder visions. Perhaps inspired by the sacred geometry of the Arab mathematicians (this vision also inspired their calligraphers), with both art and science in service to Allah, Fuller began to express his own unifying geometry everywhere he could.
With his geodesic dome, Fuller began to express a favorite geometric shape of his, the tetrahedron, and he put it everywhere he could. He even drew a map of the globe as one connected landmass of tetrahedrons. Fuller believed the world had been previously been circumnavigated by Phoenician sailors. But the curious maps and the surviving tales, told the real story, he believed. The evidence isn't conclusive, but as myth and the metaphor it's very powerful and effective. Once it was the dome that was his most famous creation, but now it's this Dymaxion map that is the more celebrated, and you even see it adorning conference rooms at Nokia Oy and Sun Microsystems.
Here's where technology comes in.
After his death, Fuller was co-opted by a generation of woolly LSD-influenced thinkers, all eager to believe that machines themselves could provide the missing link, and solve the Cartesian conundrum - once the acid had worn off. For example, if you consult the world's most useless online text, the captive Wikipedia, you'll see Fuller's entry is a plug for Eric "AI" Drexler. (In the mid-1980s Drexler's "Engines of Creation" gave us the sort of cheap laughs that Kevin "Captain Cyborg" Warwick provides for a generation of Register readers today. Drexler wrote of automotive wonders - just around the corner, he assured us - that would not only tuck us in at night, but they'd also read us a bed-time story, too!)
Fuller might have smiled wryly, but we doubt he would have been impressed. For Fuller, humanity's problems were solvable by cheap, practical invention and not by escapism.
Ever ecologically minded, Fuller's inventions were remarkably social and economically justifiable. The "power to work" efficiency of our tools was around four per cent, and could easily be raised to fifteen per cent, he argued. It's hard to say what horrified him more: inefficiency and bad design, or one man profiting at another's expense. Both themes provide the core of his life's work. For he was actually a utilitarian who wanted everyone to use technology and so his responsibility as a scientist, as he saw it, was to maximize the public good. His creations were extraordinarily light - he wanted his Dymaxion house (made out of light materials, and constructed on the ground like an IKEA bookcase) to be thrown out of an airplane. He'd populate the world with affordable, geometrically-correct teepee housing, he thought.
Alas, families don't like living in one giant teepee - they need a bit of private space, it seems - so the Dymaxion House was a clunker. You don't see many now, and when you do, there's probably a hippie inside it, dreaming of a benign robot coming at any moment to tuck them into bed…
But you have to appreciate the sentiment: get everyone housed, cheaply. For without the kind of useful social outcomes that Fuller projected, the pursuit of science itself is pretty meaningless. Bucky just wanted to get everyone fed and watered. Everyone, with no exceptions, on what he called "Spaceship Earth" must benefit from this technology, and not just a select (or self-selecting) few. By contrast, for many of today's techno-utopians information is regarded as some special kind of material in its own right, and simply connecting everyone gets the job done. The contrast between Fuller and today's evangelists, who parachute Xeon servers onto remote villages and call it sustainable development, couldn't be greater.
But a really odd thing about RBF, and perhaps it's a clue to his soul, is revealed halfway through a 1996 documentary about him. A long-time acquaintance notes that wherever Fuller lived - and he moved around a lot - he would assiduously keep track of his name in the local phonebooks. He made sure he was never erased.
"Years later Fuller would turn up, find an old phone book and look himself up," the friend recalled. And he'd be really delighted to find himself, right there.
Which tells us that Fuller was not only obsessed with the weightlessness of his buildings and materials, but that he was just as obsessed with the weightlessness of R.Buckminster Fuller. He had to prove he existed to his pals, each time, right there.
Alas, the US Postal Service's commemorative stamp doesn't match the imaginative leaps of the man himself. It's rectangular. How Fuller would have appreciated, say, a triangular stamp. You know, with several of these, you could map the world, in a singular crazy paving, right across your envelope. ®
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