Back to School: An Interruption to Learning?

Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is available on-line at the Buckminster Fuller Institute. I think of it as Fall nears and students return to school, though they’ve no doubt been learning all summer, and school may be an interruption to that learning. Fuller explains, “Of course, we are beginning to learn a little in the behavioral sciences regarding how little we know about children and the educational processes. We had assumed the child to be an empty brain receptacle into which we could inject our methodically-gained wisdom until that child, too, became educated. In the light of modern behavioral science experiments that was not a good working assumption” (Chap. 1, para. 9).

The Operating Manual was first published in 1969, and I first read it at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the early 1970s as part of the 20th Century Thought and Expression Minor, an interdisciplinary, non-specialist course of studies: “Inasmuch as the new life always manifests comprehensive propensities I would like to know why it is that we have disregarded all children’s significantly spontaneous and comprehensive curiosity and in our formal education have deliberately instituted processes leading only to narrow specialization” (Chap. 1, para. 10).

Fuller was an inventor and an architect, and a philosopher and a teacher whose work touched regularly on the forms and reforms of education: “In our schools today we still start off the education of our children by giving them planes and lines that go on, incomprehensibly ‘forever’ toward a meaningless infinity” (Chap. 2, para. 1).

Throughout Spaceship, Fuller illustrates the debilitating effects of specialization and reflects on the success of generalized thinking, the ability to look at one thing and see something else, to invent. The specialist is unable to invent because his learning narrows to a dead-end point in an institutionalized tunnel: “Once man comprehended that any tree would serve as a lever his intellectual advantages accelerated. Man freed of special-case superstition by intellect has had his survival potentials multiplied millions fold. By virtue of the leverage principles in gears, pulleys, transistors, and so forth, it is literally possible to do more with less in a multitude of physio-chemical ways. Possibly it was this intellectual augmentation of humanity’s survival and success through the metaphysical perception of generalized principles which may be objectively employed that Christ was trying to teach in the obscurely told story of the loaves and the fishes” (Chap. 4, last para.).

Around the same time as Spaceship, pictures of Whole Earth began to emerge. These pictures lacked boundaries: “We begin by eschewing the role of specialists who deal only in parts. Becoming deliberately expansive instead of contractive, we ask, ‘How do we think in terms of wholes?’ If it is true that the bigger the thinking becomes the more lastingly effective it is, we must ask, ‘How big can we think?’” (Chap. 5, para 4).

Operating Manual begins in metaphor. The title itself is a metaphorical argument. “I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem. Our brains deal exclusively with special-case experiences. Only our minds are able to discover the generalized principles operating without exception in each and every special-experience case which if detected and mastered will give knowledgeable advantage in all instances. Because our spontaneous initiative has been frustrated, too often inadvertently, in earliest childhood we do not tend, customarily, to dare to think competently regarding our potentials. We find it socially easier to go on with our narrow, shortsighted specializations and leave it to others—primarily to the politicians—to find some way of resolving our common dilemmas. Countering that spontaneous grownup trend to narrowness I will do my, hopefully ‘childish,’ best to confront as many of our problems as possible by employing the longest-distance thinking of which I am capable—though that may not take us very far into the future” (Chap. 1, para. 1).

Related Post: Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller? Reposted at Berfrois as Planet Earth as Spaceship.

Celebrating Earth Day at Berfrois!

Check out the Toads post at Berfrois for Earth Day!…

Problems, Inventions, and Implications

Inventions are usually a response to a problem. A problem is something that limits or impairs access to needs, wants, or values. An invention solves the problem, granting or improving access. An invention might be a machine, an idea, or a new value. Inventions alter our environment and often present side effects, good or bad, that may or may not have anything to do with the original problem, and may or may not have been anticipated. Inventions can create new problems, and changes in our environment can change us, often in unexpected ways, change our response to our environment, change us externally or internally, physically, mentally, or emotionally, change our behavior and the way we think of ourselves. Inventions can change culture and change the direction of societal development. Sometimes, as in the case of synthetic biology, an invention takes on “A Life of Its Own” (Michael Specter, New Yorker, 28 September 2009). This “life of its own” we might call implications. Invention shares with experiment, discovery, and creation what it means to be human.

As machines, inventions have a shelf life, for they are subject to entropy, wear and tear, as well as obsolescence created by changes in the environment or by other inventions. It was Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, talking about the creation of the State (which begins as an idea), who said, “…the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Jowett, V-128, Book II, p. 60). What happens to the old machines when we no longer perceive the necessity? And if inventions are a response to a problem, what problem did the automobile solve?

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented.

According to Google Patents, the oldest patent using the word Automobile was filed in 1809, but not issued until 1902. The patent, by J. Ledwinka, “subject of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary,” but, “residing in Chicago,” was a design allowing for the independent functioning of the four wheels of the carriage. The patent improves the efficiency of the automobile, making it easier to operate. The terms Motor-car and Auto-car will fetch other, equally old patents from Google Patents.

The word “automobile” suggests a self-moving vehicle. A US patent for L. Bollee, of France, providing improvements for a “self-propelling vehicle,” was filed in 1896 and issued in 1898. This patent involves improvements to “…five principal parts: first, the motor; second, the frame; third, the transmission gear; fourth, the brake; and, fifth, the mechanism for engaging and disengaging the motor, for changing the speed of the vehicle, and for actuating the brake.” There’s no mention of a radio or radar detector.

Many of the patents surrounding automobiles suggest that most patents are inventions of improvement. The automobile itself, as an invention, isn’t a new machine as much as an improvement on older machines. The idea of a wheeled vehicle is very old, and may be said to leverage the underlying general principle of the circle, its latent energy (as Fuller’s piano top life preserver illustrates the underlying general principle of flotation, and his magic log illustrates the underlying general principle of the fulcrum, or leverage). Humanity’s first observations of round things rolling, seemingly of their own volition, perhaps needing a kick to get things going, seems to have set off a chain of inventions in what we now call a “snowball effect.” Society seems to be a tower of inventions, not all necessarily designed to improve our humanity.

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented. This is increasingly difficult to do because we may have lost sight of the original problem the automobile was designed to solve, and the automobile has itself created new problems for which it is the invention that appears to be the solution. This is why Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Related:

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it,” says Buckminster Fuller, explaining the title of his 1969 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in the chapter titled “Spaceship Earth.”

The whole idea is a metaphor, comparing the planet to a machine. Is Earth a machine? What are the implications of our thinking of the planet as a machine? If it’s a spaceship, who’s in control? Who’s the captain? Where is the crew, and what are their jobs, or roles? Where are we going?

We may think of an operating manual as not quite the same thing as an instruction manual, yet Fuller continues, “I think it’s very significant that there is no instruction book for successfully operating our ship.” So the manual, whatever we call it, should provide both physical and mental information for the user to successfully work the machine. In Fuller’s terms, this includes physical and metaphysical work, for “In view of the infinite attention to all other details displayed by our ship, it must be taken as deliberate and purposeful that an instruction book was omitted.” Omitted by whom?

“We are forced,” Fuller says, “because of a lack of an instruction book, to use our intellect, which is our supreme faculty, to devise scientific experimental procedures and to interpret effectively the significance of the experimental findings. Thus, because the instruction manual was missing we are learning how we safely can anticipate the consequences of an increasing number of alternative ways of extending our satisfactory survival and growth – both physical and metaphysical.”

Seeing Earth as a machine provides metaphorical instruction (seeing Fuller’s title as a metaphor provides rhetorical instruction). If we think of Earth as a machine, we justify certain uses of it, and these justifications explain our behavior. Our current thinking of machines includes the idea that they break down, or wear down (entropy). Property insurance contracts include the terms “depreciation” and “actual cash value.” The actual cash value of an old machine is its value new minus its depreciated value from wear and tear, damage, and obsolescence. Using this formula of valuation, what’s the current value of Earth? What would it cost to replace it (replacement cost)?

Thinking of Earth as a spaceship reorients our position. We need not think of going into space, outer space; we are already in outer space. We are already out in space. Are we lost in space? And are we running out of fuel? Are we beginning to feel entropic effects? Should we start shopping around for a new planet? A new spaceship?

But Fuller argues that “the physical constituent of wealth-energy cannot decrease and that the metaphysical constituent-know-how can only increase. This is to say that every time we use our wealth it increases. This is to say that, countering entropy, wealth can only increase. Whereas entropy is increasing disorder evoked by dispersion of energy, wealth locally is increased order – that is to say, the increasingly orderly concentration of physical power in our ever-expanding locally explored and comprehended universe by the metaphysical capability of man, as informed by repeated experiences from which he happens in an unscheduled manner to progressively distill the ever-increasing inventory of omniinterrelated and omni-interaccommodative generalized principles found to be operative in all the special-case experiences. Irreversible wealth is the so far attained effective magnitude of our physically organized ordering of the use of those generalized principles.”

Fuller is the eternal optimist, literally. His glass is more than half full; it’s continually running over. “Wealth is anti-entropy at a most exquisite degree of concentration,” Fuller says, but one must get his brain/mind dichotomy to be persuaded by the argument: “Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical. Wealth is the product of the progressive mastery of matter by mind, and is specifically accountable in forward man-days of established metabolic regeneration advantages spelt out in hours of life for specific numbers of individuals released from formerly prescribed entropy preoccupying tasks for their respectively individual yet inherently co-operative elective investment in further anti-entropic effectiveness.”

Systems check: Mind? Functioning near full capacity. Brain? Showing some signs of wear and tear. Coffee? Need a refill.

Update: This post selected at Berfrois for Earth Day!

Related:

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Someday, all of the telephone poles will have vanished. They are gradually, slowly disappearing from view as the wires they hold aloft are placed underground or the signals they link go wireless. Does this mean we are improving? Is the human condition better or worse or the same as we found it yesterday, or better or worse than in 1854, when Thoreau’s Walden was published?

“What is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now?” Buckminster Fuller asked (7-8). Forgiveness, some might say, reading today’s news. Bucky invented new words. Perhaps we should come up with one that means the most important thing we can be thinking about right now.

Jaime Snyder, in his introduction to Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, suggests, remembering his conversations with Bucky, his grandfather, the most important thing we might be thinking about right now is tomorrow. Thoreau would have probably answered the question differently. He might have answered, “Today, this moment.” Thoreau probably would have said now is the most important thing we can be thinking about right now. News of right now hits so hard and quickly these days that we seldom seem to have the chance to think of anything else. Yet what passes for news today seldom seems all that new; it seems more like a rerun from something we heard yesterday. And one wonders how one might make a difference, now or tomorrow.

Fuller’s outlook regarding what we should be thinking about now was different from Thoreau’s because for the first time in our history on this planet we had reached what Fuller called, in his idiosyncratic style, “earthians’ critical moment” (8-9). This moment, which we are still experiencing, might be summed up with the title to one of Fuller’s books, mentioned in Snyder’s introduction, Utopia or Oblivion. The fallacy of the false dichotomy did not seem to bother Fuller. He seems to have believed that we are literally down to one of two choices.

Yet Fuller never lost his optimism, as his “trim-tab” metaphor illustrates. Fuller was a sailor, and sailing metaphors often serve to explain his concepts. Fuller explains that “there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder [of very large ships; he uses the Queen Mary as an example] called a trim-tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim-tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim-tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, ‘Call me Trimtab'” (11).

The landscape, both urban and rural, will be improved with the disappearance of telephone poles. But the old poles symbolize communication, that we are wired, connected, ready to dial. In the past, the poles symbolized progress. Now, they symbolize retro. But there’s something, too, about the poles that I’ll miss. One finds in them symbols and signs, and the linemen are like musicians with their musical triplets connecting across the high wires. There’s a kind of beauty to the poles that only a human could have created and only a human might miss. Telephone poles and newspapers: a disappearing world. What will take their place? And how will we make a difference? Perhaps these are the questions we should be thinking about right now.

Related:

On Universe: A Conversation Between Thoreau and Bucky

Thoreau: “What distant and different beings in the various mansions of the universe are contemplating the same one at the same moment!”

Fuller: “Man seems unique as the comprehensive comprehender and co-ordinator of local universe affairs.”

Thoreau: “Probably I should not consciously and deliberately forsake my particular calling to do the good which society demands of me, to save the universe from annihilation; and I believe that a like but infinitely greater steadfastness elsewhere is all that now preserves it.”

Fuller: “This is the essence of human evolution upon Spaceship Earth. If the present planting of humanity upon Spaceship Earth cannot comprehend this inexorable process and discipline itself to serve exclusively that function of metaphysical mastering of the physical it will be discontinued, and its potential mission in universe will be carried on by the metaphysically endowed capabilities of other beings on other spaceship planets of universe.”

Thoreau: “I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.”

Fuller: “Coping with the totality of Spaceship Earth and universe is ahead for all of us.”

Thoreau: “The universe constantly and obediently answers to our conceptions.”

Fuller: “Only as he learned to generalize fundamental principles of physical universe did man learn to use his intellect effectively.”

Thoreau: “The harp is the travelling patterer for the Universe’s Insurance Company, recommending its laws, and our little goodness is all the assessment that we pay.”

Fuller: “We are faced with an entirely new relationship to the universe.”

Thoreau: “Though the youth at last grows indifferent, the laws of the universe are not indifferent, but are forever on the side of the most sensitive.”

Fuller: “Can we think of, and state adequately and incisively, what we mean by universe?”

Thoreau: “Nature puts no question and answers none which we mortals ask.”

Fuller: “But the finite physical universe did not include the metaphysical weightless experiences of universe.”

Thoreau: “The universe is wider than our views of it.”

Fuller: “The universe is the aggregate of all of humanity’s consciously-apprehended and communicated experience with the nonsimultaneous, nonidentical, and only partially overlapping, always complementary, weighable and unweighable, ever omnitransforming, event sequences.”

Thoreau: “In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”

All quotes, juxtapositions around universe, taken from Thoreau’s Walden and Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben]. Print.

Related:

What Should We Keep? The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive

The R. Buckminster Fuller Archive is now maintained at the Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.  Stanford provides access to the archive via the R. Buckminster Fuller Collection. Readers can create an account (free) at the registration page of the Stanford Library site.

The Welcome Page of Stanford’s Fuller Collection provides a gloss of what is included: “The R. Buckminster Fuller Collection documents the life and work of this 20th century polymath, and contains his personal archive, correspondence, manuscripts, drawings and audio-visual materials relating to his career as an architect, mathematician, inventor and social critic.”

But that brief, explanatory note is just the tip of the pyramid, for Fuller’s Archive is a gargantuan pack rat’s dream, or nightmare, depending on your point of view. Stanford librarians spent six years cataloging Fuller’s stuff. Hsiao-Yun Chu, who worked on the project, explains why it took so long: “…his former archivist estimated the weight of the archive to be ninety thousand pounds” (8). Pounds of what, exactly? The rat was “polyphagous” (6), apparently: “…not only every piece of paper touched by Fuller, in chronological order [thus Fuller’s name for it, the “Dymaxion Chronofile”], but newspaper clippings, recordings of speaking engagements…tons of papers, thousands of hours of audio and video footage, and hundreds of models and assorted artifacts” (6). Imagine never throwing away a receipt, a bill, a cancelled check, a napkin on which you’ve outlined your next invention, for the archive also includes, according to Chu, “…outgoing and incoming personal and business correspondence, receipts, greeting cards, business cards…photographs…the ephemera of his life” (7). Fuller lived from 1895 to 1983, a full life, and it’s probably just as well that he never saw Facebook or Twitter.

Why the obsession? Chu says that the archive “is a central phenomenon in Fuller’s story, arguably the most important ‘construction’ of his career, and certainly the masterpiece of his life” (6). There is, of course, a paradox, for the archive seems anti-Thoreauvian in its lack of simplicity, a value Fuller shared with Thoreau. Yet the filing system was simple. Things were filed according to “when,” not “what.” Fuller argued, Chu explains, that if he could remember “when” something had happened, he could find “what” he was looking for (9). And we shouldn’t necessarily look for the kind of economy of scale sought by business plans, for, as Chu says, “The amassing of the archive was a lifelong creative act that can easily be seen as a masterpiece of conceptual art” (9). Yes, but we can imagine the work of art being wrapped by the artist Christo, for what do we do with all our stuff, and what should we keep?

But maybe there was another reason for Fuller’s obsession to collect everything: synergy. Fuller defined synergy as “…behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviors of any of the system’s separate parts or any subassembly of the system’s parts” (78). There isn’t anything in any of the separate parts of the Fuller Archive that predicts, explains, or contains R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, like the universe, “…is synergetic – unpredicted by its separate parts” (79). And the archive would also seem to fit into Fuller’s definition of universe: “…the nonsimultaneous and only partially overlapping, micro-macro, always and everywhere transforming, physical and metaphysical, omni-complementary but nonidentical events” (68). Who’s got the tab?

Not only have I failed to keep much in the way of a personal archive of any kind of obviously worthless stuff, but I’ve thrown away potentially valuable personal archival material, at least twice, that I now miss and regret tossing, including a collection of letters written when I was on active duty, and a big storage box of old writing, assorted notebooks, college papers, that had been sitting in the basement for years. Not that Stanford would ever have shown an interest, but some close to me have indeed expressed a bit of frustration at my giving up perhaps prematurely what the family might someday have shown an interest in. So it goes. But still, what should we keep?

Not too long ago, the consequence of a grade school reunion, an old friend sent me a clipping from a 1964 El Segundo Herald (see insert, above left). So far, I’ve not thrown it away, but it doesn’t exactly constitute an archive, and hopefully we can see it’s not really me, synergistically speaking.

Fuller, R. Buckminster. Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. First published, 1969. New edition, Baden/Switzerland: Lars Muller Publishers, 2008/2011 [Edited with Introduction by Jaime Snyder]. Print.

Chu, Hsiao-Yun. “Paper Mausoleum: The Archive of R. Buckminster Fuller.” New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller. Eds. Hsiao-Yun Chu and Roberto G. Trujillo. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2009. 6-22. Print.