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.