I’ve been told that I’m difficult to follow. I’ve often felt like I’m sitting next to a highway of ideas, and it’s hard to make sense of the small bits that you notice as they fly by. I spent my childhood in, on the west side of Highway 99 from Oildale– hometown of Merle Haggard and home base of Buck Owens, and a former Hooverville. By the time I went to high school, we relocated 30 miles away, just a few miles from the labor camp where Steinbeck did his interviews for what became the Grapes of Wrath. These facts put a certain spin on where I came from that don’t really determine where I ended up. It’s complicated.
I didn’t learn to drive until I was nearly 18. Mostly, I got around by bicycle. I would ride back to Milt’s Coffee Shop, which sat next to Highway 99 between Oildale and my old neighborhood. I’d read William Blake, and Jack Kerouac, and dream of getting on the road and getting the hell out of there. The possibilities were slim. My father dropped out of school when he was in the sixth grade, and most of his education came from the public library. He was the smartest man I knew. My mom had made it through high school, and we were pretty much middle class; my interest in literature, came from my dad who insisted that I read Steinbeck, Hemingway, Shakespeare, et al.. My only option, as far as I knew anyway, for furthering my education was Bakersfield Community College– which at the time offered free tuition.
But underneath it all, there was always science– I took all the science and math classes in my high school. I had been interested in ecology since I was in the sixth grade, so when Buckminster Fuller came to lecture at BC, I was there. Twenty years before I returned to college to study English Literature and Rhetoric, I encountered the twisted prose of Fuller.
Just what was it about? Fuller’s opening statement is nearly Faulkneresque
What I am trying to do
Acutely aware of our beings’ limitations and acknowledging the infinite mystery of the a priori Universe in which we are born but nevertheless searching for a conscious means of hopefully competent participation by humanity in its own evolutionary trending while employing only the unique advantages inherently exclusive to those individuals who take and maintain the economic initiative in the face of the formidable physical capital and credit advantages of the major corporations and political states and deliberately avoiding political ties and tactics while endeavoring by experiments and explorations to excite individuals awareness and realization of humanities higher potentials I seek through comprehensive anticipatory design science and its reductions to physical practice to reform the environment instead of trying to reform humans, being intent thereby to accomplish prototyped capabilities of doing more with less whereby in turn the wealth augmenting prospects of such design science regenerations will induce their spontaneous and economically successful industrial proliferation by world around services’ managements all of which chain provoking events will both permit and induce all humanity to realize full lasting economic and physical success plus enjoyment of all the earth without one individual interfering with or being advantaged at the expense of another. R. Buckminster Fuller (1)
Now that’s a sentence. The basic idea of Fuller’s lecture was easy to grasp– he suggested that the world be tied together into a single power/resource grid thereby raising the standard of living of everyone to a level just below that of the US. His argument was that it wouldn’t harm the west that much to be more egalitarian in order to reduce suffering in the world, because technology would make it possible.
Now that I’m older, better trained, and able to parse complicated sentences such as this one it’s easier to see where this movement went wrong. Witold Rybczynski points out that the techno-utopians of the 60s and 70s built massive verbal monuments based on a few actual prototypes; in short, they became a cult of “true believers” where no one dare question the practicality of what they proposed. But it was intoxicating to me as a young man.
Revisiting this spot on the highway, what stands out to me is the way Fuller leans into comprehensive anticipatory design science. It’s easy to see the hubris these days, as if we could predict the behavior or adoption of a technology once it was loosed on the world. One need not be anti-technology to suggest that technologies do fail in unexpected ways. Currently, a great deal of California is on fire due to power lines sparking in unanticipated ways in the Santa Ana winds. Even knowing the causes, solutions will frequently elude us.
Most people recognize Fuller for his invention of the Geodesic Dome, which was a prototype solution to enclose space with lowest amount of material for a given volume. I drove past a residential dome in the North Country yesterday, partly prompting this post. Geodesic domes are a bad choice for residences, they leak– badly. This one was heavily modified, of course, no doubt to deal with those unanticipated problems. Sometimes these utopian ideas are best viewed from a distance, like Montreal’s Biosphere.