I get around

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.

Paper Heroes

Cover of Paper Heroes

Witold Rybczynski’s 1980 book fills in some gaps in understanding the rhetoric of utopian technological movements of the 60s and 70s. The second edition, from 1991, includes and epilogue which attempts to connect that rhetoric to the latest flavor of its time, sustainable development. It’s a cynical book, perhaps, but it is the kindest of critiques– I suspect that he, and every technological nerd of these times truly wants there to be a solution to useful deployments of technology for a common good.

The problem is that most of this literature is long on promises, and short on well thought out and executed examples. In  short, it’s a game primarily played by upper class white people to assuage their guilt over rampant overconsumption. I’m looking at you, professors at Cornell with six figure salaries tooling around in expensive SUVs with “Save the Whales” stickers.

AT (either unpacked as “alternative technology” or “appropriate technology”) is a cluster of ideas/technologies that are long on slogans and boosters but short on rational discussion– such as wind power, solar energy, etc. The roots trace to E.F. Shumacher’s book Small is Beautiful, and proceed through ideas like Green Revolution. Rybczynski rightfully points out the cult-like “true believer” culture that emerged from these napkin sketch level ideas. Ideas deserve more rigorous consideration. Little has changed. The world is full of paper heroes whose contributions are slogans and empty persuasion; it’s interesting to me to follow younger people in the newer craft moments discovering these books, thinking that the concepts and slogans can be simply transported to the present to some effect. Fact is, they were pretty ineffectual then and would be now if adopted wholesale. It has to be noted that critiquing those ideas is even less popular, and probably the reason Rybczynski’s book is sadly out of print.

He thought then, and I must agree, that there is much to be learned from these old utopian technology movements– largely to avoid the same sort of mistakes of sloganeering and assumptions of white, frequently male, privilege. I’m impressed that Rybczynski spotted it in 1980:

Perhaps the most important role that the AT movement has played in international development has not been as the inventor of a new approach, but rather as a reminder to the international development establishment that a large number of people have been left out of the development process and that technological options do exist which could begin to rectify the situation. However, as an attempt to demodernize technology and take an alternative path, Appropriate Technology is doomed to failure. It is a pretentious, romantic, even poignant attempt to stop the ocean with a child’s beach shovel and play bucket. (166)

As a woodworker, I have really enjoyed dealing with technology at a very up close and personal level. There was a trend, when I was growing up (as exemplified by Norm Abram, and shows like Home Improvement) to look to new small scale power tool technologies as a solution to building things. In the last decade or so, human powered tools are making a comeback with an equal amount of sloganeering. On either side, there haven’t been a shortage of “guru” type figures like Roy Underhill. It isn’t that the technologies being evangelized are inherently superior or inferior, but rather that the majority of people who lack the means, training, or space are left out.

The message shouldn’t be taken to be that “woodworking is a bourgeois activity” but rather that there is a problem with the cultish, elitist pronouncements that the problem is “solved” by these approaches. The problem is rather that effort must be made to bring education and technology to everyone in a more equitable fashion, rather than concentrating on those who have the means/dollars to deploy them.

For me, Saint Roy’s most powerful message is that historical technologies (wedge & edge) are not quaint ways of doing things but meaningful tools for the future. Technology does offer the means to solving our problems. But we’ve got to look for the complications posed by accessibility. Not everyone can build a geothermal or solar powered home, or even a log cabin– but these technologies must stay in our field for vision as potential solutions.