You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future
(Oxford University Press, 2016)
Around the turn of the last millennium, Stanford University acquired the forty-five-ton archive of the late architect, engineer, geometer, cartographer, inventor—and, in some circles, cult icon—Buckminster Fuller. Dubbed the Dymaxion Chronofile (along with a penchant for near-comic verbosity, Fuller had an affection for catchy names), it is thought to be the most extensive record of a human life in existence. To cover the acquisition, a Bay Area magazine dispatched a young staff writer for a day among the tonnage. It was to prove a fertile encounter. For while working as an arts journalist by day, the then twenty-seven-year-old Jonathon Keats was just starting his career as what he calls an “experimental philosopher”: part performance artist, part provocateur, part polymathic prophet—all of it rooted in the same kind of Big Picture idealism that was Fuller’s lifelong pursuit.
The result, some sixteen years later, is a book as uncategorizable as its subject and author, and one that makes a tremendous case for why the eccentric ideas of the erstwhile visionary matter today. With admirable concision (the volume weighs in at just under 200 pages) and a prose style as delightful as it is rigorous, Keats critically examines six of Fuller’s most important ideas, ending each section with a “proposition” of his own that builds on—and often goes far beyond—his predecessor’s original. In what becomes a kind of collaboration between two like minds separated by a century (and one significant psychological difference), Fuller’s soaring mission to “make the world work for one hundred percent of humanity” is given new—and newly plausible—life.
But first, the myth-busting. For all his visionary foresight, Fuller evidently failed to foresee a danger in saving, for posterity, every grocery receipt and library notice he ever acquired. Ironically, what the massive archive reveals is that the story of Fuller’s life we’ve inherited from his biographers—and from his own legendary lectures that made him the “Dymaxion Messiah” to his acolytes—is essentially fabricated. “Self-mythologizing was his way of thinking,” writes Keats, and a good portion of the book is given to exposing the fraudulence. For Keats this is crucial; if Fuller’s thinking is to be revived for the 21st century, fact must be separated from fiction, the man’s actual accomplishments extracted from his self-aggrandizing deceptions. Of the latter, it turns out there were plenty. The book abounds with evidence of an egomania so all-consuming it made dissent unacceptable, admission of failure even more so, and generosity toward collaborators virtually impossible. (Perhaps the saddest case concerns Kenneth Snelson, a student of Fuller’s at Black Mountain College, whose original solution to an engineering problem was seized upon, renamed, and claimed by Fuller for the rest of his life.)
With such a marginally sympathetic character long since faded from public consciousness, what, exactly, is worth reviving? The answer, Keats insists, isn’t to be found in any of his inventions. (Indeed, most of Fuller’s projects ended in failure. Even the geodesic dome, his most celebrated design, has proven fatally flawed.) The real genius of Buckminster Fuller lay in his way of thinking and being—in his lifelong practice of what he called “comprehensive anticipatory design science,” an approach to design grounded in ethics. Above all, Fuller was a holistic thinker with a preternatural talent for pattern recognition. A voracious polymath and autodidact, he studied fields as diverse as biology, navigation, economics, and cosmology, always looking for—and finding—correlations between them. He was also audacious. He dared to think big, and he dared to be naïve (this was his credo), asking questions whose obviousness often proved illusory. And for all the practical flaws that condemned his designs to infamy, his insight that the future of technology lay in ephemeralization (replacing materials with design, “doing more with less”) and biomimesis (looking to nature for design solutions) was profound—and profoundly prescient.
For each of the inventor’s projects that he examines, Keats identifies the conceptual gem buried beneath the blunders. Most striking, perhaps, is the one behind the Dymaxion car, a futuristic marvel that resembled a cross between a sperm whale and the Goodyear blimp. Inspired by the efficiency of birds and fishes, the car was steered by a single back wheel that acted like a rudder. With far too literal an approach to biomimesis (“A rudder is not designed for steering by traction. A fish tail isn’t a wheel,” Keats explains), it was an abysmal failure. But behind the doomed vehicle there was an extraordinary insight. In the future, Fuller reasoned, housing would be mobile—compact, modular, easily transportable—and people would need cars that were equally adaptable. Initially conceived as an “omnimedium plummeting device,” the car was meant to eventually fly. The staggering insight, you ask? None of the above. The real genius here, says Keats, lay in Fuller’s recognition that we can entirely reconceive the way we live on the planet. Why shouldn’t we, say, have cities floating atop oceans? Or, as Keats suggests in a section on Fuller’s idea for domed cities as a means of climate control, why shouldn’t we eliminate buildings altogether? With new technologies such as temperature-responsive tiles, “metroengineering” is becoming an increasingly viable pursuit. “Eventually,” writes Keats,
most cities should be clement enough for the people within to spend most of their lives outdoors. The function of walls and roofs will become increasingly psychological rather than physiological: an architecture of social structures, as mutable as notions of privacy and propriety, within an intangible environmental envelope. […] With their metroengineered microclimates, cities can reinvent shelter by reducing or eliminating the need for it.
This is exactly the kind of thinking that Keats sets out to inspire with this book—and inspire he does. In example after example (his own and those of others pursuing visionary design), he points to ways in which today’s technologies can be implemented to realize Fuller’s vision. While some seem distant pipedreams (regenerative housing, for example, in which 3-D printing would recycle cookware into bed linens and back again as needed), others could be realized today. One such idea—a project Keats is currently proposing nationwide—takes Fuller’s concept for a public data visualization hub into our century. Fuller’s idea was that if people could see how we’re all interconnected, all of us together aboard our one Spaceship Earth sharing finite resources, behaviors—and even policies—would change. In his chapter on Fuller’s “Geoscope,” Keats proposes the “Metroscope:” a small public park shaped like whatever city it inhabits in which thousands of lights would display patterns of the city’s activity to nightly visitors. While data visualization has become ubiquitous in our time, engaging in it as a shared, intentional activity—and one in which people could contribute their own visualizations—might make it the transformative experience it must be to galvanize change.
The call for communal action reverberates through this book. Keats’s charge is nothing less than that we must all learn to think like comprehensive anticipatory design scientists if we’re to meet the global challenges that face us today. (Do let us first acronymize the job title.) The book’s final chapter is given to outlining how we might proceed, as Keats lays out the chief values and desiderata of those who would take up the call—among them a more nuanced approach to biomimesis than that of last century. Above all is the need for more holistic thinking: “In his lifetime,” writes Keats, “Fuller was the poet laureate of Spaceship Earth. There has not been one since.” But while Fuller can inspire, it is Keats himself who proves the more compelling guide. Unlike the former, who often worked for government or business entities—and unlike today’s big corporations touting similar “world-changing” visions—Keats, being an artist, is beholden to no one (least of all to any shareholders). This kind of independence may prove critical to the whole-perspective-shifting thinking we need today. But what he does take from Fuller—and what we can too—is a return to a wondrous, childlike naïveté: specializing in nothing, being interested in everything, and ceaselessly questioning whether what we take for things that must be the case aren’t really just things that happen to be the case. (In this Keats is exemplary; a wonderfully ludic sensibility informs all his work, and the spirit of exploratory play is infectious.)
In a time of increasing specialization and divisiveness coupled with mounting alarm over the fate of the planet, the appeal to visionary thinking could hardly be more urgent. May we all dare to be naïve. One comes away from this book energized by the challenge—enough, even, to forgive Fuller his trespasses. May we all become Fullerian—bearing in mind that, as Keats makes clear, we honor Fuller best by moving beyond him.