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Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe

Edited by K. Michael Hays and Dana Miller. Whitney Museum of American Art/Yale U. Press



I'm making a list of people who helped me ruin my life.

Marshall McLuhan convinced me that in this high-tech age you can live anywhere and be a successful writer. Not really: Constant on-site ass-kissing in N.Y.C. or L.A. is still required. Buckminster Fuller convinced me to try writing about large-scale connections and trends. Bad idea: When successful books are about toothpicks or salt, such writing is harder to get published than it is to finish. On the other hand, Fuller could start talking about salt and end up with the universe, the way you'd never thought about it before.

McLuhan was briefly big-time famous, but Fuller was a quieter force for decades, with his greatest fame on college campuses in the ’60s and ’70s. (I heard him and observed him closer up at M.I.T. in ’73 or so.) Talks of that time were excerpted in Hugh Kenner's still classic book Bucky, and in Calvin Tompkins' New Yorker profile, which is reprinted in this book.

These days Fuller is best known for the geodesic dome, and one of the essays here is on his contribution to architecture. But Fuller also introduced the concept of "synergy," (the whole unpredicted by the parts before they work together) long before corporate consultants pounded it into fairy dust. His ideas on computers and information were practically a blueprint for Google and Wikipedia. And he gave us "Spaceship Earth."

The thing about that is he meant it literally, and on many levels. The key to Fuller is that, basically, he was a sailor. His Spaceship Earth wasn't some airy metaphor: Earth is a ship that depends on efficient design to stay afloat and keep everyone aboard alive on the food, etc. it carries. Ships are designed to make the best possible use of the space within them, as well as of the basic forces of the planet and the universe. Most technology originated because ships used it (or wars did, or both).

Which is why he coined the phrase, "utopia or oblivion." The planet has to be ship-shape or it will sink. It's an either/or choice.

I hope this book helps revive interest in Fuller, particularly when computers and the Internet are providing tools that his vision could guide to profound purposes. This book provides reevaluation and solid overviews of his influence, especially in how he related to both scientists and artists, but it's just an appetizer for the depth and breadth of his ideas. There are lots of illustrations and photos, since the book is basically an exhibition catalog. Though an essayist here writes that he "remained at heart a traditional humanist," Fuller called himself "a comprehensive anticipatory design-science explorer." We need more of those.


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