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by David Koski using vZome, March 2018

Cultural Literacy Revisited

Some years ago, a bestseller by one E.D. Hirsch Jr. set out to inventory key ideas a literate person should have if wanting to survive well in upcoming 21st Century conversations.

As one would easily predict, any such book will date itself quickly, but the idea remains a perpetual challenge: what is the current namespace, or state of the art, in terms of what topics one should be up on?

Of course there’s no “the” i.e. as of 2018 BCE, human cultures remain diverse enough to support multiple paradigms or grammars, forms of life.

What counts as “cultural literacy” in geographic region A is not going to cut the mustard in region B. That’s a given. However, even in light of such limitations, the genre remains open, just as “guide books” will ever be in demand.

Lets go back to C.P. Snow and his great chasm twixt those who read in the Humanities, versus the smaller percent trained in STEM. I’m updating the language a little bit, with later memes (STEM meant Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

The goal back then, and ever since, was not to put up some Iron Curtain aimed at segregating these two readerships, but to bridge them somehow.

Jumping forward to looking back on World Wars in the first half of the 1900s, followed by Cold Wars through proxies, we see historians coming to grips with STEM subjects, such as cryptography, genetics, carbon chemistry… when doing their professional best to continue their discipline. Journalists follow this same pattern, as they often write history or consult its authorities.

Historians have every right to cultivate their familiarity with the world of secret codes, their advantages, their weaknesses, in coming to grips with what wartime has taught us. E-commerce teaches about cryptography too. Fraud and deceit, and protecting therefrom, remain facts of life in peacetime as well.

C.P. Snow would likely have seen this growing relevance of Number Theory (and Group Theory) for the opportunity that it already has been: to keep the communication channels open, twixt the Humanities and Engineering (to conflate STEM to one letter). Historians and software engineers both have a strong need to understand the Turing Test, Incompleteness, and Chaos (in the dynamical systems sense, per Santa Fe Institute).

With that much of the stage set, let me jump in with my more specific claim, and point: when it comes to the R. Buckminster Fuller corpus, we should start on the Humanities side of the fence.

True, Synergetics is sometimes categorized with Cybernetics, but even then, General Systems Theory is more a tool for economists, such as Kenneth Boulding. We’re in the realm of the social sciences, where data science holds sway. We are not obligated to start with the whatsons (e.g. bosons, fermions, gluons), despite what looks like a Feynman Diagram (Fig. 620.06).

We the historians and literary critics, the Hugh Kenner types, already steeped in Norman O. Brown, James Joyce, Nietzsche, Jung and Freud, do formally accept the burden of learning enough mathematics to digest Fuller’s Concentric Hierarchy of Polyhedra at least, as anchored by his tetrahedron of unit volume. We’ll take that in, as more Ezra Pound era poetics, Neoplatonist in flavor, reminiscent of material from the Italian Renaissance.

No graduate level courses in mathematics need apply at this primitive level. This aspect of Fuller’s thinking is accessible to laymen from all walks of life and may be shared through any department, Art History not least among them. Of course rhombic dodecahedra of volume six will closest pack, ala Kepler, to delineate the cells of the Cubic Closest Packing (CCP). We need to know that, if we hope to stay abreast our culture.

Speaking of history and historians, we know Fuller was friendly with Arnold Toynbee, and they’d party together as “Delians” — a club of insiders who would sometimes meet on that Greek island of Delos. I bet my dad would have loved to get an invite. He hopped out of our car in Athens that time to go looking for Doxiodus, Greek architect and town planner. Maybe he just left a business card. We did get to Delos eventually. Dad was a planner and learned about Doxiodus in his University of Chicago days.

Toynbee talked about “etherealization” as a concept, whereas for Fuller it was “ephemeralization”. Both meant the same thing: the accomplishment of greater work with less materials in accordance with gains in lucidity regarding the so-called “generalized principles” whereby nature transacts her energy affairs.

Translation: the better we understand the science, the more we might accomplish, with less waste. Probably many would accept this thesis as a truism at this point, but for Fuller it buoyed up his sense our species still had a potentially bright future.

He advanced these views in the pages of Fortune at a time economists were seeing a worldwide decline in demand for mined copper. Fuller pointed out this trend was indicative of our growing competence with technology.

However, on this positive “small world after all” note, we may then choose to jump back to Cryptonomicon (Stephenson) and the more recent …Wouldn’t Die book (McGrayne) — about the rise of Bayesian Thinking in statistics — and that gets me back to the top: the perennial idea of “cultural literacy” as some finite inventory of concepts.

We’ve lately added a few new ones to the list: “machine learning” being one of them, and very much in bed with “AI” (“artificial intelligence”, a much older meme).

What Stephenson and McGrayne both chronicle in large degree, is the importance of Alan Turing, to the World War Two victory over a radically racialized socialism (Nazism), a form of Social Darwinism.

Hitler’s inspiration to commit millions to his concentration camps stemmed from recent laws in the United States imposing forced sterilization on citizens deemed eugenically inferior. Turing was typical of those whom Hitler would have sterilized. Wittgenstein too, for that matter.

I do not subscribe to the Jew of Linz thesis (Kimberly Cornish), alleging Wittgenstein was a spy for the Reds. Having sympathy for Russia is not synonymous with pushing a specific ideological agenda, such as Marxist-Leninism. We know Ludwig, an Austrian, did not see brutality as somehow the sole heritage of the Huns, as they were sometimes called.

However, I do see how some British oligarchs found Franco attractive and perhaps even approved of the bombing of Guernica. The Roosevelts were with Hemingway, on the other side, against Fascism, as were some classmates of Alan Turing, who joined the Republican resistance. Was Wittgenstein an influence, in warning his students against ethical bankruptcy in academic philosophy?

I also see how Coxeter’s keeping Euclidean geometry alive, contrary to a Bourbakian backlash, could be seen as resistance to a menacing ideology aiming to impose harsh rules from above. Benoit Mandelbrot certainly found the anti-Euclideans adding to his sense of professional claustrophobia.

I remember Fuller’s account of how early adopters of the new algorithms drew death penalty threats from the Church, which profited from its position as the sole authorized computer of everyone’s debts. This was back in Fibonacci’s day, if not earlier, when “ciphers” (incorporating zero) were starting to percolate through dark ages Europe.

Open source geodesic domes might be as much of a threat to the “interior designer” architects, more the monopolist minions of rich egotists than public servants. Fuller always called them to account, yet they couldn’t help but recognize his genius.

Dynamical systems theory in general has helped remove the most avid and self-avowed Determinists from power. In future, they would need to be more subtle and sneaky about their purposefully disruptive butterfly effects. The prevailing winds were suggesting a place for autonomy, and Fuller was consistent in representing the freely acting individual as the most effective change agent (player) on the world game stage.

Coxeter tested the waters with Wittgenstein by the way. He joined Bertrand Russell in finding the latter’s “philosophy of language” not entirely to his taste, however according to the new Coxeter biography by Siobhan Roberts, he continued to lend his quarters for the purpose of the latter’s meetups. He seems to have had few problems with Wittgenstein the man.

No one into autopoiesis can afford to overlook the age-old tension between autonomy and automaticity.

To what extent is someone a captain of his or her own destiny?

That’s a theme we investigate through many forms, biography, autobiography, novel, the film equivalents.

Fuller himself studies the issue, posing reflex-conditioning as a seat of fast reaction, including in thought patterns (“brain TV” programming — McLuhan an influence), and mind as transcendental to nerve system roboticism.

He wants to capture more of the nuances in human nature by not letting “mind” and “brain” collapse to become synonyms, a waste of distinct concepts we might deliberately use to make important distinctions.

Human nature comprises these complementary forms of mentation: immediate based on reflex (which may become inappropriate over time), versus instantaneous based on flashes of new insight (revelations).

That’s a synopsis of the “mind vs. brain” dichotomy in Synergetics, a work in the Humanities I would argue (it’s in prose!), with useful bridging features for further data mining within STEM, and reaching out to the various practitioners.

To “flashes of new insight” I would connect Wittgenstein’s meditation on “aspect shifts” as a part of his ongoing investigation, into what we mean by “meaning”. Clearly a flash of insight may change the situation completely (its meaning), as in practice, when played out, the flash occasions a new level of competence and/or understanding. We “get it” all of a sudden, and take our game to a next level.

As Dr. Arthur Loeb implicitly promises, in writing a Preface to said books (two volumes by Macmillan), you will get a better handle on crystallography through the lens of one of Fuller’s chief subjects: the growing cuboctahedron, most often stripped down to bare essentials, his “vectors in equilibrium” or “vector equilibrium” concept (24 radial + 24 circumferential, if seen as eight hinge-bonded tetrahedrons). The shift from a cubic to a tetrahedron based view is perceptual, not just cerebral.

What else? Getting back to cultural literacy, for STEM and not-STEM alike, I recommend checking out Jupyter Notebook technology, tricked out with both Numpy and Pandas.

Historians dealing with big data will want to study scikit-learn, a Machine Learning library.

However, these are cultural specifics, characteristic of geographic area P (P is for Pythonia) more than J or N (other notional nations). Your mileage may vary, in other words. Take any such listing with a grain of salt.

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