I was listening to a long interview on C-SPAN, on Youtube, with an author writing about the Johnson Era (as in US president Lyndon Johnson, but with a long career before that). Robert Caro is the name of the historian, and no, I haven’t read his books on Johnson yet, though I may have read his book on Robert Moses, who has interested me as soon as I tuned him in.
One aspect of Johnson’s career that Caro brings to light takes us back to the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration and the government’s program to expand electrification to rural areas. Private enterprise had little incentive to undertake such a project. Johnson had grown up in an exceedingly isolated and lonely area of Texas. Caro lived there for a time, to get the flavor. The Johnson museum contains lots of letters from grateful Texans, because Johnson helped bring them “the lights”.
One of the least read histories, I’m guessing, because it’s so quirky, is one by a poet of our industrial age. I’m speaking of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller. Rural electrification is a big part of Fuller’s story. He’s concerned with the spread of electrification, and the corollary collection of global data more generally. His writing somewhat anticipates our ability to access satellite based services, such as Google Earth, and study patterns over time. What’s going on with the energy picture?
Pumping reliable global data into data warehouses, and mining this data, visualizing trends, anticipating future developments, perhaps countering them or reshaping them, is what World Game is all about. In my own early writings I decided to feature a Global Data Corporation that was all about supporting World Game. This was pre Google Earth. I wanted GDC out there as a meme and resorted to science fiction. My global company would not be incorporated in terms understood by “whiteman” business law. I was envisioning native peoples pushing back against Anglo imperialism, with a global corporation of their own devising. I didn’t get as far as designing a logo, but I did sketch some ads. The meme was launched, at least in the orbit of my own writing.
“World Game” has served both as a meme and as the name of a nonprofit enterprise that shipped a giant gym-sized Fuller Projection to a workshop site (sometimes the airlines would lose the tubes), and stage an event, like a training. The Fuller Projection and World Game were thereby welded together. I participated in World Game workshops at least twice, once here in Oregon, and another time in San Diego, on the occasion of the Fuller Centennial, organized by Peter Meisen’s nonprofit, Global Electrical Network, International (GENI).
Fuller died in 1983, but up to his final days was pressing us to keep focusing on electrical grids and their spread and interlinking. Complementary to the power grids, were the telecommunications grids. Neal Stephenson did some groundbreaking writing on the latter for WIRED. Popular journalism was picking up on themes emphasized in World Game. Was Fuller’s vision of a “design science revolution” starting to come true?
Let’s fast forward to the McCain-Palin campaign against Obama-Biden, and recall the “bridge to nowhere” meme. Sarah Palin was from Alaska, which is close to Siberia. World Game had posited an electrical grid linkup across the Bering Strait as an important next step in global electrical grid integration. Presidential politics seemed on the verge of taking up a core World Game meme, and would inevitably help us focus on the possibility of friendship and collaboration with a former US wartime ally, since demonized during the intervening Cold War decades.
However, the discussion focused instead on the transportation network, and the more dubious idea that Siberia and Alaska might connect by freeway. The power grid and freeway grid are rather different animals. The public ridiculed the “bridge to nowhere” idea, while skirting any serious discussion of inter-hemispheric electrical power sharing, the kind of project GENI has been lobbying to make happen. The “bridge to nowhere” meme came across as a deliberate distraction in my reading of world affairs. I realized more clearly what people meant by “Meme Wars”.
During these years, I was involved with what we called the “Math Wars” which were also meme wars. My front line at the time was one Forum 206, otherwise known as math-teach. My focus here was two-fold: better integrating traditional mathematics education with learning to code, and bringing Buckminster Fuller’s innovations into the foreground. These two initiatives went hand in hand, as Fuller’s innovations were amenable to computerized treatment, including the generation and rendering of geodesic spheres. My friends and collaborators on the internet were in to this kind of stuff. This was my way of playing world game. My Global Data Corporation was still lurking in the background.
Fuller was born in the late 1800s and lived through the industrial age. During the age of internationalism, post World War 2, he made the United States proud by showing off a bold, civilian-oriented futurism. The Dymaxion Car and House had launched his public persona, but it was the Geodesic Dome, developed during the GI Bill at Black Mountain College, that cemented his reputation as a futurist par excellence. He stood out for his positivity, as his fellow futurists were often peddling doom and gloom. Like Thomas Paine, he could see that prophesies tended to be self fulfilling. “Accentuate the positive” was Fuller’s motto.
Fuller’s detractors in the meme and math wars wanted to trivialize his accomplishments and defuse them. He was a shallow showman, his critics said, who flitted from big idea to big idea, popularizing without discovering. He was in the business of hoodwinking young people. His vision was naive.
On the math side, Fuller’s lifelong quest was to in some way dislodge the cube from center stage, as the dominant polyhedron. Volume was always in cubic units, and three mutually perpendicular segments determined the very dimensionality of space. Space is three dimensional, as in X, Y and Z (the three mutually orthogonal number lines). Fuller pointed out that a tetrahedron was topologically simpler than a cube, indeed simplest in terms of enclosing a volume. Mathematicians had already arrived at “simplex” as another name for it.
The math wars, as I saw them, had to do with keeping Fuller’s explorations out of bounds, marginalized. Meanwhile, the meme wars would be about continuing to chip away at his reputation. Clearly, I was developing my own persona along classic Joseph Campbell lines: I was carving out an heroic role for myself.
I would champion my guru and fly his dymaxion flag in the thick of battle. I would recruit others to join me and raise an ephemeral army to fight back. We would continue integrating the electrical grids and accentuating the positive, even against the backdrop of renewed international hostilities and the prospect climate collapse (the two go together, as another world war might completely devastate the planet, at least from humanity’s point of view).
What I needed, though, was more of a strategy. GENI was already lobbying for better electrification. Medard Gabel, Chuck Dingee and others had been taking the World Game workshop on the road. My focus would be Synergetics, continuing my collaboration with E.J. Applewhite. I would make sure it found a place in the philosophical canon, as American literature in the Transcendentalist tradition. I would use my background at Princeton, studying Wittgenstein’s philosophy in particular, to make Synergetics more mainstream. I would write about how meaning is anchored in language games, in actions, not in static declarations or definitions of terms, aimed to point at some essence.
One of these language games would be the Quadray Coordinates apparatus, a gizmo similar to the XYZ coordinate system, but also different. We could use quadrays or Q-vectors to get across by Fuller’s meaning of “4D”, which had everything to do with the tetrahedron as a paradigm of “shape in general”. The tetrahedron, with four points and four faces, is like the Janus of space. The symbol of this coordinate system would be the “caltrop” in contrast to the XYZ “jack”.
Would I succeed? Would I be able to wedge Synergetics into the university syllabus? Stay tuned.