Returning readers know that I was raised by a futurist (my dad) and a social activist (my mom), which of course helped to shape my worldview.
We subscribed to The Futurist magazine, and my independent study project for sociology in 8th grade (teacher Fred Craden) was about the Club of Rome, the think tank using Jay Forrester’s computer modeling methods to ask the question Are We Living in a Golden Age?
That was at the start of the 1970s, and we were actually living in Rome at the time. For me, it was indeed a golden age. I loved exploring that ancient city with my friends after school.
Much later, after attending high school in the Philippines, I again came across the works of R. Buckminster Fuller. I had heard of him, as the inventor of the geodesic dome, but I hadn’t read many of his books.
Years later, I would take my daughter to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan and tour his Dymaxion House, rescued from oblivion by some friends of mine.
I think I was in Washington, DC, staying with my parents who were between jobs, when I encountered the book Cosmic Fishing by one E.J. Applewhite. At first, I lept to the crazy conclusion that EJA was a pseudonym, and the book had been written by Fuller himself.
That’s because Fuller (or “Bucky” as he preferred to be called) crafted this language for thinking about thinking, wherein the Mind and Brain were distinct. The Applewhite in the book worked exactly like Fuller’s brain ideal, collating and filing, while the mastermind, Fuller for real, provided the intuitions and insights.
I thought “Applewhite” was a clever metaphor.
Then, reading another issue of The Futurist, I believe in the Library of Congress, I came across an article by Applewhite with his picture, and realized my crazy theory was just that. Fuller had been embedded in government, true, but had not made up the story that his brain was this fictional character who worked for the CIA.
Applewhite was real, and had retired from said agency in the 1960s, as a contemporary of Richard Helms.
Speaking of crazy, Fuller had many odd ideas of his own. He believed the universe was “eternally regenerative” i.e. was not necessarily “running down” and he thought life had something to do with that. He regarded life as weightless and metaphysical.
Humans must have come to Earth from elsewhere by some teleological process (programmed radio?). We were akin to dolphins and whales (mammals with minds). Perhaps we were destined to communicate with them more and move on together in some distant future? He sometimes sounded like a cross between John Lilly (talking to dolphins) and Terence McKenna (cosmic mind).
Ed Applewhite was less inclined to give poetic license to Fuller’s most speculative poetry and tried to corral, sequester, curate and preserve what might be most useful to mathematics and science in Bucky’s thinking. He liked Nature magazine and wanted to build relationships with mainstream scientists, crystallographers such as Dr. Arthur Loeb in particular.
On that score, he had a lot to work with, as Bucky was pioneering a new approach to metaphysics that would feature geometric imagery front and center, a kind of Neoplatonism one could argue.
This geometric language would be distilled into a two volume magnum opus, published by Macmillan: Synergetics and Synergetics 2. Applewhite was the collaborator who made these books happen. He got his name on the front cover, and a reference to his career in the CIA on the back cover. The whales and dolphins were kept out.
Bucky’s other collaborators, too many to enumerate here, included men of Japanese heritage, starting in his Greenwich Village days with Isamu Noguchi. They became best of friends and sometimes roomed together. Fuller was publishing Shelter, working on 4D Timelock, and developing his “Dymaxion House” prototype in those days. The “4D” would become like a logo, and “dymaxion” like a trademark. Shoji Sadao and Kiyoshi Kuromiya would be two more of his closest associates, in later years. I got to know the latter thanks to our meetings in Philadelphia. I believe I only met Shoji once, at a dinner party at Ed Applewhite’s Georgetown apartment.
Nowadays, few if any universities or colleges include Synergetics on any syllabus. Were it to be included, we might expect to find it in the philosophy department, or the literature department. I think of it as a continuation of American Transcendentalism myself, and understand Fuller to be within that lineage. I’ve mined Synergetics for useful content and adapted it to a pre-college curriculum I’ve sometimes called Martian Math. I feature a lot of computer programming and polyhedrons. Applewhite, while still alive, was keenly interested in what I was doing.
I’ve enjoyed collaborating with a lot of other people as well, including Bucky Fuller himself to some extent. I sent Bucky a paper I wrote on General Systems Theory that featured some of my mom’s activism among the Zabbaleen in the city of Cairo. I wrote the paper while in Egypt, having finished my undergraduate studies at Princeton University. Bucky wrote back saying my paper was “excellent” (quoting him) and I believe it may be in the Stanford University archives at this point. Bonnie (BFI archivist) said she’d found it once (filed under 1981 perhaps?).
I teamed up with David Koski on a lot of projects. When we first met he was living in Santa Monica and met with other fans (“acolytes and disciples”) at the Buckminster Fuller Institute (BFI) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, after it moved from Philadelphia to LA. He had become fascinated with the golden proportion all on his own, and then discovered it lurking in Synergetics, even though Fuller avoided using Greek letters. Koski assumed at first that Synergetics was already mainstream, then discovered the tiny subculture looking into it.
Fuller had invented a nomenclature as a part of his metaphysics, featuring tetrahedron-shaped slivers (wedges) he named A, B, T, E and S modules. D. B. Koski evolved his thinking around the T and E modules in particular. Only recently have we shifted focus to the S module a lot more.
At the heart of Synergetics is a transformation, named The Jitterbug, consisting of a cuboctahedron twist-contracting into an icosahedron, then twisting more into an octahedron, then somehow becoming a tetrahedron, with edges staying the same length. Animations abound.
There’s an inside-out point (a cosmic zero) at the very center of the cuboctahedron (“vector equilibrium”) and a symmetrical expanding outward, suggesting a “bow tie” shape and concentric hierarchy of “station stop” shapes.
These shapes have relative volumes and the tetrahedron is considered the unit of mensuration.
From a purely Platonic point of view, the organization is aesthetically pleasing and offers many more whole number volumes than we’re used to from conventional textbooks on these shapes. The cuboctahedron has volume 20, the octahedron 4, cube 3 and so on. Even elementary school content may be built from these relationships. I made the shapes (with help from Russell Chu and Trevor Blake) and poured dry grains or beans from one to another. Beans were best as easiest to sweep up in case of spillage.
Starting around November of 2018, I decided to commit to video as a medium and started filling my Youtube channel with more discussion of Synergetics. I’ve continued to interleave a lot of middle and high school level content, with this newfangled American Literature, still neglected at the university level.
What’s different about Fuller’s brand of futurism is that it isn’t about doom and gloom as much as some. “Accentuate the positive” was one of his mottos. However he also claimed to be a realist, more than an optimist. Humanity had the realistic prospect of making a success of itself, but this didn’t mean it would avail itself of that opportunity. Reflex-conditioning, habits of thought, might get in the way. We would need Mind over Brain and Brain over Brawn, to continue with the human experience. This was Final Exam time.
In Grunch of Giants, Fuller’s last non-posthumous book, our frozen reflexes become identified with the literal soullessness of the giant corporations (treated as persons nevertheless). These are apparently intent upon spoiling the planet, yet have already replaced the nation states as the primary repositories of wealth and know-how. Clearly we need to transcend an older kind of politics, if we’re to succeed as a species. Would better telecommunications make the difference? Fuller felt it was “touch and go”.