Battle of the Titans: Bucky Fuller and Lewis Mumford Offered Contrasting Ways of Looking at Technology and Civilization

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The year 1995 marked the centennial of the two great "holistic" theorists of technology and human values America produced in the twentieth century: Lewis Mumford and Buckminster Fuller. Unfortunately, these two giants almost never agreed. The rift that divided Fuller and Mumford--the designer of global systems and the conserver of living traditions--has polarized thinkers about technology ever since.

Yankee Ingenuity

R. Buckminster (Bucky) Fuller has been characterized as a mathematician, architect, inventor, philosopher, even a prophet, and caricatured as a wideeyed technocrat with big plans for the industrialization of practically everything. He called himself a "comprehensive anticipatory designer," summing up in this phrase five decades of unparalleled Yankee ingenuity.

Besides geodesic domes, Fuller introduced us to "Spaceship Earth." He thought in terms of globegirdling whole systems, and tried to "make the world work" by improving technology. He claimed to have found "Nature's Coordinate System," a triangulated matrix that has turned out to be an astonishingly accurate model for natural structures.

Fuller called his geometry "Synergetics," or the "geometry of thinking." Its basic approach is "the exploratory strategy of starting with the whole." Synergy, for Fuller, meant "the behavior of whole systems unpredictable from the behavior of their components considered separately." From thinking about housing in this way, he came up with the startling innovations for which he is justly famous, notably geodesic domes and the "Dymaxion Dwelling Machine." Fuller's geometry is founded on triangles and tetrahedra--as is all the carbon chemistry of organic life on our planet--and leaves behind the square, cubical and gridiron forms that still saddle most conventional architecture.

Bucky's innovations spanned several fields of science and engineering; Marshall McLuhan was surely not far off the mark when he dubbed Fuller "the Leonardo da Vinci of our time." Bucky saw in technology the human mind at work finding ways to do "more and more with less and less," using nature's bounty without abusing its limits. He came to consider all his inventions and buildings no more than graphic demonstrations of what could be done by a mind in tune with nature. His works offer the possibility of exploring natural and human potential for "livingry," as he called it, rather than "weaponry."

Fuller can be situated within the tradition of American transcendentalism best exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who happens to have been a close friend of his famous great-aunt, Margaret Fuller. Human beings, Bucky always maintained, were meant to be a success on this planet. Work against nature's principles, and you will find yourself thwarted at every turn. Work with them, and you just might find that the universe itself pitches in to help. A larger mind is at work in every human endeavor. Harking back to this ancient tradition of the living Universe or anima mundi, Emerson spoke of the "Over-Soul," and Fuller of the intellectual integrity of Universe.

To be sure, Fuller had his flaws. He was the consummate monologist, able to hold an audience for hours but by the same token not readily able to enter into dialogue with many of the other leading thinkers of his time. He also had a positivistic streak, believing that technology (or at least his own alternative technologies) would solve most of the world's problems without much regard for cultural, religious or political factors. He thought that if you reformed the environment by designing better artifacts, people would just naturally see the error of their ways and reform themselves.

Fuller expected his geodesic domes, for instance, to become overnight a planet-wide housing industry that would mass-produce cheap, efficient "dwelling machines." (He almost never designed just one artifact or another, but prototypes for vast new industries that never entirely materialized. …