Invisible Architecture

The NanoWorld of Buckminster Fuller

by Bonnie Goldstein DeVarco



VIII. Growing Global Information Networks - A One Town World

Forecasters of the Global Future

Buckminster Fuller's vision of the future in the late 1920s and 30s can be compared to other futurists in our recent past, who often presented an eerily prophetic equivalent to the world of today. Science fiction writers, Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke wrote scientific books as well as their science fiction, grounding their fiction in a certain level of scientific fact or at least feasibility. In Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, he chose a launch site not far from the site used for the Moon launch a hundred years later, Cape Canaveral. He also gave his readers the initial velocity required to escape the earth's gravitation. In its sequel Around the Moon, Verne correctly described the effects of weightlessness, and the spacecraft's fiery reentry and splashdown just three miles from the exact spot that Apollo 11 landed on its return from the moon in 1969. Arthur Evans and Ron Miller recently speculated whether the later fulfillment of such accurate future "forecasts" were due to their scientific base or their influence on the people who carried them out in successive generations:

As was probably often the case, some of the forecasts in these two novels may have been self-fulfilling, because so many of the scientists and engineers who pioneered spaceflight (such as Hermann Oberth and Konstantin Tsiolokovski) had read Verne's works.64

Arthur C. Clarke, a friend of Fuller, was even better known for such uncanny predictions of the future in both his science fiction and science speculation. His 1994 nonfiction book, The Snows of Olympus presents a "virtual exploration" of Mars. In it Clarke speculates whether it is technically possible to make the environment habitable enough to someday become our second planetary home. He discusses the feasibility of building an "elevator to space" which could enable a satellite in a geostationary orbit high above the equator to become a port for space travel with items and humans from earth lifted to it and from it in space elevators. Such an elevator has been impossible, of course, without material that would be light and strong enough to span a gulf of 26,000 Km above the equator. At the press time of his book (1994), Clarke mentioned one possible alternative -- fullerene nanotubes. He said of fullerenes, "[those] produced to date are microscopically short -- but, if it proves possible to create them at macroscopic lengths, the resulting fibres would be as strong as anything we could ever hope to make."65 [update 2001: it is now possible to create such fibers, now termed nanofibers or "bucky fibers"]

Clarke then recalled how the use of fullerenes in space elevators was serendipitous since Fuller himself described his own anticipation of such structures as a "halo tensegrity bridge" in the sleeve notes to Clarke's 1975 science fiction book, The Fountains of Paradise. In this fictional work, Clarke first postulated the space elevator idea and made it central to the premise of his story.

What a pity that Bucky missed this amazing discovery which has greatly added to his posthumous fame. He was kind enough to write the sleeve notes to the recording I made from The Fountains of Paradise, and mentioned that over a quarter of a century earlier he had anticipated something very similar to the space elevator: "In 1951, I designed a free floating tensegrity ring-bridge to be installed way out from and around the earth's equator. Within this 'halo' bridge, the Earth would continue its spinning while the circular bridge would revolve at its own rate. I foresaw Earthian traffic vertically ascending to the bridge, revolving and descending at preferred Earth loci. 66

From Richard Smalley's recent reports, this possibility is now even closer to reality than he could have known at the time. Both he and Clarke now laughingly refer to such elevators as "buckycables." In a lecture from early 1996 Smalley described how single-walled buckytubes and fullerene ropes can be braided into long ropes of lightweight, invisible "hyperfiliments" which could be the major materials for space technology. He explained that he was inspired to return once again to Fountains of Paradise to see in detail how Clarke suggested such space elevators could be made.

Arthur Clarke, as many of you know, is abnormally good as a science fiction writer in making sure that the science part of what he writes is, at least, not demonstratably wrong. He has done a very careful piece of work in this book in the details of this space elevator idea. For the purpose of the book he assumed the filament (he called it a hyperfilament) was made of diamond. This slide is virtually illegible, but trust me. In the upper left hand corner there is a note to me from Arthur Clarke. He acknowledges he made a small mistake - it shouldn't have been a diamond cable, it really should have been a buckycable.

...So Arthur Clarke has clearly made his prediction here that this is going to be a major of the commercialization of space - space-based manufacturing of buckycables! In fact this is not so crazy. The only way we know how to make fullerenes and the single-walled buckytubes and ropes that might very well become the hyperfilaments Clarke writes of is to vaporize carbon and assemble these materials as the carbon vapor condenses from the gas phase. . . So it may be that Clarke is still on a roll here, and buckycable space elevators are in our future.67

Fullerene "probes," buckyball abacuses, tensegrity cells, polyhedral molecules of DNA and buckycables in space are all revolutionary ephemeral artifacts of the invisible world of forces that Fuller devoted his architectural explorations to. It seems reasonable that his name, even inadvertantly, has been attached to these breakthroughs. Yet Fuller's notion of ephemeralization, the foundation of all of his work and most of his writings, has not yet been recognized as an essential conceptual ballast for the broad spectrum of technological leaps we are making today. Perhaps, in the same way that the hollow metallic confines of the first connotations of the word spaceship held back the broader acceptance of Bucky's term, "Spaceship Earth," a rigorous (albeit subconscious) adherance to the outdated connotations of "technology" or "machines" still limits our concepts of computers and technology. Such semantic limitations places these terms in opposition to "humanity" or "culture." But the rapidly diminishing span between man and machine now realized in the cyberworld of silicon-based technologies and our newest probes to the smallest reaches of carbon-based life on the microscale invigorates Fuller's concept of ephemeralization, doing more with less, as one whose time has come.

The significance of today's proposed, theoretical and now possible uses of fullerenes, and the potentials unleashed by the field of nanotechnology should usher in a great excitement for the union of carbon and silicon, enhanced by their inherent similarity. What will happen when silicon-based material, unites with -- kisses shall we say -- carbon based life, when humans really do meet machines? This is the threshold we have begun to reach with the newest generation of biomachines and the advent of nanotechnology, biotechnology and quantum technology. It seems fitting that fullerenes are on the forefront of this rapidly growing repertoire of microtechnologies where the animate and inanimate worlds are found to be not so different after all.

Rapidly this threshold is unveiling a globally connected culture through a decentralizid network of computers. Even for social scientist the rapid trends of globalization have required some of the basic concepts of culture to shift. A number of years ago the term "historicity" was coined -- the term for an endlessly mutable culture in and of itself -- "the sense of time-ordered self-understanding shared among members of a continuous human society."68 In a world where place matters less and less and understanding the acceleration of time matters more, a "historicity" would appropriately represent a diachronic culture of time rather than synchronic culture of place. In an ever more rapidly globalized world, we must attempt to collectively redefine the meaning of "culture" to embrace a new ephemeral hyper world exhibited by the intersection of carbon and silicon.

The Santa Fe Institute, founded by physicist Murray Gell-Mann ten years ago, is the international heart of the new interdisciplinary field of "complexity studies." The notion of "historicity" has become central to some of their new methodologies in the mathematical modeling of long-term trends. In a recent report in SFI's online newsletter, discusses better approaches to "historical complexity." A program offering common understandings of history might be enriched by many different modes of thought. Placing "human society" with the "natural order of living systems" would be one way to incorporate human collective historical consciousness into the larger natural history of the planet.

Hayward Alker, on sabbatical from the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California (USC) came to the Santa Fe Institute to see whether SFI modeling techniques could contribute to a better understanding of international history's own "historicity"...Although Alker's immediate interest has been in recasting SFI-style models to incorporate larger memories and better cultural and historical representations, his work can also be understood in terms of exploring how history's historicity can be mathematically modeled.69

As silicon unites with carbon, life and machines are becoming more intimate and interchangeable. Perhaps with the advent of the World Wide Web we need to think of computer as a new type of lens -- both reflective and refractive at the same time. Cyberspace writ large in a rapid ephemeralization into a final, weightless form will become a single (yet oscillating) dynamic body of consensus self-reflexivity. The structuring of the components that make up computers are central to both the emerging scientific research methodologies and the spontaneous self-structuring of the global social dynamics unleashed by the evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web.

The World Mind -- Cyberspace Writ Large

When the WWW was in its infancy, author Kevin Kelly tackled the dynamics of the rapid evolution of cyberspace in his 1994 book, Out of Control - The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World.  In this book, Kelly, editor of Wired Magazine turned to biological systems as an analogue that opens up a new way of looking at the intersection of computers and culture. He describes the spontaneous organization of cyberspace with its proliferating global computer nodes as a growing "electronic hive." Because of its interdependent nature, this collective hive mind combines and transcends the various small "bee minds." According to Kelly, as the lines between humans and their machines blur, we will evolve into a new type of organism that contains and transcends the behavioral characteristics and organizational patterns of both. He sees the Net as an "organism/machine whose exact size and boundaries are unknown" -- a decentralized place in which a new type of "nation" will emerge.

A recurring vision swirls in the shared mind of the Net, a vision that nearly every member glimpses, if only momentarily: of wiring human and artificial minds into one planetary soul. . . The tiny bees in a hive are more or less unaware of their colony, but as we wire ourselves up into a hivish network, many things will emerge that we, as mere neurons in the network, don't expect, don't understand, can't control, or don't even perceive. That's the price for any emergent hive mind. . .

We can make a nation of personal computers, a country of decentralized nodes of governance and thought... In the process of connecting everything to everything, computers elevate the power of the small player. They make room for the different, and they reward small innovations. Instead of enforcing uniformity, they promote heterogeneity and autonomy. Instead of sucking the soul from human bodies, turning computer-users into an army of dull clones, networked computers -- by reflecting the networked nature of our own brains and bodies -- encourage the humanism of their users. Because they have taken on the flexibility, adaptability, and self-connecting governance of organic systems, we become more human, not less so, when we use them.70

Kevin Kelly's perspective, although subjective, stems from a priveleged view of the evolution of cyberspace. A view few of us have yet. Though no connection is drawn, his hive mind idea mirrors Fuller's vision of a "One-Town World" with its interactive machines of communication (Fuller later extended this idea to a computerized "World Game"). Early this century Fuller predicted some of the dynamics that are now being introduced in this "electronic hive" vision of computers and cyberspace.

Returning once again to Fuller's earliest writing in the 1928 "Lightful Housing" manuscript, he was already predicting that technology would soon allow us to communicate through a decentralized global network. This network could effortlessly contain and make available the thoughts, ideas and spontaneous discoveries of numerous individuals worldwide by making one copy of such material available to multitudes quickly with ease, combining the written and spoken word with moving images. This is something now that any web page with text, images, quicktime and animated gifs can do. Now such a multi-media page can easily be produced by 10-year old student, a housewife, college professor or rocket scientist.

Industry will go forward by leaps and bounds national and political boundaries will disappear, a universal language will develop by means of the television movey, (sic) combining both written and spoken word, demonstrated by the universal language of the movie. Educational centers of today will no longer have their scholars come to them but broadcast around the world on assigned wave lengths the results of their research analyses and design. 71

Later, in a 1932 issue of Shelter Magazine, Fuller outlined his "Conning Tower Concept." A series of conning towers could link broadcast stations worldwide and combine them with film, visuals and sound, integrating access to the world's historical information, latest news, latest discoveries and research findings and making them available democratically to all. These conning towers would be "designed to preserve the integrity of intellectual progress by freeing the enthusiasm momentum of hitherto stultifying effects of constantly repeated disclosures of 'purposes' and 'results' which through medium of 'conning tower' require but one disclosure for their potential social diffusion." The long caption to a drawing of the conning tower describes it thus:

A mechanical layout for the new industrial "conning towers," showing how, with currently available mechanics, information routing and correlating activity in general may be expedited with a hitherto incredible acceleration, accuracy, and lack of human effort. For instance, it is suggested that all industrial headquarters be equipped with a conference room, to be designed as the 4D "Hoop Skirt" for broadcasting stations as compounded with the latest mechanics of movie headquarters, that all conferences may be recorded by film, visually and orally. The duplication to be eliminated by such mechanics is extraordinary. Conferees who tend to recite acknowledged history, convergent in the specific conference involved, may rapidly be enlightened by a talkie, quite interestingly runnable in a few moments, as the net result of hours of conferences in which there is multitudinous lag for cigarette lighting, banalities, etc. There could be mechanical hook-ups of industrial unit production headquarters by teletype, telephoto and television with central publishing headquarters of industrial units, who in turn would be tactically hooked up in like manner with information sources such as Bureaus of Standards, Navigation, Department of Commerce, etcetera or corporations such as Standard Statistics, Consumers' Research, Science News Service, etcetera, as well as university hook-ups.72

Although Fuller was not the only person early this century to present such accurate forecasts now realized by our present day cyber-based technologies, he envisioned their broad cultural impact as well. He looked at the architectures of computer technology while at the same time considering the larger cultural dynamics of cyberspace writ large. Fuller's understanding of the computer was not simply as an artifact of technology but rather as the relationship between a fully operating computerized global network of humans. He was seeing this technology as mobile and ephemeral rather than solid and static; he described it as a "scenario" rather than an object. Even in the earliest years of the computer revolution in Fuller's later years, he defined computers by their use, not simply by their physical characteristics.

The Internet files of the past 20 years and the rapidly proliferating world archives of the World Wide Web are evolving into readiness as an easy-access world mind. Although television evolved into product- and advertising-driven popular media, the Internet and WWW are offering up a different mix much more in line with the educational needs of a global society. Around the World, one country after another is beginning to get servers up. Embassies worldwide are putting new home pages on line with access to myriad information and links to their own country-based web sites. A new computer language, UniCode is revolutionizing multilingual reportage and universal access by providing a way to combine all languages on the same text documents. News stations such as CNN, over 400 online newspapers worldwide and magazines such as Science, Nature, and Smithsonian and numerous others now boast companion E-Zines (electronic magazines) which are keyword searchable and current to the moment. It is simple to find research papers, preprints and abstracts describing the latest breakthroughs in medicine, chemistry, physics and other disciplines. International conference announcements and published proceedings of symposia worldwide are readily available on all current subjects. And all of this is accessible in local libraries, homes and offices through the World Wide Web.

Networks of college students, nursing mothers, cancer patients, research scientists and many others are sharing their own personal research or experiences on BBS's and listservs which anyone can access or participate in easily. Their own FTP archives are often available and keyword searchable. The Vatican Library, Library of Congress and numerous Museums and University Special Collections are undertaking massive programs to put digital and often hypertext accessible documents online from their broad collections of historical and contemporary works. Museums and Broadcasting Stations like PBS are also featuring online counterparts to their various programs and exhibitions. The Gutenberg Project (along other projects with similar missions) is uniting the volunteer efforts of scholars and computer programmers worldwide to scan, transcribe, translate edit and make available the thousands of classics online in their entirety for free.

Schools from K through 12 are broadening their use of online resources in their curriculum, expanding web access through their libraries and computer labs and installing T-1 and T-3 lines in their facilities. They are also putting their own home pages up and sharing resources among teachers and students worldwide. All of these resources are as easy to search as typing in a simple phrase on a search engine like Alta Vista which can sift through billions of words on millions of pages to bring up links to the best sites in mere seconds. With interactive TV and better online hookups soon available though basic phone services, easier access to such resources will be as broadly accessible in an individual home as a television. The relevance of web-based resources will be determined not by a top down notion of "official information" or by their money-making potential. Instead it will be based on each page's popular usefulness and the broad interest each site can produce.

Fuller's Dymaxion House of 1929 was equipped with a "Go-Ahead With Life Room" including technology which could provide access to information and education in an individual manner and effortless way. In his book, BuckyWorks, J. Baldwin emphasized that this room "represents Bucky's most advanced innovation. With a world globe, library (with ovolving shelves), radio, television (TV had just been demonstrated then), typewriter, and drawing board, it is nothing less than a personal multi-media center!"73 Fuller looked to the next few generations as the recipients of this technology and it seems he was on target with his forecasts. From his point of view, this technology would also embrace a fourth dimensional world which combines space and time, merges the disciplines and amplifies the frequency of the distribution and use of global information.

Our present day school houses and buildings, our political tools, if not too inefficient to maintain will become art centers for the local expositions of harmony, the prize winners by popular acclaim, being distributed to the world by periodical, radio or television. All of this we are coming to faster than we can possibly realize. Look always to the new generation, born always amidst more truths, the speed of which is cumulative and being the possession peculiar to mankind by gift of god enables mankind to adjust himself to the increasing speed of the fourth dimensional fields entered, and harmoniously to apply himself thereto.74

By offering bridges between art and science, technology and culture, Fuller attempted to unravel the design elements beneath both matter and energy, considering them part and parcel of one another. He attempted to show that they were made of the same ephemeral substance -- DYNAMIC PATTERN. Both natural, neither superseding the other, humans and their technologies would integrate more functionally and aesthetically with each other if we attempt to understand the pure principles of dynamic organization without rendering things separate and static in order to discover what they are.

The more we understand the natural world, the human body, the atomic structure, the origin of the universe, the nature of information and the dynamics of our "machines," the closer we get to seeing an ephemeral moving matrix, a complex world where mathematics, science, art, music, and technology meet. Fuller eagerly embraced this meeting place between things -- the interrelated energy events that give us life. He made scientific the art of "doing" to understand the natural composition of events without having to make them stop in order to do so. He poeticized the sciences without apology, hoping for a day when many of his ideas would make sense to both the scientific world and the world of the everyday.

I did not set out to design a house that hung from a pole, or to manufacture a new type of automobile, invent a new system of map projection, develop geodesic domes, or Energetic-Synergetic geometry. I started with the Universe as an organization of energy systems of which all our experiences and possible experiences are only local instances. I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.75

R. Buckminster Fuller

Table of Contents

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copyright 1997, Bonnie DeVarco