June 1 2011: Untitled Epic Poem On The History Of Industrialization by R. Buckminster Fuller (Simon & Schuster, 1962)

I watched the second episode of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace earlier and wasn’t sure where he really stood on the ideas of Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth was heavily referenced. Fuller was a man steeped in the technocratic and scientific visions of mid-century, including cybernetics, networks and non-hierarchical systems of governance, as Curtis notes, but also, as he makes clear in some lines from the book presented here, often a more nuanced advocate of those things than Curtis’ argument at times seemed to allow. In part XXII of Untitled Epic Poem…, for example, Fuller considers the enslavement of people to work in the service of private profit:

Though slavery was no longer ‘legal’
throughout both the British Empire
and the United States of America
that recognition was no more than
a legal discount of the future –
for only today is abolition becoming
even theoretically possible
of fulfilment in a realistic way
anywhere in the world.

And that potential abolition is solely
by virtue of the doings
of science and industry,
and not by law
or other purposed
forward contribution or reform
of any department of political economy –
nor of the most munificent
private philanthropy,
nor again of the sagacity
of papal encyclical,
nor of the ambitious beneficence
of any dictator.

The fact of the matter is
that you just cannot create
a potato, a baby, a book or bicycle
by legislation, demand,
command, pronouncement, promise –
by endowment or loan,
by subscription of money.
It is axiomatic
that work cannot be abolished at all…

Work’s burden can, however, be shifted
in all its gross physical requirements
to the shoulders of inanimate mechanics.

It’s not exactly William Carlos Williams, granted, but while some of this (like much else in Untitled Epic Poem On The History of Industrialization) displays a naive faith in the ability of technocratic innovation to work in all people’s interests equally and to a degree supports Curtis’ line of argument (in which more direct forms of political activism, explicitly directed at changing the nature of power, are considered in opposition to ideas like Fuller’s, which place their faith in scientific order – a common failing of the time, as evidenced in Leonard Landon Goodman’s 1957 study Man and Automation) it’s also evident that Fuller suggests not so much that technical change might effect those changes by itself but that such changes are to a large extent simply ‘assumed’ by his thinking:

…as people have been
in fact slaves by necessity
throughout all time until yesterday
and are still so as a majority
(even though now potentially emancipated,
from a factual scientific viewpoint)
they are still struggling
under a virulent slave complex
particularly placed in evidence
when they become nouveaux riches
and flamboyant boss slaves
chained still more heavily
to the most asinine customs.

Only the young
born into the new mechanics
find the complex strange
and its economics

Perhaps the real point is that for thinkers of Fuller’s generation (born in 1895; died in 1983) the idea that the young would grow up amid these ‘new mechanics’ with the complex intact was beyond plausibility, as was the notion that elites would co-opt the increased productive capacity of these new technological advances to increase their own profits by shifting workloads onto fewer people, in the process creating a new strain of underclass, not so much freed from enslavement as discarded by it and obliged to fight ever harder to win back their own enslavement. All this seemed inconceivable in 1962, or at least so unlikely as not to be of particular significance, so we should probably consider the background to Fuller’s technocratic ideas as being an assumption of progressively greater equality, politically and economically.

That said, it’s also obvious that the most fascinating aspect of Curtis’s series lies precisely in its attempt to analyse how we arrived at a point where our societies – rather than emerging into the promised, technologically-gifted  ‘leisure age’ of post-war imaginations like Fuller’s – reverted instead to a position (much like that of an earlier century) where the productive capacity of all ended up ‘enclosed’ in the profits and wealth of ever-fewer corporate and individual entities at the expense of wider interests. I suspect, were he still around, Fuller would be considering the same questions, so it’ll be fascinating to see where Curtis’ argument takes him in next week’s final episode. I’d like to imagine that Fuller might have been interested, too.

3 Responses to “June 1 2011: Untitled Epic Poem On The History Of Industrialization by R. Buckminster Fuller (Simon & Schuster, 1962)”
  1. CJ Fearnley says:

    I have been thinking about why Fuller’s naive (I love naive: “Dare to be naive” is my favorite Fuller quote) apolitical “technocratic” vision has not quite led to a recognizable utopia. My working hypothesis is that Fuller failed to identify social systems as technology which also require technological development and invention. That is, politics (meaning the way in which we organize groups of people to work together to achieve objectives that individuals cannot do as individuals, i.e., “naked in the woods”) is technology. That is, politics may be the social glue of industrialization. And like all technology it can be abused and misused. One of my first cuts at puzzling out this complex is my recent essay Society and Our Technology Built World.

    PS. I’m reading Fuller’s Epic Poem right now. I’ve read most of his other writings, but the Epic Poem has been and continues to be difficult for me to parse. It’s style is deeply satirical, I think, and as such it is difficult for me to interpolate meaning.

    • wayneburrows says:

      Good to see the piece on the link – and the comments on Fuller’s assumption that good design would propagate itself (in contrast to Petroski’s recognition of other social and political factors) certainly ring true to me. In a way, Fuller is ‘apolitical’ to the extent that he assumes a social or political system is amenable to the self-evident benefits of improved design (ie: less inequality might, for him, equate to more efficient functioning of a society rather than a political objective) but within that, there’s quite a lot of assumptions about how ‘good design’ might apply to a society. The failing, as you say, is that he doesn’t recognise what Petroski sums up (in your quote) as “Every engineering effort is shaped by, and in turn shapes, the culture, politics, and times in which it is embedded…”. And that (after the event) makes me think I should look up more writings by Henri Petroski: I read a wonderful book by him (I think) about the pencil as a transforming technology, a few years ago, but haven’t seen anything else… Oh, and I agree that ‘Untitled Poem…’ has a lot of satirical material in it: I’m not sure how seriously Fuller intended it to be taken, but it’s certainly interesting, if a bit bizarre in its format and approach at times.

      • CJ Fearnley says:

        Petroski wrote a book on the pencil and put chapters on the pencil in others. It is rare to find an engineer writing to a general audience about their field from quite so humanistic a perspective. He has written several other books some of which are on my TODO list.

        I finished reading Fuller’s “Untitled Epic Poem on the History of Industrialization”. There were some good parts such as the ones you quoted. I think he put his thesis together more cogently in his book “Critical Path”. But it is fascinating to see how “rough” his first cut writings were: insightful, but “rough”. “Nine Chains to the Moon” is similar: some great passages, but often choppy and “rough” to my ears.

        I watched the second and third episodes of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace. They were interesting polemics, but didn’t seem too insightful and certainly not incisive.

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