vendredi 15 mars 2013

Comprehensive Design.

Non attributed, Buckminster Fuller, s.d.

Fuller, like Emerson, saw the material world as the reflection of an otherwise intangible system of rules. But unlike Emerson and the Transcendentalists, Fuller linked that system of rules not only to the natural world, but also to the world of industry. During World War I, Fuller had watched his four-year-old daughter Alexandra die of infantile paralysis, contracted in part, he believed, because the family’s home was badly built. At the time, he was working as a contractor with the navy. Earlier, as a junior officer, he had seen how, with proper coordination, extraordinary industrial resources could be mustered to solve military problems. In his view, his daughter had died directly from a disease but indirectly from a failure to distribute the world’s resources appropriately (1). This conviction grew during World War II and the early years of the cold war, when once again Fuller saw the full scope of industrial production at work, as well as the inequality with which the world’s resources were distributed. What humankind required, he came to believe, was an individual who could recognize the universal patterns inherent in nature, design new technologies in accord with both these patterns and the industrial resources already created by corporations and the military, and see that those new technologies were deployed in everyday life.

In a 1963 volume called Ideas and Integrities, a book that would have a strong impact on USCO and Stewart Brand, Fuller named this individual the “Comprehensive Designer” (2). According to Fuller, the Comprehensive Designer would not be another specialist, but would instead stand outside the halls of industry and science, processing the information they produced, observing the technologies they developed, and translating both into tools for human happiness. Unlike specialists, the Comprehensive Designer would be aware of the system’s need for balance and the current deployment of its resources. He would then act as a “harvester of the potentials of the realm,” gathering up the products and techniques of industry and redistributing them in accord with the systemic patterns that only he and other comprehensivists could perceive. To do this work, the Designer would need to have access to all of the information generated within America’s burgeoning technocracy while at the same time remaining outside it. He would need to become “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist” (3). Constantly poring over the population surveys, resource analyses, and technical reports produced by states and industries, but never letting himself become a full-time employee of any of these, the Comprehensive Designer would finally see what the bureaucrat could not : the whole picture.

Being able to see the whole picture would allow the Comprehensive Designer to realign both his individual psyche and the deployment of political power with the laws of nature. In contrast to the bureaucrat, who, so many critics of technocracy had suggested, had been psychologically broken down by the demands of his work, the Comprehensive Designer would be intellectually and emotionally whole. Neither engineer nor artist, but always both simultaneously, he would achieve psychological integration even while working with the products of technocracy. Likewise, whereas bureaucrats exerted their power by means of political parties and armies and, in Fuller’s view, thus failed to properly distribute the world’s resources, the Comprehensive Designer would wield his power systematically. That is, he would analyze the data he had gathered, attempt to visualize the world’s needs now and in the future, and then design technologies that would meet those needs. Agonistic politics, Fuller implied, would become irrelevant. What would change the world was “comprehensive anticipatory design science” (4).

Both Stewart Brand and the members of USCO were steeped in Fuller’s writings by the mid-1960s. Brand would go on to write to Fuller, to attend his lectures, and, in the first edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, to claim that “the insights of Buckminster Fuller are what initiated this catalog”. In retrospect, it is easy to understand Fuller’s appeal to cold war American youth. Like McLuhan, he simultaneously embraced the pleasures and power associated with the products of technocracy and offered his audiences a way to avoid becoming technocratic drones. Moreover, according to Fuller the proper deployment of information and technology could literally save the human species from annihilation. As he put it in Ideas and Integrities, “If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist’s spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced living-adequate for all humanity” (5). In Fuller’s view, the Comprehensive Designer not only did not need to don a gray flannel suit when he went to work ; he actually needed to become an artist and an intellectual migrant. To a generation preoccupied with the fear of becoming lockstep corporate adults on the military model of Brand’s imagined Soviet Army, Buckminster Fuller offered a marvelously playful alternative.

Fuller’s vision of the Comprehensive Designer carried with it, nonetheless, intellectual frameworks and social ideals formulated at the core of military research culture. Foremost among these was Fuller’s notion of the world as an information system. In his numerous autobiographical writings, Fuller traces the origins of his ideas about the world as a system to his Transcendental lineage and especially to his time on board ships - which he considered closed systems - when he was a naval officer. Yet his writings also bear the imprint of cold war-era military-industrial information theory. For Fuller, as for Wiener and the systems analysts of later decades, the material world consisted of information patterns made manifest. The patterns could be modeled and manipulated by information technologies, notably the computer. The computer in turn could suffice as a model for the human being. After all, although Fuller’s Comprehensive Designer promises to be psychologically integrated as specialists are not, that integration depends on the Designer’s ability to process vast quantities of information so as to perceive social and technological patterns. Fuller’s Comprehensive Designer is, from a functional point of view at least, an information processor, and as such he is a descendent of cold war psychology and systems theory as much as a child of Fuller’s own imagination.

Even Fuller’s work style echoes the collaborative ethos of World War II research. According to Fuller and, later, his countercultural admirers, the Comprehensive Designer came by his comprehensive viewpoint only by stepping away from the industrial and military institutions in which specialists had long been trapped. Only the freestanding individual “could find the time to think in a cosmically adequate manner,” he explained. Fuller himself lived accordingly : for most of his career, he migrated among a series of universities and colleges, designing projects, collaborating with students and faculty - and always claiming the rights to whatever the collaborations produced (6). In his writings, Fuller offered his travels as a model of the proper behavior for a Comprehensive Designer and suggested that such a life was genuinely new. Yet a quick glance back at MIT’s Rad Lab in World War II would have reminded Fuller’s audiences that interdisciplinary migration and multi-institutional collaboration were key features of the military research world.

Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, University of Chicago Press, 2006, p.56-58.


1. Fuller, R. Buckminster, Ideas and Integrities : A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure, Englewood Cliffs, NJ : Prentice Hall, 1963, 35-43.
2. Ibid, 173.
3. Ibid, 176.
4. Ibid, 63.
5. Brand, Stewart, Buckminster Fuller in Whole Earth Catalog, edited by Stewart Brand, 3, Menlo Park, CA : Portola Institute, 1968, 249.
6. Fuller quoted in Fuller, R. Buckminster & Snyder, Robert, R. Buckminster Fuller : An Autobiographical Monologue Scenario Documented and Edited by Robert Snyder, New York : St. Martin's Press, 1980, 38. By the early 1960s, Fuller was traveling more than two-thirds of every year. Kenner, Hugh, Bucky : A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller, New York : Morrow, 1973, 290.

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