Revisiting Buckminster Fuller in 2000
by David Cogswell
Recently my wife and I figured out how taking on an extra phone system, a cell phone, could actually reduce our phone bill. With cell phones, the cost is the same whether you are calling across the continent or next door. With cellular technology instead of wires, cost is no longer a function of distance. Though the phone companies will hold onto that old profit margin as long as they can, if someone can offer the product for less, someone will and the cost keeps getting pushed down. It changes the way we have thought about the cost of telephoning for decades. This kind of fundamental restructuring of costs and values is happening all around now. We are clearly on the verge of a proliferation of similar innovations that will nullify generations of conditioned behavior. Welcome to the world of Surreconomics.
What if cost analysis shows that the vast majority of the phone service provider's expense is the labor-intensive work that goes with billing? Since the phone system is largely electronic and automated, the operational costs are infinitesimal per call. It might make better economic sense not to bother with itemizing calls, printing and mailing bills, receiving and processing payments, taking phone calls for billing adjustments, sending shut-off notices, etc. etc. Maybe a flat fee for any number of any kinds of calls anywhere. It suddenly becomes easier to imagine an economic system without money at all, in which the costs of all your basic needs are too small for anyone to bother to tabulate. These things are happening not a result not of someone's being generous, but just a basic product of the evolution of technology fueled by the market. Visionaries have been predicting things like that for a long time, and they are called utopian. I've grown quite hardheaded about such things as I've gotten older and began to take on the attitudes I remember my elders taking when I spouted my enthusiasm for such visions as a young man. But now more and more things are happening that were previously impossible, even unthinkable.
Thinking of some of these things recently I was reminded me of Buckminster Fuller and some of his predictions in the '60s and '70s. His ideas blew my system of thinking apart and left me in a wider world with vastly more possibilities. It all made perfect sense when I read it nearly 30 years ago, but it took so long for his predicted trends to show up in the real world that I eventually forgot about them and gave up waiting for them to come true. His predictions didn't happen in the time allotted. He predicted things would happen a little quicker than the way they actually have. He projected that the world population would reach 5 billion in 1980, but it wasn't until 1987. Now it's 2000, the Internet and the continuing cyber revolution are creating upheaval in everything and turning all our economic evaluations on their heads. It reminds me of what Fuller said "ephemeralization," his word for "doing more with less." He described how one little Telstar satellite weighing a few pounds replaced 750,000 tons of transatlantic cable. Now we've become used to that kind of process. He also introduced the word "synergy" into the vernacular and showed how whole systems exhibit behavior unpredicted by any of their component parts. Today the word has become common parlance in the business world. It's become such a buzzword it has practically lost its literal meaning, like "good night" became "g'nite" and "Awesome" became "pretty awesome".
He showed how this economically driven process of technological evolution could wipe out the condition of scarcity that 99 percent of humanity has always lived under until the 20th century.
The values of everything are changing. I now get lots of magazines in the mail free, in exchange for surplus frequent flyer miles. Cost is no consideration. The publishers give them away now because they make their money in advertising, not newsstand or subscription sales. It's worth more for them to give them away free so they can churn up their circulation numbers and increase their value to advertisers. I now have a wealth of magazines flowing into my house every week, more than I can possibly read. I get videos free at the library. Cost is no consideration and I have more access than I can possibly make use of. When I discovered it, I went for a couple of weeks checking out as many as ten for a week, which is the max. It quickly became a burden to try to get through them all. Soon I started wanting to do other things. I can also check out CDs from a huge collection. You can download music from the Web. Music has been free for recording from the radio in excellent fidelity for a long time. My cable TV system has nearly 100 channels and that alone could take up all of my time if I let it. And books. I have a huge number of books I really want to read, and always a few that I am particularly burning to read. And these are all just leisure activities. This doesn't count creative projects I want to undertake, things I want to accomplish. Suddenly I find myself beyond an economy of scarcity of all these things and to a point when the only really valuable resource that is scarce is time: life itself. I remember the composer John Cage, writing in response to Fuller's ideas "We are getting beyond ownership, substituting use." We are moving beyond materialism and back to the fundamental questions: What are you going to do with your life? What are you going to contribute? What will you leave to the world?
Computer Revolution Act III
With the interlocking global economic system that Fuller called "the industrial equation," he predicted that computers would show decision makers that it is cheaper to just provide everyone with their basic needs, give them a scholarship to do whatever they want. When free to follow their fancies, one out of every 100,000 will come up with something world-changing enough to pay for the other 99,999. Any one single innovation that could create some value, as simple as a new kind of bottlecap, could be applied to the entire system. Its value would be multiplied millions of times around the world. Everyone will be going back to school, he said, though for some school might mean going fly-fishing.
Fuller was a union machinist and he said that Walter Reuther, head of the big auto workers union (UAW), fed into a computer the data to ask the question: Which will make General Motors more money, to grant or not to grant shorter hours, higher pay, vacation time and health and retirement benefits to its employees? The computer answered that it would make more money by granting. Reuther probably showed his results to the GM brass because they granted his request with uncharacteristically light resistance. Within three years of granting the benefits, GM became the first corporation to make a $1 billion after taxes. "This is how well it paid off to allow a percentage of accrued profits to fund labor's wider buying power," said Fuller. "They made money because mass production cannot exist without mass consumption, and the wider and more persistent the distribution of wealth as buying power, the greater and more persistent the sales and profits to all. General Motors' decision to heed the computers insured their profits."
This is how it will happen. This is how the old knee-jerk nastiness of the Republicans will fall. They are functioning on reflexes conditioned at a time when scarcity was the central fact of life. Before 1900, Fuller says, only 1 percent of humankind could hope to live out the ancient "fourscore and ten" life expectancy -- 90 years. The life expectancy at the time was 42 years old.
Fuller was born in 1895, the year the automobile and Marconi's wireless were created. Looking at the way things were in 1900, it is staggering how much things changed in the 20th century. Before the car was invented, a 10- or 20-mile trip would take all day. Most people only traveled a few miles from home in their whole lives. That changed more in a generation than it had changed in all of history, and that was only one small part of a tidal wave of changes, all interacting with each other. Anyone could make a huge list of the changes that transformed human life in the 20th century. The electric light, the telephone, movies, radio, television, and on and on. Electricity powered the industrial revolution and put it on another plane. Then came electronics. Now with microprocessors, PCs and the Internet, our technological evolution is accelerated and put on an entirely new level, a cyber level, technological evolution on a mental level. Changes this century are going to be that much more rapid and radical than even those of the tumultuous 20th century.
The Need for Consumers
What brought America out of the Great Depression was the means of production that developed during the war. It wasn't anything that was produced during the war, but the improvement in the means of production itself. The accelerated speed of production and consumption turned the capital around ten times in a year, turning $50 billion of war orders into a $500 billion Gross National Product, which would produce $55 million in tax revenue, which would then pay for the next year's war orders.
After World War II churned up the production systems of the U.S. to a higher speed and volume than ever before, it became virtually impossible to manage the inventory and the systems without computer technology. So big companies invested in the development of computers, little knowing they were spawning the PC revolution we have now seen. The technology grew and revolutionized life. Business and government leaders grew increasingly confident in using computers to solve problems that had been virtually impossible without them. If Fuller's predictions come true, this process, fueled by the profit motive, will dethrone the old politics of scarcity. These changes will not be catalyzed by a sense of altruism, but by pragmatism. The bare facts of economics and the competition of the free market will force the realization that the old Malthusian view of scarcity no longer reflects the environment we find ourselves in.
When Thomas Malthus formulated his theory that world famine was inevitable because food supply only grows at arithmetical rates while population grows geometrically, it was 1815. He could not anticipate the refrigeration and the transportation that could preserve food and move it around the world instead of rotting in the fields.
The British Empire was a seagoing empire, the first to surround the world with its ships and get a whole systems view of world resources. Malthus was the professor of political economics at the East India Company. He was the first person to have a set of vital statistics for the entire globe. His theory that food supply would inevitably run out was kept classified by the East India Company for a long time. It only leaked out among the venturers and pirates, as Fuller calls them, and scholars. Marx came upon the information as a scholar in England, with results we are all familiar with. During the Great Depression, the information became somewhat known in America. But Fuller said that as he traveled in the '60s, economists even in advanced countries had not heard of Malthus.
I suspect that one of the reasons these trends have been slower than he predicted was because no one could have predicted the ferocity with which reactionary forces have resisted any sort of change. The environmental consciousness that bloomed in the early '70s, like the peace movement before it, ran head on into a wave of resistance that all but arrested its development. In a mere hundred years so many things had come to pass. Human conditioning is slow to change. A century is little more than one lifetime at the end of a succession of thousands of ancestral lifetimes. The ruling class, such as they are, are still operating on principles that applied before all of these changes. But what Fuller showed convincingly was that by mid-century the technology existed to support the entire world population. It would take a "design science revolution" to make this a reality, he said. He stressed that the change would not come from politicians, but that they would tag along with it and pretend to be responsible for it. It would be initiated by the business community, market fueled invention. The forces were already in motion and it was happening. But there was no guarantee that human beings would survive. In fact, he said there were only a few years to make certain decisions. That's another part that didn't happen as quickly as he predicted. That is, the reckoning was not done, the decisions were not made in the amount of time he said we had before we had gone beyond the point of being able to avert our own extinction. It may already be too late to save human beings, but more adaptable life forms -- like roaches -- will probably survive.
Fuller said the data showed that our old scarcity conditioning is no longer relevant. Technology and the industrial equation was nullifying Malthus' predictions. In 1955 Gerald Piel, the publisher of Scientific American, reported to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations that for the first time in history there could be enough resources to support the entire population of the world.
The radical changes now being forced by the Internet and a cluster of synergistically interacting technologies could bring us to a point where computer cost analysis shows that the old, stingy, oppressive view of how to run the world is no longer applicable or productive. It can probably now be demonstrated by computerized cost analysis that the Republican-style policies of greed, hoarding and exclusion actually cost more than a more liberal way of distributing resources.
Republicans say, "We can't afford to pay welfare payments to the poor. We can't afford health care for the majority." So the top dogs horde the money, our resources go into military expenditures to contain the third world, into building prisons to contain the growing third world at home, into a justice system that cannot begin to process all the crimes that are committed by people who cannot survive under the system of greed and exclusion. It doesn't take too much imagination to estimate the more intangible costs of the generally oppressive and violent atmosphere that results from the politics of greed. A cost analysis that goes only as far as 10 years would probably show that it is cheaper to provide the basic needs for everyone: food, shelter, an education, enable them to be productive citizens and consumers, which are essential to fueling the cyber-industrial economic system.
Money, the standard of exchange, used to be gold locked away in vaults. There were notes that theoretically represented precious metals, like Silver Certificates. Then dollars became Federal Reserve Notes, not represented by precious metals or anything tangible. Today, beyond the scrip of paper money, money is an electronic impulse that circles the world at the speed of light unrestricted by national borders, multiplying faster and generating more wealth than ever before. The more it circulates, the more it multiplies. Wall Street investors have more money than they have ideas of what to do with it. They must search for investments. They can't horde it, it is a fluid medium, the blood of the economic system and it must keep moving. When you deposit it for storage in a bank, someone invests it. We are in an economic system now unlike any that has ever existed. The economics of scarcity are obsolete, but politicians and demagogues are still manipulating voters with the medieval psychology.
The U.S. went into a very repressive and reactionary period after the time when Fuller said those things. The country went back into the old ways, using gasoline for cars, not looking for alternatives, fighting wars and killing people for resources and territory. Reagan was a great leap backward, an expression of nostalgia and the fear of change, the refusal to change old habits of thinking as an adaptation to the change that was inexorably taking place.
I more or less gave up waiting for Fuller's big changes to come about. But Fuller said the changes would come about not through any political action or government machinations, but through the advance of technology and the chain reactions that advance creates in society. It would be a design science revolution, he said, and we couldn't stop it even if we wanted to.
Watching the way technological change and the market makes all these products progressively less expensive, I could see how human beings could, as Fuller predicted, move beyond a scarcity-based society.
Returning to Fuller now 30 years after I first read him is mind blowing. What a different perspective I have on things now that it is 2000. The 20th century is now history. A technological tidal wave is changing everything in its path. Computers changed everything and now the Internet is amplifying that change. The Global Village of Marshall McLuhan is now a reality. I had more or less abandoned my hopes of Fuller's predictions coming true, but now some of these changes have gotten my attention and made me look back at what these visionaries said.
Fuller also predicted that if humankind was unable to change its reflexive conditioning -- and fast -- it would destroy itself. He didn't characterize himself as an optimist. He just said that human beings have now reached a point where they can be successful. He also allowed the possibility that we would not recognize our choices quickly enough and would instead become extinct.
So, here's hoping.