Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Stewart Brand

A Fuller Life

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I’m pleased to announce that I’ve finally figured out the subject of my next book, which will be a biography of the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know how much Fuller means to me, and I’m looking forward to giving him the comprehensive portrait that he deserves. (Honestly, that’s putting it mildly. I’ve known for over a week that I’ll have a chance to tackle this project, and I still can’t quite believe that it’s really happening. And I’m especially happy that my current publisher has agreed to give me a shot at it.) At first glance, this might seem like a departure from my previous work, but it presents an opportunity to explore some of the same themes from a different angle, and to explore how they might play out in the real world. The timelines of the two projects largely coincide, with a group of subjects who were affected by the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the social upheavals of the sixties. All of them had highly personal notions about the fate of America, and Fuller used physical artifacts much as Campbell, Asimov, and Heinlein employed science fiction—to prepare their readers for survival in an era of perpetual change. Fuller’s wife, Anne, played an unsung role in his career that recalls many of the women in Astounding. Like Campbell, he approached psychology as a category of physics, and he hoped to turn the prediction of future trends into a science in itself. His skepticism of governments led him to conclude that society should be changed through design, not political institutions, and like many science fiction writers, he acted as if all disciplines could be reduced to subsets of engineering. And for most of his life, he insisted that complicated social problems could be solved through technology.

Most of his ideas were expressed through the geodesic dome, the iconic work of structural design that made him famous—and I hope that this book will be as much about the dome as about Fuller himself. It became a universal symbol of the space age, and his reputation as a futurist may have been founded largely on the fact that his most recognizable achievement instantly evoked the landscape of science fiction. From the beginning, the dome was both an elegant architectural conceit and a potent metaphor. The concept of a hemispherical shelter that used triangular elements to enclose the maximum amount of space had been explored by others, but Fuller was the first to see it as a vehicle for social change. With design principles that could be scaled up or down without limitation, it could function as a massive commercial pavilion or as a house for hippies. (Ken Kesey dreamed of building a geodesic dome to hold one of his acid tests.) It could be made out of plywood, steel, or cardboard. A dome could be cheaply assembled by hand by amateur builders, which encouraged experimentation, and its specifications could be laid out in a few pages and shared for free, like the modern blueprints for printable houses. It was a hackable, open-source machine for living that reflected a set of tools that spoke to the same men and women who were teaching themselves how to code. As I noted here recently, a teenager named Jaron Lanier, who was living in a tent with his father on an acre of desert in New Mexico, used nothing but the formulas in Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook to design and build a house that he called “Earth Station Lanier.” Lanier, who became renowned years later as the founder of virtual reality, never got over the experience. He recalled decades later: “I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.”

During his lifetime, Fuller was one of the most famous men in America, and he managed to become an idol to both the establishment and the counterculture. In the three decades since his death, his reputation has faded, but his legacy is visible everywhere. The influence of his geodesic structures can be seen in the Houston Astrodome, at Epcot Center, on thousands of playgrounds, in the dome tents favored by backpackers, and in the emergency shelters used after Hurricane Katrina. Fuller had a lasting impact on environmentalism and design, and his interest in unconventional forms of architecture laid the foundation for the alternative housing movement. His homegrown system of geometry led to insights into the biological structure of viruses and the logic of communications networks, and after he died, he was honored by the discoverers of a revolutionary form of carbon that resembled a geodesic sphere, which became known as fullerene, or the buckyball. And I’m particularly intrigued by his parallels to the later generation of startup founders. During the seventies, he was a hero to the likes of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, who later featured him prominently in the first “Think Different” commercial, and he was the prototype of the Silicon Valley types who followed. He was a Harvard dropout who had been passed over by the college’s exclusive social clubs, and despite his lack of formal training, he turned himself into an entrepreneur who believed in changing society through innovative products and environmental design. Fuller wore the same outfit to all his public appearances, and his personal habits amounted to an early form of biohacking. (Fuller slept each day for just a few hours, taking a nap whenever he felt tired, and survived mostly on steak and tea.) His closest equivalent today may well be Elon Musk, which tells us a lot about both men.

And this project is personally significant to me. I first encountered Fuller through The Whole Earth Catalog, which opened its first edition with two pages dedicated to his work, preceded by a statement from editor Stewart Brand: “The insights of Buckminster Fuller initiated this catalog.” I was three years old when he died, and I grew up in the shadow of his influence in the Bay Area. The week before my freshman year in high school, I bought a used copy of his book Critical Path, and I tried unsuccessfully to plow through Synergetics. (At the time, this all felt kind of normal, and it’s only when I look back that it seems strange—which tells you a lot about me, too.) Above all else, I was drawn to his reputation as the ultimate generalist, which reflected my idea of what my life should be, and I’m hugely excited by the prospect of returning to him now. Fuller has been the subject of countless other works, but never a truly authoritative biography, which is a project that meets both Susan Sontag’s admonition that a writer should try to be useful and the test that I stole from Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What’s the thing that’s not in the world that should be in the world?” Best of all, the process looks to be tremendously interesting for its own sake—I think it’s going to rewire my brain. It also requires an unbelievable amount of research. To apply the same balanced, fully sourced, narrative approach to his life that I tried to take for Campbell, I’ll need to work through all of Fuller’s published work, a mountain of primary sources, and what might literally be the largest single archive for any private individual in history. I know from experience that I can’t do it alone, and I’m looking forward to seeking help from the same kind of brain trust that I was lucky to have for Astounding. Those of you who have stuck with this blog should be prepared to hear a lot more about Fuller over the next three years, but I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t think that you might find it interesting. And who knows? He might change your life, too.

Written by nevalalee

November 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

The technical review

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One of my favorite works of science fiction, if we define the term as broadly as possible, is Space Colonies, a collection of articles and interviews edited by Stewart Brand that was published in 1977. The year seems significant in itself. It was a period in which Star Trek and Dune—both of which were obviously part of the main sequence of stories inaugurated by John W. Campbell at Astounding—had moved the genre decisively into the mainstream. After the climax of the moon landing, the space race seemed to be winding down, or settling into a groove without a clear destination, and the public was growing restless. (As Norman Mailer said a few years earlier on the Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise, people were starting to view space with indifference or hostility, rather than as a form of adventure.) It was a time in which the environmental movement, the rise of the computer culture, and the political climate of the San Francisco Bay Area were interacting in ways that can seem hard to remember now. In retrospect, it feels like the perfect time for the emergence of Gerard O’Neill, whose ideas about space colonies received widespread attention in just about the only window that would have allowed them to take hold. During the preparation and editing of Space Colonies, which was followed shortly afterward by O’Neill’s book The High Frontier, another cultural phenomenon was beginning to divert some of those energies along very different lines. And while I can’t say for sure, I suspect that the reception of his work, or at least the way that people talked about it, would have been rather different if it had entered the conversation after Star Wars.

As it turned out, the timing was just right for a wide range of unusually interesting people to earnestly debate the prospect of space colonization. In his introduction to Space Colonies, which consists mostly of material that had previously appeared in CoEvolution Quarterly, Brand notes that “no one else has published the highly intelligent attacks” that O’Neill had inspired, and by far the most interesting parts of the book are the sections devoted to this heated debate. Brand writes:

Something about O’Neill’s dream has cut deep. Nothing we’ve run in The CQ has brought so much response or opinions so fierce and unpredictable and at times ambivalent. It seems to be a paradigmatic question to ask if we should move massively into space. In addressing that we’re addressing our most fundamental conflicting perceptions of ourself, of the planetary civilization we’ve got under way. From the perspective of space colonies everything looks different. Choices we’ve already made have to be made again, because changed context changes content. Artificial vs. Natural, Let vs. Control, Local vs. Centralized, Dream vs. Obey—all are re-jumbled. And space colonies aren’t even really new. That’s part of their force—they’re so damned inherent in what we’ve been about for so long. But the shift seems enormous, and terrifying or inspiring to scale. Hello, stars. Goodbye, earth? Is this the longed-for metamorphosis, our brilliant wings at last, or the most poisonous of panaceas?

And the most striking parts of the book today are the passionate opinions on space colonies, both positive and negative, from some very smart respondents who thought that the idea was worth taking seriously.

Leafing through the book now, I feel a strange kind of double awareness, as names that I associate with the counterculture of the late seventies argue about a future that never happened. It leads off with a great line from Ken Kesey: “A lot of people who want to get into space never got into the earth.” (This echoes one of my favorite observations from Robert Anton Wilson, quoting Brad Steiger: “The lunatic asylums are full of people who naively set out to study the occult before they had any real competence in dealing with the ordinary.”) The great Lewis Mumford dismisses space colonies as “another pathological manifestation of the culture that has spent all of its resources on expanding the nuclear means for exterminating the human race.” But the most resonant critical comment on the whole enterprise comes from the poet Wendell Berry:

What cannot be doubted is that the project is an ideal solution to the moral dilemma of all those in this society who cannot face the necessities of meaningful change. It is superbly attuned to the wishes of the corporation executives, bureaucrats, militarists, political operators, and scientific experts who are the chief beneficiaries of the forces that have produced our crisis. For what is remarkable about Mr. O’Neill’s project is not its novelty or its adventurousness, but its conventionality. If it should be implemented, it will be the rebirth of the idea of Progress with all its old lust for unrestrained expansion, its totalitarian concentrations of energy and wealth, its obliviousness to the concerns of character and community, its exclusive reliance on technical and economic criteria, its disinterest in consequence, its contempt for human value, its compulsive salesmanship.

And another line from Berry has been echoing in my head all morning: “It is only a desperate attempt to revitalize the thug morality of the technological specialist, by which we blandly assume that we must do anything whatever that we can do.”

What interests me the most about his response, which you can read in its entirety here, is that it also works as a criticism of many of the recent proposals to address climate change—which may be the one place in which the grand scientific visions of the late seventies may actually come to pass, if only because we won’t have a choice. Berry continues:

This brings me to the central weakness of Mr. O’Neill’s case: its shallow and gullible morality. Space colonization is seen as a solution to problems that are inherently moral, in that they are implicit in our present definitions of character and community. And yet here is a solution to moral problems that contemplates no moral change and subjects itself to no moral standard. Indeed, the solution is based upon the moral despair of Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that “people do not change.” The only standards of judgment that have been applied to this project are technical and economic. Much is made of the fact that the planners’ studies “continue to survive technical review.” But there is no human abomination that has not, or could not have, survived technical review.

Replace “space colonization” with “geoengineering,” and you have a paragraph that could be published today. (My one modification would be to revise Berry’s description of the morality of the technical specialist, which has subtly evolved into “we can do anything whatever that we must do.”) In a recent article in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert throws up her hands when it comes to the problem of how to discuss the environment without succumbing to despair. After quoting the scientist Peter Wadhams on the need for “technologies to block sunlight, or change the reflectivity of clouds,” she writes: “Apparently, this is supposed to count as inspirational.” Yet the debate still needs to happen, and Space Colonies is the best model I’ve found for this sort of technical review, which has to involve voices of all kinds. Because it turns out that we were living on a space colony all along.

The slow road to the stars

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In the 1980 edition of The Whole Earth Catalog, which is one of the two or three books that I’d bring with me to a desert island, or to the moon, the editor Stewart Brand devotes three pages toward the beginning to the subject of space colonies. Most of the section is taken up by an essay, “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” in which Brand relates why he took such an interest in an idea that seemed far removed from the hippie concerns with which his book—fairly or not—had always been associated. And his explanation is a fascinating one:

What got me interested in space colonies a few years ago was a chance remark by a grade school teacher. She said that most of her kids expected to live in space. All their lives they’d been seeing Star Trek and American and Russian space activities and drew the obvious conclusions. Suddenly I felt out of it. A generation that grew up with space, I realized, was going to lead to another generation growing up in space. Where did that leave me?

On the next page, Brand draws an even more explicit connection between space colonization and the rise of science fiction in the mainstream: “Most science fiction readers—there are estimated to be two million avid ones in the U.S.—are between the ages of 12 and 26. The first printing for a set of Star Trek blueprints and space cadet manual was 450,000. A Star Trek convention in Chicago drew 15,000 people, and a second one a few weeks later drew 30,000. They invited NASA officials and jammed their lectures.”

This sense of a growing movement left a huge impression on Brand, whose career as an activist had started with a successful campaign to get NASA to release the first picture of the whole earth taken from space. He concludes: “For these kids there’s been a change in scope. They can hold the oceans of the world comfortably in their minds, like large lakes. Space is the ocean now.” And he clearly understands that his real challenge will be to persuade a slightly older cohort of “liberals and environmentalists”—his own generation—to sign on. In typical fashion, Brand doesn’t stress just the practical side, but the new modes of life and thought that space colonization would require. Here’s my favorite passage:

In deemphasizing the exotic qualities of life in space [Gerard] O’Neill is making a mistake I think. People want to go not because it may be nicer than what they have on earth but because it will be harder. The harshness of space will oblige a life-and-death reliance on each other which is the sort of thing that people romanticize and think about endlessly but seldom get to do. This is where I look for new cultural ideas to emerge. There’s nothing like an impossible task to pare things down to essentials—from which comes originality. You can only start over from basics, and, once there, never quite in the same direction as before.

Brand also argues that the colonization project is “so big and so slow and so engrossing” that it will force the rest of civilization to take everything more deliberately: “If you want to inhabit a moon of Jupiter—that’s a reasonable dream now—one of the skills you must cultivate is patience. It’s not like a TV set or a better job—apparently cajolable from a quick politician. Your access to Jupiter has to be won—at its pace—from a difficult solar system.”

And the seemingly paradoxical notion of slowing down the pace of society is a big part of why Brand was so drawn to O’Neill’s vision of space colonies. Brand had lived through a particularly traumatic period in what the business writer Peter Drucker called “the age of discontinuity,” and he expressed strong reservations about the headlong rush of societal change:

The shocks of this age are the shocks of pace. Change accelerates around us so rapidly that we are strangers to our own pasts and even more to our futures. Gregory Bateson comments, “I think we could have handled the industrial revolution, given five hundred years.” In one hundred years we have assuredly not handled it…I feel serene when I can comfortably encompass two weeks ahead. That’s a pathological condition.

Brand’s misgivings are remarkably similar to what John W. Campbell was writing in Astounding in the late thirties: “The conditions [man] tries to adjust to are going to change, and change so darned fast that he never will actually adjust to a given set of conditions. He’ll have to adjust in a different way: he’ll adjust to an environment of change.” Both Brand and Campbell also believed, in the words of the former, that dealing with this challenge would somehow involve “the move of some of humanity into space.” It would force society as a whole to slow down, in a temporal equivalent of the spatial shift in perspective that environmentalists hoped would emerge from the first photos of the whole earth. Brand speaks of it as a project on the religious scale, and he closes: “Space exploration is grounded firmly on the abyss. Space is so impossible an environment for us soft, moist creatures that even with our vaulting abstractions we will have to move carefully, ponderously into that dazzling vacuum. The stars can’t be rushed. Whew, that’s a relief.”

Four decades later, it seems clear that the movement that Brand envisioned never quite materialized, although it also never really went away. Part of this has to do with the fact that many members of the core audience of The Whole Earth Catalog turned out to be surprisingly hostile to the idea. (Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a look at Space Colonies, a special issue of the magazine CoEvolution Quarterly that captures some of the controversy.) But the argument for space colonization as a means of applying the brakes to the relentless movement of civilization seems worth reviving, simply because it feels so counterintuitive. It certainly doesn’t seem like part of the conversation now. We’ve never gotten rid of the term “space race,” which is more likely to be applied these days to the perceived competition between private companies, as in a recent article in The New Yorker, in which Nicholas Schmidle speaks of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic as three startups “racing to build and test manned rockets.” When you privatize space, the language that you use to describe it inevitably changes, along with the philosophical challenges that it evokes. A recent book on the subject is titled The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos, which returns to the colonial terminology that early opponents of O’Neill’s ideas found so repellent. The new space race seems unlikely to generate the broader cultural shift that Brand envisioned, largely because we’ve outsourced it to charismatic billionaires who seem unlikely to take anything slowly. But perhaps even the space barons themselves can sense the problem. In the years since he wrote “The Sky Starts at Your Feet,” Brand has moved on to other causes to express the need for mankind to take a longer view. The most elegant and evocative is the Clock of the Long Now, which is designed to keep time for the next ten thousand years. After years of development, it finally seems to be coming together, with millions of dollars of funding from a billionaire who will house it on land that he owns in Texas. His name is Jeff Bezos.

The planetary chauvinists

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In a profile in the latest issue of Wired, the journalist Steven Levy speaks at length with Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, about his dream of sending humans permanently into space. Levy was offered a rare glimpse into the operations of the Amazon founder’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, but it came with one condition: “I had to promise that, before I interviewed [Bezos] about his long-term plans, I would watch a newly unearthed 1975 PBS program.” He continues:

So one afternoon, I opened my laptop and clicked on the link Bezos had sent me. Suddenly I was thrust back into the predigital world, where viewers had more fingers than channels and remote shopping hadn’t advanced past the Sears catalog. In lo-res monochrome, a host in suit and tie interviews the writer Isaac Asimov and physicist Gerard O’Neill, wearing a cool, wide-lapeled blazer and white turtleneck. To the amusement of the host, O’Neill describes a future where some ninety percent of humans live in space stations in distant orbits of the blue planet. For most of us, Earth would be our homeland but not our home. We’d use it for R&R, visiting it as we would a national park. Then we’d return to the cosmos, where humanity would be thriving like never before. Asimov, agreeing entirely, called resistance to the concept “planetary chauvinism.”

The discussion, which was conducted by Harold Hayes, was evidently lost for years before being dug up in a storage locker by the Space Studies Institute, the organization that O’Neill founded in the late seventies. You can view the entire program here, and it’s well worth watching. At one point, Asimov, whom Hayes describes as “our favorite jack of all sciences,” alludes briefly to my favorite science fiction concept, the gravity gauge: “Well once you land on the moon, you know the moon is a lot easier to get away from than the earth is. The earth has a gravity six times as strong as that of the moon at the surface.” (Asimov must have known all of this without having to think twice, but I’d like to believe that he was also reminded of it by The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.) And in response to the question of whether he had ever written about space colonies in his own fiction, Asimov gives his “legendary” response:

Nobody did, really, because we’ve all been planet chauvinists. We’ve all believed people should live on the surface of a planet, of a world. I’ve had colonies on the moon—so have a hundred other science fiction writers. The closest I came to a manufactured world in free space was to suggest that we go out to the asteroid belt and hollow out the asteroids, and make ships out of them [in the novelette “The Martian Way”]. It never occurred to me to bring the material from the asteroids in towards the earth, where conditions are pleasanter, and build the worlds there.

Of course, it isn’t entirely accurate that science fiction writers had “all” been planet chauvinists—Heinlein had explored similar concepts in such stories as “Waldo” and “Delilah and the Space Rigger,” and I’m sure there are other examples. (Asimov had even discussed the idea ten years earlier in the essay “There’s No Place Like Spome,” which he later described as “an anticipation, in a fumbling sort of way, of Gerard O’Neill’s concept of space settlements.”) And while there’s no doubt that O’Neill’s notion of a permanent settlement in space was genuinely revolutionary, there’s also a sense in which Asimov was the last writer you’d expect to come up with it. Asimov was a notorious acrophobe and claustrophile who hated flying and suffered a panic attack on the roller coaster at Coney Island. When he was younger, he loved enclosed spaces, like the kitchen at the back of his father’s candy store, and he daydreamed about running a newsstand on the subway, where he could put up the shutters and just read magazines. Years later, he refused to go out onto the balcony of his apartment, which overlooked Central Park, because of his fear of heights, and he was always happiest while typing away in his office. And his personal preferences were visible in the stories that he wrote. The theme of an enclosed or underground city appears in such stories as The Caves of Steel, while The Naked Sun is basically a novel about agoraphobia. In his interview with Hayes, Asimov speculates that space colonies will attract people looking for an escape from earth: “Once you do realize that you have a kind of life there which represents a security and a pleasantness that you no longer have on earth, the difficulty will be not in getting people to go but in making them line up in orderly fashion.” But he never would have gone there voluntarily.

Yet this is a revealing point in itself. Unlike Heinlein, who dreamed of buying a commercial ticket to the moon, Asimov never wanted to go into space. He just wanted to write about it, and he was better—or at least more successful—at this than just about anybody else. (In his memoirs, Asimov recalls taping the show with O’Neill on January 7, 1975, adding that he was “a little restless” because he was worried about being late for dinner with Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey. After he was done, he hailed a cab. On the road, as they were making the usual small talk, the driver revealed that he had once wanted to be a writer. Asimov, who hadn’t mentioned his name, told him consolingly that no one could make a living as writer anyway. The driver responded: “Isaac Asimov does.”) And the comparison with Bezos is an enlightening one. Bezos obviously built his career on books, and he was a voracious reader of science fiction in his youth, as Levy notes: “[Bezos’s] grandfather—a former top Defense Department official—introduced him to the extensive collection of science fiction at the town library. He devoured the books, gravitating especially to Robert Heinlein and other classic writers who explored the cosmos in their tales.” With his unimaginable wealth, Bezos is in a position remarkably close to that of the protagonist in such stories, with the ability to “painlessly siphon off a billion dollars every year to fund his boyhood dream.” But the ideas that he has the money to put into practice were originated by writers and other thinkers whose minds went in unusual directions precisely because they didn’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to do it personally. Vast wealth can generate a chauvinism of its own, and the really innovative ideas tend to come from unexpected places. This was true of Asimov, as well as O’Neill, whose work was affiliated in fascinating ways with the world of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog. I’ll have more to say about O’Neill—and Bezos—tomorrow.

Under the dome

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In the early seventies, a boy named Jaron Lanier was living with his father in a tent near Las Cruces, New Mexico. Decades later, Lanier would achieve worldwide acclaim as one of the founders of virtual reality—his company was the first to sell VR headsets and gloves—but at the time, he was ten years old and recovering from a succession of domestic tragedies. When he was nine, his mother Lilly had been killed in a horrific car accident; he was hospitalized for nearly a year with a series of infections; and his family’s new home burned down the day after construction was completed. Lanier’s father, Ellery, barely managed to scrape together enough money to buy an acre of undeveloped land in the desert, where they lived in tents for two years. (Ellery Lanier was a fascinating figure in his own right, and I hope one day to take a more detailed look at his career. He was a peripheral member of a circle of science fiction writers that included Lester del Rey and the radio host Long John Nebel, and he wrote nonfiction articles in the fifties for Fantastic and Amazing. As a younger man, he had known Gurdjieff and Aldous Huxley, and he was close friends with William Herbert Sheldon, the controversial psychologist best known for coining the terms “ectomorph,” “mesomorph,” and “endomorph,” as well as for his involvement with the Ivy League nude posture photos. Sheldon, in turn, was a numismatist who mentored Walter H. Breen, the husband of Marion Zimmer Bradley, about whom the less said the better. There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, but this post isn’t about that.)

When Lanier was about twelve years old, his father proposed that he design and build a house in which the two of them could live. In his memoir Dawn of the New Everything, Lanier speculates that this was his father’s way of helping him to deal with his recent traumas: “He realized that I needed a meaty obsession if I was ever going to become fully functional again.” At the time, Lanier was fascinated by the work of Hieronymus Bosch, especially The Garden of Earthly Delights, and he was equally intrigued when his father gave him a book titled Plants as Inventors. He decided that they should build a house with elements based on botanical structures, which may have been his father’s plan all along. Lanier remembers:

Ellery said he thought I might enjoy another book, in that case. This turned out to be a roughly designed publication in the form of an extra-thick magazine called Domebook. It was an offshoot of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Buckminster Fuller had been promoting geodesic domes as ideal structures, and they embodied the techie utopian spirit of the times.

At first, Lanier actually thought that a dome would be too mainstream: “I don’t want our house to be like any other house, and other people are building geodesic domes.” His father replied that it would probably be easier to get a construction permit if they included “this countercultural cliché,” and Lanier ultimately granted the point.

The project lasted for seven years. In the classic Fuller fashion, Lanier began with models made of drinking straws, using the tables from the Domebook to calculate the angles. He recalls:

My design strategy was to mix “conventional” geodesic domes with connecting elements that would be profoundly weird and irregular. There was to be one big dome, about fifty feet across, and a medium-size one, to be connected by a strange passage, which would serve as the kitchen, formed out of two tilted, intersecting nine-sided pyramids…The overall form reminded me a little of the Starship Enterprise—which has two engines connected to a main body and a prominent disc jutting out in front—if you filled out the discs and cylinders of that design into spheres…At any rate it was a form that I liked and that Ellery accepted. There were a few passes back and forth with the building permit people, and ultimately Ellery did have to intervene to argue the case, but we got a permit.

Amazingly enough, it all sort of held together. Like many dome builders, Lanier ran into multiple problems on the construction side, in part because of the unreliable advice of the Domebook, which “pretended to offer solutions when it was actually reporting on ongoing experiments.” A decade later, when Lanier met Stewart Brand for the first time, he volunteered the fact that he had grown up in a dome. Brand asked immediately: “Did it leak?” Lanier replied: “Of course it leaked!”

Yet the really remarkable thing was that it worked at all. Fuller’s architectural ideas may have been flawed in practice, but they became popular in the counterculture for many of the same reasons that later led to the founding of the Homebrew Computer Club. Like a kid learning how to code, with the aid of a few simple formulas, diagrams, and rules of thumb, a teenager could build a house that looked like the Enterprise. It was a hackable approach that encouraged experimentation, and the simplicity of the structural principles involved—you could squeeze them into a couple of pages—allowed the information to be freely distributed, much like today’s online blueprints for printable houses. And Lanier adored the result:

The larger dome was big enough that you could almost focus at infinity while staring up at the curve of the baggy silver ceiling…We called it “the dome,” or “Earth Station Lanier.” One would “go dome” instead of going home…There wasn’t a proper bathroom or kitchen. Instead, tubs, sinks, and showers were inserted into the structure according to how the plumbing could be routed though the bizarre shapes I had chosen. A sink was unusually high off the ground; you needed a stepping stool to use it. Conventional choices regarding privacy, sleep schedules, or studying were not really possible. I loved the place; dreamt about it while sleeping inside it.

His father stayed there for another thirty years. Even after Lanier moved away, he never entirely got over it, and he lives today with his family in a house with an attached structure much like the one he left behind in New Mexico. As he concludes: “We live back in the dome, more or less.”

I’ll be appearing tonight at the Deep Dish reading series at Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago at 7pm, along with Cory Doctorow and an exciting group of speculative fiction writers. Hope to see some of you there!

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2018 at 8:51 am

The end of flexibility

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A few days ago, I picked up my old paperback copy of Steps to an Ecology of Mind, which collects the major papers of the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. I’ve been browsing through this dense little volume since I was in my teens, but I’ve never managed to work through it all from beginning to end, and I turned to it recently out of a vague instinct that it was somehow what I needed. (Among other things, I’m hoping to put together a collection of my short stories, and I’m starting to see that many of Bateson’s ideas are relevant to the themes that I’ve explored as a science fiction writer.) I owe my introduction to his work, as with so many other authors, to Stewart Brand of The Whole Earth Catalog, who advised in one edition:

[Bateson] wandered thornily in and out of various disciplines—biology, ethnology, linguistics, epistemology, psychotherapy—and left each of them altered with his passage. Steps to an Ecology of Mind chronicles that journey…In recommending the book I’ve learned to suggest that it be read backwards. Read the broad analyses of mind and ecology at the end of the book and then work back to see where the premises come from.

This always seemed reasonable to me, so when I returned to it last week, I flipped immediately to the final paper, “Ecology and Flexibility in Urban Civilization,” which was first presented in 1970. I must have read it at some point—I’ve quoted from it several times on this blog before—but as I looked over it again, I found that it suddenly seemed remarkably urgent. As I had suspected, it was exactly what I needed to read right now. And its message is far from reassuring.

Bateson’s central point, which seems hard to deny, revolves around the concept of flexibility, or “uncommitted potentiality for change,” which he identifies as a fundamental quality of any healthy civilization. In order to survive, a society has to be able to evolve in response to changing conditions, to the point of rethinking even its most basic values and assumptions. Bateson proposes that any kind of planning for the future include a budget for flexibility itself, which is what enables the system to change in response to pressures that can’t be anticipated in advance. He uses the analogy of an acrobat who moves his arms between different positions of temporary instability in order to remain on the wire, and he notes that a viable civilization organizes itself in ways that allow it to draw on such reserves of flexibility when needed. (One of his prescriptions, incidentally, serves as a powerful argument for diversity as a positive good in its own right: “There shall be diversity in the civilization, not only to accommodate the genetic and experiential diversity of persons, but also to provide the flexibility and ‘preadaptation’ necessary for unpredictable change.”) The trouble is that a system tends to eat up its own flexibility whenever a single variable becomes inflexible, or “uptight,” compared to the rest:

Because the variables are interlinked, to be uptight in respect to one variable commonly means that other variables cannot be changed without pushing the uptight variable. The loss of flexibility spreads throughout the system. In extreme cases, the system will only accept those changes which change the tolerance limits for the uptight variable. For example, an overpopulated society looks for those changes (increased food, new roads, more houses, etc.) which will make the pathological and pathogenic conditions of overpopulation more comfortable. But these ad hoc changes are precisely those which in longer time can lead to more fundamental ecological pathology.

When I consider these lines now, it’s hard for me not to feel deeply unsettled. Writing in the early seventies, Bateson saw overpopulation as the most dangerous source of stress in the global system, and these days, we’re more likely to speak of global warming, resource depletion, and income inequality. Change a few phrases here and there, however, and the situation seems largely the same: “The pathologies of our time may broadly be said to be the accumulated results of this process—the eating up of flexibility in response to stresses of one sort or another…and the refusal to bear with those byproducts of stress…which are the age-old correctives.” Bateson observes, crucially, that the inflexible variables don’t need to be fundamental in themselves—they just need to resist change long enough to become a habit. Once we find it impossible to imagine life without fossil fuels, for example, we become willing to condone all kinds of other disruptions to keep that one hard-programmed variable in place. A civilization naturally tends to expand into any available pocket of flexibility, blowing through the budget that it should have been holding in reserve. The result is a society structured along lines that are manifestly rigid, irrational, indefensible, and seemingly unchangeable. As Bateson puts it grimly:

Civilizations have risen and fallen. A new technology for the exploitation of nature or a new technique for the exploitation of other men permits the rise of a civilization. But each civilization, as it reaches the limits of what can be exploited in that particular way, must eventually fall. The new invention gives elbow room or flexibility, but the using up of that flexibility is death.

And it’s difficult for me to read this today without thinking of all the aspects of our present predicament—political, environmental, social, and economic. Since Bateson sounded his warning half a century ago, we’ve consumed our entire budget of flexibility, largely in response to a single hard-programmed variable that undermined all the other factors that it was meant to sustain. At its best, the free market can be the best imaginable mechanism for ensuring flexibility, by allocating resources more efficiently than any system of central planning ever could. (As one prominent politician recently said to The Atlantic: “I love competition. I want to see every start-up business, everybody who’s got a good idea, have a chance to get in the market and try…Really what excites me about markets is competition. I want to make sure we’ve got a set of rules that lets everybody who’s got a good, competitive idea get in the game.” It was Elizabeth Warren.) When capital is concentrated beyond reason, however, and solely for its own sake, it becomes a weapon that can be used to freeze other cultural variables into place, no matter how much pain it causes. As the anonymous opinion writer indicated in the New York Times last week, it will tolerate a president who demeans the very idea of democracy itself, as long as it gets “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, a more robust military and more,” because it no longer sees any other alternative. And this is where it gets us. For most of my life, I was ready to defend capitalism as the best system available, as long as its worst excesses were kept in check by measures that Bateson dismissively describes as “legally slapping the wrists of encroaching authority.” I know now that these norms were far more fragile than I wanted to acknowledge, and it may be too late to recover. Bateson writes: “Either man is too clever, in which case we are doomed, or he was not clever enough to limit his greed to courses which would not destroy the ongoing total system. I prefer the second hypothesis.” And I do, too. But I no longer really believe it.

My ten creative books #4: A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language

Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I first encountered Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—which I think is the best, most rewarding work of nonfiction published anywhere in the last fifty years—in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, in which it was the only book to receive an entire page of its own, with the enticing heading “Everything Design.” Stewart Brand’s accompanying comment, which has disappeared from subsequent editions, was equally arresting: “I suspect this is the best and most useful book in the Catalog.” And I suspect that he was right. Alexander’s magnum opus is ostensibly about architecture, but if its greatest influence has been in outlying fields like software engineering, this isn’t surprising: it’s really a book about identifying essential patterns, defining them as strictly as possible while leaving room for intuition, and building them up into larger structures from the perspective of those who use them every day. This is what creativity, of any kind, is all about. And the result wouldn’t be nearly as attractive if Alexander and his diverse slate of coauthors—Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, and Schlomo Angel—didn’t ground everything in concrete observation and pragmatic advice. The book’s core is a list of more than a thousand design patterns, from “Paths and Goals” to “Canvas Roofs,” that state a problem, lay out the logic behind the proposed solution, and close with a list of specific actions that a designer can take. Here’s one example, chosen at random, from the pattern called “Something Roughly in the Middle,” which applies as much to art as to architecture:

A public space without a middle is quite likely to stay empty…Between the natural paths which cross a public square or courtyard or a piece of common land choose something to stand roughly in the middle: a fountain, a tree, a statue, a clock tower with seats, a windmill, a bandstand. Make it something which gives a strong and steady pulse to the square, drawing people in toward the center. Leave it exactly where it falls between the paths; resist the impulse to put it exactly in the middle.

You could build an entire house—or buy one, as I did—using A Pattern Language as your only guide, and the rules of thumb that it provides are bracingly specific: light on two or more sides of every room, balconies at least six feet deep, bedrooms set to the east. Even on a point as apparently mystical as that of the Zen view, Alexander devotes as much time to the how as to the what, and his reasoning is always clear and persuasive. Not incidentally, the result is a huge pleasure to read for its own sake: I can’t think of any other book that leaves me so consistently refreshed. It’s hard not to fall under the rhythmic spell of its language, which is simultaneously rational, soothing, and impassioned, and it quickly comes to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. Like most great works of philosophy, it’s full of immediately applicable insights, and the beauty of its conception is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of entire nations and brings it down to open shelving and window seats. If it has a uniting thesis, it’s that life in buildings and other creative works emerges from a process of gradual unfolding, a recursive, iterative form of evolution that has little to do with the kind of central planning that dominates so many complex activities. And it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. These days, the values that it endorses seem more remote than ever, but it’s still the one book, above all others that I’ve read, that offers the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own.

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