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A Responsive Essay: Buckminster Fuller’s Education Automation

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 *** A Responsive Essay to Fuller, R. Buckminster (1971) Education automation: freeing the scholar to return to his studies [1], Anchor Books (first published 1961) ***

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In this speech delivered in 1960, Buckminster Fuller presents some ideas about the purpose of education, what sort of process it should be and how technology can help it along. As in many of his writings intriguing themes and ideas riffle through this essay, themes that resonate intensely with some of our preoccupations in education today (2012), of which the most pronounced here is that of education itself (if he was nothing else, Buckminster Fuller was an pedagogue right down to his soul). This resonance is important for it helps us to see that our contemporary concerns about technology, education, and knowledge are not that new at all. Our contemporary continuity with our past is as important to us in seeking solutions as it is important for us to let go of our inherited habits of thinking that lock us into dysfunctional patterns of behaviour[2]. Fuller’s essay had, and still has today, a visionary quality and is an important link in the chain of cultural antecedents for our own ‘Digital Enlightenment’.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Fuller points his audience to a technological and pedagogical future that for us has come to pass, at least in part! Although some of his general details were right there are some twists on the outcomes he anticipated. While much of what the Internet brings us is often stunning in its profound engagement with human desires and needs, it does not follow a simple trajectory; it is more unpredictable perhaps than even Buckminster Fuller might have guessed.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Technologically, he was both child and adult of the television age – in the 1930s he had been part of CBS’s early experimental broadcasts – and saw in television the potential to reach global audiences, the basis for an electronic network that would, in his view, necessarily be a force for good. Democracy would be realised around the planet through rapid and large scale electronic interactions, all based on the best knowledge available, on the best of everything. In this he saw television as a foundational technology with to provide an interactive, global education network.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Today, when we have achieved more of a ‘global’ information network than even he might have conceived, it is possible for us to see the dark as well as the light side. The Web allows the interactive dissemination of everything that is bad about the sum of human culture as well as what is good. It amplifies and multiplies but, to add complexity, these become entangled in unexpected ways; they can confuse or elude us. Thus our trust in the Web is cynical: if it appears to make a difference to the outcomes of elections we might be more suspicious than excited; when it tries to foster debate and civic engagement we can end up with an endless cacophony of circular chatter with no beginning and no conclusion, only a waxing and waning.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 He argues that the education system of his day suffers from “conceptual fixation”, outmoded ways of looking at the world. He illustrates this with the example of the example of the Mercator projection map; even today this map still forms the basis for our representation of the planet on which we live. But the Mercator map is a seafaring map, good for the days when sea routes were the main channels of communication which is why the land masses are shown with vast oceans separating them.  In the modern world of air travel, however, it is a bad way to represent the populated earth and routes across it. He claims that his ‘Dymaxion Airocean World Map‘ more realistically shows the land masses of world as a one-world-island connected by great circle flight paths that reach 84% of the world’s population centres. His map is projected onto an icosahedron (a geodesic) thus resulting in very little distortion, the opposite of the Mercator map.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 This is a surprising observation. Even today, in 2012, we are still using representations of the world that are based on seafaring rather than flight. For Fuller this is dead thinking[3] an example of a deeply embedded, culturally rooted representation of the world we live in but a representation that no longer describes the world in which we live. The genius of Buckminster Fuller is not only to observe the commonplace in a new light but to then go on to design and offer an alternative map, one which, incidentally, has a large number of new properties that help us to think differently about the distribution of land and populations on the planet. A true pedagogue in that like most of his ingenious designs and amazing artefacts (e.g. the Montreal Expo dome) he always aimed to educate. [4]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 That he was concerned with the increasing pressure on the global environment is obvious, but should be emphasised. In some important ways it was his concern for the survival of the planet, a global concern that drove his desire to educate and to design new ways to do that.[5]  He comments on the changes that had occurred in his lifetime in respect of time-space constraints – people in 1960 travel further and faster, they are more mobile. Society has moved from a political world of “one-to-one velocity” where political decisions were separated by great time and distance to the world of Lincoln, the first president to fight a war with the telegraph at his disposal, to the instantaneity of radio and television. In modern times wars are characterised by the greatly reduced autonomy of generals and admirals brought about by communications technologies.[6]

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Although Fuller lived in an electronic age, but not yet fully in the digital age, his general description of a global educational network is recognisable. He had great hope for the democratising power of universal education supported by the use of technology because it would increase the ‘velocity’ of democratic debate and decision. He saw a coming together of the world into ‘one-nation’ and to achieve this the content and method of education must be transformed; educators must shift their values about the traditions and organisation of knowledge.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In this vision he is in a long line from HG Wells in his own past, to Ted Nelson in his near future, to Tim Berners-Lee, and of course his contemporary Marshal McCluhan for whom, in Fuller, we find an imagined reality of the global village. He also sits alongside other visionaries like Vannevar Bush with whom Buckminster Fuller shares a similar fate, to be on the cusp of a technological revolution from analogue media to digital, being at the end of one but not quite at the beginning of the new[7].

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 His technological vision has to be conceived with the technology of his day, television. His insight, in age when the entire infrastructure e and economics of television was already cast as a broadcast only (one-to-many) medium[8], was to describe a way to use television as part of an interactive communicative and visualisation network of immense educative power.  At times, however, he may seem too upbeat to us about some of the affordances of television. He notes, from observation, intense concentration on the faces of children when they watch television and he sees in that a power to engage and to power to inform.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 What teacher would not desire such a powerful, near-hypnotic, tool in the classroom![9] However, from our vantage point in a future he did not live to see, this simple observation about the rapture of TV watching is sprung with controversy, risk, and danger, perhaps more than it ever was in his own time. The power of television to engage and inform must be balanced against the power to entertain and distract[10] In our own time, the central role that television played in domestic lives up to about the 1990s has now evolved into a wider set of concerns about ubiquitous screens and more complex types of content. The attention-sucking power of the screen that Fuller saw so positively could well be its most dangerous features.[11]

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 He goes on to describe an outline vision of a shortwave point-to-point bi-directional television system. Built around a large (potentially global) distribution network of microwave towers, cities would receive and store content locally in electronic libraries. On each dwelling or building in line of sight of a network of smaller more local towers carefully aligned receiver/transmitter equipment would allow individuals to receive ‘beamed’ content on demand. In this way people could have access to the best of the world’s knowledge, presented and explained by the best people in their fields. At the same time they could react to it, pass comment on it, and these responses in turn could be shared through the network, thus providing a “constant referendum of democracy.”

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 A lecture need only be presented once, recorded, and then viewed many times. Although given by the best people in their field at the time, the lecture will always be capable of editing, modification and extension by others so as to ensure that the full meaning is clear; and this would apply to all the artefacts stored in electronic libraries from where they can be beamed to anyone requesting them. In this model the teacher becomes a producer:

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 “I am quite sure that we are going to get research and development laboratories of education where the faculty will become producers of extraordinary moving-picture documentaries. That is going to be the big, new educational trend.” (pp 34-25)

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 In such an interactive system, predicated on the participation of nearly everyone in the world, democracy would be subject to a “constant referendum” and consequently democracy would improve.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 This is strong stuff. It is at once superlative for the way in which it prefigures the participatory aspect of the Internet but at the same time naïve in its paternalistic model of governance and content creation. Such paternalism is still with us. The National Grid for Learning was such a model (a walled-garden model) and even today the hub-spoke model of resource capture and distribution is prevalent (e.g. the Hayward Report, March 2012). Local Authority technology initiatives often involve a strongly centralised model either of infrastructure management or curriculum content and quality control.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Such approaches are probably unworkable on a large-scale and expensive to maintain even on a regional or local scale. The Internet is a success precisely because it is so rich with content, but not necessarily always the best. It is the diversity of content that makes the Internet the phenomenon it has become and in this respect Fuller’s vision, like that of HG Wells, is simplistic. For quality cannot be guaranteed for a global scale system at least not at level of content. The task is simply too great, the likelihood of consensus too remote.[12]  Add to that the idea that somehow ‘viewers’ will interact with the material in a polite, debateful manner, and then this seems to us nowadays somewhat dreamy. Fuller’s network, led by experts carefully selecting and managing content, could be a very dull, very authoritarian kind of network.[13]

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Yet, he realised that interactivity would have an effect. How could it not with such large numbers of people in their multi-way, personalised connections?[14] In general terms he saw a time in which many have become producers, not just faculties of experts and specialists. I suspect that he would have found it even more extraordinary than he had thought. The social web and its generative power were not fully envisaged except through a glass darkly; in contrast to his assumption of widespread academic involvement in such a network if anything it has been the other way around, for, in general, faculties of experts and specialists (e.g. in universities) have been relatively slow to take up and use the network even in the way he describes[15] compared with the eager engagement of countless individuals.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The Geoscope, another imagined component of Fuller’s ‘whole earth’ network, is an extraordinary idea, prefiguring the kind of large, complex and detailed computer driven images and displays that have become comparatively commonplace even on domestic computers. The Geoscope is a 200ft diameter, lightweight geodesic sphere suspended by cables100ft above a campus.[16] It is a “miniature earth”, whose surface is covered in light bulbs. “The lighting of the bulbs is scanningly [sic] controlled through an electric computer.” The number of bulbs is sufficient to resolve an image quality equivalent to the television screen of the day.[17] “It will make possible communication of phenomena that are not at present communicable to man’s conceptual understanding.”

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Here, Fuller has in mind “motion patterns” (on compressed time lines) such as the solar system, gas molecules, weather cycles, population growth and change. Through this dynamic, visualised presentation of complex models, the representation of outcomes and effects of different parameters affords educative participation:

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 “The consequences of various world plans could be computed and projected. All world data would be dynamically viewable and picturable and relayable by radio to all the world, so that common consideration in a most educated manner of all world problems by all world people would become a practical event.” (46)

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The scope of this vision is remarkable, prefiguring as it does one of the great potentials of the role of computers in making and dissemination knowledge.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In spite of the technological novelty, his view of the aims of education remains rooted in more stable, traditional terms – to enlighten and inform the people so as to improve the quality of life and participation in political decision making. He rejects the focus of the education system of his day on earning a living. In the future education will be more concerned with understanding the answers to fundamental questions; the need to earn a living by “muscle-power” will have long gone because automation will have made resource creation and distribution more efficient (improved redistribution being itself a product of the new education system).

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In this coming world of total automation and ‘electric’ communications, workers would change into new kinds of consumers who are active in shaping the outputs of the automated economy: “regenerative consumers”. Such consumers are driven to an ever more refined approach to taste and choice, always making new and more sophisticated demands on the economy. Regenerative consumers require an education system that develops and sustains the capacity and capability for such constant iteration of thought and policy. Indeed, for Fuller education is the next big business:

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 “Our educational processes are in fact the upcoming major world industry …The cost of education will be funded regeneratively right out of earnings of the technology, the industrial equation, because we can only afford to reinvest continually in humanity’s ability to go back and turn out a better job. … [We] are faced with a future in which education is going to be number one amongst the great world industries, within which will flourish an educational machine technology that will provide tools such as the individual selected and articulated two-way TV and an intercontinentally net-worked, documentaries call-up system, operative over any home two-way TV set.”[18] [19]

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Education will become a permanent state (chiming strongly with our own ideas about ‘lifelong learning’). In Fuller’s future we will “…have to pay our whole population to go to school and pay it to stay at school. … People are going to stay in the education process. They are going to populate ever increasing numbers of research laboratories and universities.” R&D will be the bedrock of the future economy.[20]

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 Perhaps he could not have been more wrong, at least in respect of the UK higher education system where employability is a number one priority for all such education. Certainly in the UK, getting a better paid job has been promoted as a key rationale for getting a degree in the first place. Fuller’s ‘enlightenment values’ also mark him out as standing at the end of an era; the democratization of learning to which he so clearly aspired, learning for its own sake, is not a driver for the expansion of HE either in the UK or globally but  instead economic imperatives are prominent in much policy-making.[21]

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The idea that new technologies would so greatly increase automation that people would need to work less now seems to us naïve. It was an optimist outlook from, at that time, a prosperous nation. He did not foresee the emergence of a global manufacturing economy that would pull the USA down from its zenith. While the economic model underlying this essay might not stand up to detailed scrutiny, Fuller touches on two important themes that affect us today:

  • 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0
  • ‘advanced’ societies like ours depend heavily on consumerism as a production mode;
  • this can only work productively if we have an enlightened, interactive, constantly revised approach to problem solving.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 In the Geoscope we can see that Fuller is making concrete our own contemporary concern with global environmental problems and he proposes a new configuration of technology if these are to be represented to human minds in such ways that make them accessible to investigation, understanding and possible solution.[22]

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Education therefore is our only hope for dealing with the problems of the world; he draws attention not only to global issues concerning environmental change, especially the problem of population growth which was a key concern of the day, but also for him such immediate issues as the terrible poverty in East St Louis, in the midst of the richest nation on earth.[23]

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 But how do we agree on the ‘best’ knowledge? Fuller is less clear on this important point. Yet how can we trust in and rely on socio-political elites to achieve this consensus? In Fuller’s ‘late-enlightenment’ view of things, education remains a major driver towards a democratic consensus through debate and demonstration. For Fuller it would seem that nothing less will do than the participation of the total world’s population. Through the presence of active, continuous and lifelong educational activity, solutions to significant global problems can be achieved.[24]

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 The idea that education, combined with the power of sophisticated interactive electronic data networks, should focus on modelling and understanding the complex and dynamic interaction of systems is an important one, if yet to be realised. For him the well being of future generations is at stake; the global information network has to be capable of handling large amounts of complex nature ‘replayed’ in simulated time so as to create a more reflective and critical public ‘high-velocity’ response to globalised problems.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Fuller’s participatory stance separates him from the earlier 20th Century when concepts about the role of elites still survived in true paternalistic fashion, i.e. enlightened others making the best decisions on behalf of the unenlightened (HG Wells proposed just such a model). In this essay we can discern the beginnings of a more interactive concept, one based on post-war democratic values, albeit from a capitalistic viewpoint and albeit still relying on elites to design, prepare, and distribute content. Yet in his vision the role of the masses is changing; they are presumed to engage in debate, to remould, remake, re-present content, to be regenerative and through this to create wealth (though he doesn’t attempt to explain how that happens). The masses participate not just in the consumption of knowledge but its regeneration and remoulding. A prefiguring of Web 2.0 perhaps.[25]

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 He was confronted, as we are, with global environmental and economic problems. He saw too a deep connection between enhancing the wider public understanding of these issues, education, and the potential power of an interactive, large-scale network of active consumers to galvanise a response. He could not know the details of how parts of this vision have come to pass; he might have been surprised by the intellectual and cultural power not of elites and the specially educated, but of the ‘ordinary’ masses themselves who have produced this new global compendium of knowledge and tools for  knowledge. And all without centralised schemes or plans. While the ‘regenerative consumer’ is a key driver in the wealth creation of this global network, it remains unclear how this power in fact brings about change remains very unclear. The political sphere especially cannot live easily with ‘regenerative consumers’. At the concrete level, regeneration is represented by the joyous, anarchic and hugely creative ‘remix’ culture that has emerged over the last two decades (déjà vu, déjà lu, and déjà écrit) but which equally powerful vested interests seek to limit and channel through, for example, the defence of content as private property. At the political level, the price for this marvellous flowering of regenerative consumption, is cacophony.



37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 [1] The subtitle is interesting though it is not clear from this essay how he intends his vision to free the scholar.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 [2] This theme of continuity and discontinuity is important. Our recent ancestors were trying to solve exactly the same problems; the very recent past – 1945 to the present – is our twin. Yet, there are some who would try to deny history a place. For some education thinkers and writers, everything is now out of date, not-fit-for-purpose and must be scrapped and forgotten. However, I have always been wary of ‘year zero’ approaches to problem solving.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 [3] Also reminiscent of the Saber-Tooth curriculum! Imagine the resistance there would be to giving up the Mercator map!

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 [4] An example of ‘teaching by design’? See  Simon H. 1969. Sciences of the Artificial; Laurillard, D. 2012. Teaching as a design science.”  As Buckminster Fuller puts it in this essay “…solving problems by design science instead of political reform.”

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 [5] My hunch is that this focus on the globalised society and the interconnectedness of its problems begins in the inter-war years; it is not earlier. It goes on to flourish after the Second World War, and well on into our own day, although today the tone is different.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 [6] Note here too the dystopic view of Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, a story built around similar observations about the alienating pace of human life brought on by high speed technologies.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [7] For a discussion of this interpretation of as it relates to Vannevar Bush’s Memex see: Yeo, R. 2007. ‘Before Memex’.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [8] For dome background on this see WU, T. 2010. ‘The Master Switch’

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 [9] This idea of the ‘holding power’ of technology is certainly present in the work of thinkers like Seymour Papert.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 [10] As was widely debated in Fuller’s own day. He does not discuss these in Education Automation.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 [11] This idea of ‘attention-sucking’ is suggested by some interesting comments from Aaron Sloman in an email discussion (GMail, 19th May, Subject: ‘Some thoughts about the Facebook float …’). There, he describes the dark side of the Internet as an information-suction machine on the back of which a myriad micro-payments generate huge wealth from our personal information. To quote Zuckerman, “…the dumbfucks…”. See also this story in The Independent, 15/6/2012.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 [12] What does emerge over time is a set of laws and customs that are more or less well adapted to controlling some aspects of quality – e.g. the recent ruling on trolling, or regulations concerning cookies, or the control of pornography.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 [13] However, the relationship between state regulation of the Internet and content production and management is a complex one; the argument in this paragraph needs refinement. There is no intrinsic reason why the walled garden model won’t work, only that to maintain it requires enormous socio-political effort.

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 [14] At risk of stating the blooming obvious, Facebook is a direct result of this connectedness.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 [15] That’s why a focus on ‘digital scholarship’ is important at the present time. The idea that academia has been slow to respond may be a little unfair and there is a discussion to be made about (i) how rapid should be a transformation of academic culture and practice and (ii) to what extent academia has been transformed and is actively transforming itself in this new pedagogical environment of abundant and ubiquitous content.

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 [16] Note that the Geoscope is a physical place, a theatre that crowds attend. It also uses a physical form that reflects something of the thing it represents – a geodesic dome is, like the Dymaxion map, a physical representation of the Earth.

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 [17] In 1960 this would have been less than about 9 pixels/cm; a Kindle 3 is about 66ppcm and an iPad 3 104ppcm. Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_displays_by_pixel_density

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 [18] Referring back to Footnote 11 and Sloman’s notion of ‘information-sucking machines’; great wealth is indeed created from this system of regenerative consumption. Google is the paradigm example of this process at work. Some of Google’s generated wealth is reinvested in the system, to create both new tools and new content. But there is an important debate here: is this an educative virtuous circle in Fuller’s sense? Does Google really close that circle? Though our individual relationship to the network seems symbiotic relationship because, as Google likes to tell us, enhancement through regeneration gives us what we want and what we need, but Google may also be giving us what other vested interests want us to want, and want us to need. It’s just a new version of the trickle down model – our wealth is good for all of us.

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 [19] Here again is the idea of ‘permanent education’.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 [20] Do we now live in a society of permanent education?

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 [21] For an example of the discussion in the professional media see here.

58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 [22] Google Earth is an obvious example of what might have been relished as a basic tool for the Geoscope. It is interesting that, great pedagogue as he was, Fuller devised the World Game  as an example of what the Geoscope would deliver (and see here). Again, he not only proposed content and processes, he also designed them.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 [23] And which continues to be a stark issue for the USA along with many other cities in the US (see here for example). The decline of the old industrial bases has not been replaced with a comfortable regenerative existence but instead a crashing depression fit for a Steinbeck novel.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 [24] Fuller does not address the third ‘D’ in this triad: deception. See for example: Deception, Demonstration and Debate. The thesis is that all public debate is premised on representations that are by dint of the process by which they are forged, biased, partial misrepresentations – deceptions; public debate is then carefully managed to uphold the deception. Fuller does not consider this possibility but instead relies on a more naturalistic, enlightenment notion that truth emerges inevitably from discussion and debate. He assumes that the models that are created in the first place, born as they are of the best minds, are honest and true. But we know that a more nuanced view of how the ‘public sphere’ really operates in a global network is called for.

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0 [25] To reiterate a point made earlier, Fuller sees the entire world in his own cultural image. Today, though, the WWW has made it obvious that the whole world is not like us; participation is often on ‘their’ terms not on ‘ours’. The WWW is not a smooth landscape of rational democrats but, basically, a Babel. Consensus, which is implicit throughout Fuller’s view, cannot emerge under these circumstances.

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Source: http://davidlongman.net/blog/notes-on-the-global-network/a-responsive-essay-buckminster-fullers-education-automation/