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Buckminster Fuller’s Great Pirates: The origins of specialization

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Photo by Dan Lindsay (CC BY 3.0)

By Zann Gill

Buckminster Fuller’s first powerful concept was represented by the metaphor of the Great Pirates, by which he meant not merely storybook characters, but those who lead corporations and governments, who amass, and often misuse, power. He saw specialization, and lack of cross-fertilization, as weakening, not only every individual, but also the fabric of society.

Buckminster Fuller was a great generalist at a time when being a generalist had grown increasingly unpopular. He believed that the “new, self-employed architect-scientist is the one in all the world who may accelerate realization of a high standard survival for all,” and that it was technology that would make this vision possible.

Fuller placed historic responsibility for specialization on the Great Pirates, whose “divide and conquer” strategy fostered increasing specialization as a means to control and exploit others. Circumscribed knowledge, affording the comforts of being expert in a small domain, made people acquiesce in their subservience, almost without realizing. The arts of navigation, grand logistics, and effectively deceptive media for international exchange, made the Top Pirate in “the house” (gambling parlance) repeatedly a Winner Takes All.

These cautions, penned by Bucky forty years ago, have uncanny prescience in a world shocked by the Enron scandal, the FEMA fiasco (U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) ineptly responding to the Hurricane Katrina crisis, haphazard response to earthquakes and other crises around the world, and growing suspicion that too much power to exploit drove United States troops into Iraq and Afghanistan on false pretexts.

In Bucky’s view, although the Great Pirates, as such, became extinct with the advent of technology, their legacy, their methods of controlling, deceiving, and exploiting others, lived on. They created contexts within which their methods could flourish, where their unscrupulous schemes gave them an advantage. Recent research suggests a new breed of Pirates – charming, dark-suited, socially adept psychopaths, who advance themselves at the expense of others through similar methods of dominion. This research recalls Bucky’s insights about the Great Pirates, not as outliers, but as very central shapers of accepted social mores, which survive today. The doctrine of “survival of the fittest” as the exclusive modis operandi of evolution breeds a view that “competition proves who deserves more of less,” a justification for warfare.

To illustrate the correlation between over-specialization and extinction, Fuller cites the case of a marine bird, which evolved longer and longer beaks to dig in marine marshes for its food, until eventually the beaks of this species were so long and heavy that the birds could no longer fly. Massive fires swept through the area and this species of overspecialized birds, unable to fly, was trapped and perished. Studies of biological species, and of human tribes that became extinct, find evidence for the same cause of extinction in both cases: over-specialization

Fuller proposed “design science” as an antidote for over-specialization, a method to recognize or envision a big picture. In the 1980s we tried to develop expert systems, which failed to realize this prediction. It was not yet time for man to be displaced as a specialist by the computer. Buckminster Fuller personally exemplified the design science principles he described. His vision for “comprehensive, anticipatory, design science” (CADS) embraced the potential for emergence of collaborative intelligence, progressing through iterative pattern recognition toward coherence. He conceived the general framework for CADS in a world where the two key elements needed to implement his vision, ubiquitous computing and the internet, did not yet exist.

Now, several decades downstream, Fuller’s prediction has come true with a twist that would probably surprise and delight him. The Internet as society’s global brain can potentially enable us to overcome many of the traps of over-specialization. Fuller predicted, far ahead of the internet that could realize his prediction, a second antidote: “Suddenly, all unrecognized as such by society, the evolutionary antibody to the extinction of humanity through specialization appeared in the form of the computer”

Excerpted from an article by Zann Gill

©2011 Zann Gill

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth and other books by Buckminster Fuller can be found online for free at the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

Photo by Dan Lindsay (CC BY 3.0)

1 comment

1 Ethan Allen { 10.15.13 at 9:14 pm }

I’ve just come across this site and intend to peruse it at greater length. Mr. Fuller was one of my favorite teachers, and it was good to read Zann Gill’s excerpt.
As Usual,
Ethan Allen

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