The Great Pirates
R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was an inventor, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet, cosmologist one of the great American visionaries of the 20th century. Best-known as the inventor of the geodesic dome, Fuller devoted much of his life to resolving the gap between the sciences and the humanities, which he believed was preventing society from taking a comprehensive view of the world. His theories and innovations traversed the worlds of architecture, visual art, literature, mathematics, molecular biology, and environmental science and have had a deep impact on all of those fields. (Description via the Buckminster Fuller Institute)
In 1963, Fuller published a short book titled the Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, in which he relates Earth to a spaceship flying through space. He was thinking big, using the spaceship as a vehicle to argue the importance of world view, and both celebrating and mourning the truly multi-disciplined thinkers (like DaVinci and Michelangelo) who once ran the world; people he called the “Great Pirates”. It’s interesting to scan this text and follow his arguments in favour of big picture thinking and a return of sorts to our “innate comprehensivity” (or else risk extinction). Some excerpts…
From Chapter II – Origins of Specialization
And it followed that these Great Pirates came into mortal battle with one another to see who was going to control the vast sea routes and eventually the world. Their battles took place out of sight of landed humanity. Most of the losers went to the bottom utterly unbeknownst to historians. Those who stayed on the top of the waters and prospered did so because of their comprehensive capability. That is they were the antithesis of specialists. They had high proficiency in dealing with celestial navigation, the storms, the sea, the men, the ship, economics, biology, geography, history, and science. The wider and more long distanced their anticipatory strategy, the more successful they became.
From Chapter III – Comprehensively Commanded Automation
The Great Pirates did run the world. They were the first and last to do so. They were world men, and they ran the world with ruthless and brilliant pragmatism based on the mis-seemingly “fundamental” information of their scientifically specialized servants. …
We can develop faster and faster running horses as specialists. To do so we inbreed by mating two fast-running horses. By concentrating certain genes the probability of their dominance is increased. But in doing so we breed out or sacrifice general adaptability. Inbreeding and specialization always do away with general adaptability. …
When, as we have seen, the Great Pirates let their scientists have free rein in World War I the Pirates themselves became so preoccupied with enormous wealth harvesting that they not only lost track of what the scientists were doing within the vast invisible world but they inadvertently abandoned their own comprehensivity and they, too, became severe specialists as industrial production money makers, and thus they compounded their own acceleration to extinction in the world-paralyzing economic crash of 1929. But society, as we have seen, never knew that the Great Pirates had been running the world. Nor did society realize in 1929 that the Great Pirates had become extinct. However, world’ society was fully and painfully aware of the economic paralysis. Society consisted then, as now, almost entirely of specialized slaves in education, management, science, office routines, craft, farming, pick-and-shovel labour, and their families. Our world society now has none of the comprehensive and realistic world knowledge that the Great Pirates had.
From Chapter V – General Systems Theory
We begin by eschewing the role of specialists who deal only in parts. Becoming deliberately expansive instead of contractive, we ask, “How do we think in terms of wholes?” If it is true that the bigger the thinking becomes the more lastingly effective it is, we must ask, “How big can we think?”
One of the modern tools of high intellectual advantage is the development of what is called general systems theory. Employing it we begin to think of the largest and most comprehensive systems, and try to do so scientifically. We start by inventorying all the important, known variables that are operative in the problem. But if we don’t really know how big “big” is, we may not start big enough, and are thus likely to leave unknown, but critical, variables outside the system which will continue to plague us. Interaction of the unknown variables inside and outside the arbitrarily chosen limits of the system are probably going to generate misleading or outrightly wrong answers. If we are to be effective, we are going to have to think in both the biggest and most minutely-incisive ways permitted by intellect and by the information thus far won through experience.