“Comprehensively Commanded Automation”

datePosted on 1 November 2020 by cjf

The title is a puzzling but evocative expression from Bucky Fuller’s book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. Our exploration of it will show that Bucky’s book is, perhaps, his most concise articulation of his full philosophical vision. Before I try to interpret it, let me provide some background.

Last year, I wrote a synopsis for Buckminster Fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”. Recently, I wrote another synopsis of “Operating Manual” for the Comprehensivist Wednesdays series. Inspired by my presentation on Bucky’s Comprehensive Thinking, Shrikant Rangnekar of 52 Living Ideas has organized a series of events on Bucky’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. This essay was written to provide ideas in support of the 7 November 2020 event on “Operating Manual” for that series (crossposted at The Greater Philadelphia Thinking Society).

Introducing “Comprehensively Commanded Automation”

When I wrote my first synopsis of R. Buckminster Fuller’s 1969 book “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” last year, I identified the title of chapter 3 “Comprehensively Commanded Automation” as a significant idea in the book. It is not a catchphrase. I do not think Bucky ever used the phrase again. This essay will show how my interpretation of “Operating Manual” sees this phrase as a significant unifying concept in the book that resonates repeatedly with the text revealing meanings that might otherwise be missed.

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On 11 March 2019, Harold Channer invited me to the studios of MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network) in New York City to record two one-hour editions of the TV program “Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer”. To expand my thinking on topics from the second interview, here are four addenda:

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To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller’s “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”, I re-read the book twice over the last four months. Doing so, I glimpsed a way to integrate its ideas into a brief overview. My idea is to read through its mythologizing and storytelling—fun though they are—to avoid getting distracted in interpreting and assessing all that. And to highlight its key ideas as I prepare for a group exploration of the book on 30 November 2019.

Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

Note: All quotes are from the book.


Intellectual specialization precludes understanding our place in Universe. “[S]pecialization precludes comprehensive thinking.” Bucky argues for our innate comprehensivity meaning to comprehend comprehensively, to comprehend our worlds broadly and deeply, to be “macro-comprehensive and micro-incisive”.

“Comprehensively commanded automation” (the title of chapter 3) refers to the way in which “the omni-interrelated and omni-interaccommodative” generalized principles, such as the principle of leverage, Einstein’s E=mc², the conservation of energy, and the thermodynamics of entropy, intricately automates the basic operations and behaviors of our Universe. Everything in Universe (comprehensive) is subject to these principles (commanded) so that no one has to plan for, specify, calculate, or certify that the resultant behaviors fully accommodate all the principles when an apple falls from a tree (automation). Even you and I are predominantly automated in that we don’t consciously direct our foods to our bodily tissues, glands, and organs. Our automated energy supply ships, Sun and Moon, together with all our principles of astronomy, optics, and geology have hidden in plain sight the fact that we are all astronauts aboard Spaceship Earth and always have been. “Comprehensively commanded automation” also suggests how these principles generate “inexorable evolution”.

The storyline of the book hinges in chapter 4 “Spaceship Earth” where we apply our innate predilection for comprehensivity to examine the question of why did this exquisitely designed automaton, Spaceship Earth, include no instruction book? It could be that we were designed to have to exercise our intellects to figure out how the world works, to discover its generalized principles, with only a minimum of pre-programming as instinct. That implies that we have designed into us the facility to imagine and then apply (test out) an ever increasing array of ever more generalized principles which we accumulate as part of our cultural heritage. These imagined and verified principles have provided good enough models of the actual mechanism of automation for our spaceship that our design capability has attained an unprecedented aptitude. We have succeeded to an extraordinary degree: witness Einstein’s accomplishments, quantum electrodynamics, the Moon landing, Cassini-Huygens, global communication in a pocket-sized device, and so much more. We have discovered a function of our intellect in Universe: making sense of the world and how it works and putting that know-how to use.

“We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total.”
— R. Buckminster Fuller in “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth”

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On 11 March 2019, Harold Channer again invited me to the studios of MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network) in New York City to record two one-hour editions of the TV program “Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer”. To expand on topics from the first interview, here are three addenda:

I included questions throughout to invite your feedback in the comment section at the end.

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Is human behavior “a magnificent, fascinating, nuanced interaction between nature and nurture”? To what extent is our behavior controlled by our biology and to what extent does our behavior control our biology? What is the nature of a biolgically-based human being? What is unique about the behavior of humans in the animal kingdom?

These questions are the broad concerns of the 25 videos totalling 36 hours and 40 minutes constituting the free on-line edition of Stanford University’s Bio 150 course “Human Behavioral Biology” recorded in the spring of 2010 with Robert Sapolsky. The course is an accessible yet scientifically detailed introduction to modern biology’s understanding of human behavior. It is a broad biology-centered approach where animal comparisons and a broad systems perspective engage a way of understanding our psychology without too much solipsism. Sapolsky’s gift for story-telling and his style of boldly confronting the moral implications of his poignant topics make the lectures engaging edutainment. Topics include sexuality, violence, language, mental illness, religiosity, and individuality which are explained using the main biological subjects of evolutionary theory, genetics, ethology, endocrinology, and neuroscience.

Although I finished studying “Human Behavioral Biology” in July 2016, its continued influence on my thinking and the diffuse locations of my notes has led me to want to document its highlights, my notes on the videos, and the events I organized to explore aspects of the course in small groups. Hence this summary.

Perhaps, Sapolsky’s most profound contribution to my thinking came in the first lecture in his course where he composes a list of the dangers of categorial thinking:

  1. We can miss the big picture by focusing on boundaries.
  2. We tend to underestimate differences when two cases happen to fall in the same category.
  3. We tend to overestimate differences when cases happen to fall on opposite sides of a boundary.

Of course, as Sapolsky himself acknowledges, categories are essential scaffolding for our thinking. In fact, I cannot imagine how we could think at all without some distinctions, some categories. But these profound dangers affect every distinction, every assumption, and every taxonomy that we might entertain. For me, this realization was stunning, profound, and transformative. Do you see the significance? Can you imagine the comport of its implications?

Another important aspect of the course was to better understand the profound interrelationship between genetics and environment. For me this really hit home when Sapolsky explained how the cure for one of the most devastating single-gene mutation diseases known, PKU (phenylketonuria), is treated with a simple modification to one’s diet; a genetic disease “cured” by a simple change to the environment! Nature and nurture are both categories that belie the far more subtle and interfused gene-environment interaction. That and the treatment of epigenetics, transcription factors, life history including perinatal development, and the limitations imposed by the requirement of controlled experiments in science gave me a much clearer understanding of how the gene-environment interaction belies many widespread but erroneous assumptions and studies in genetics.

Another significant feature of the course is the way it engages complex systems thinking by looking at the determinants of human behavior from most proximate to most distal: the behavior itself and its releasing stimuli (ethology), neurobiology, acute and chronic hormonal environment, perinatal biology & environment, culture, genetics of the individual, ecological and environmental context, and evolutionary history. Should we think of all causality as this kind of multi-layered, intricate confluences of many overlapping and interconnected systems? I think so! And Sapolsky gives a feeling for this way of thinking that is remarkably effective, if you put in the effort to think it through carefully.

Saplosky’s lectures boldly face many of the challenges posed by our modern understanding of biology as applied to human behavior. His engaging lecture style never shys away from controversy so he can address, with accessible but scientifically nuanced detail, broad questions about biological determinism and the biology of morality.

Below I present my curated edition of the course. It will, I hope, help you get even more out of the videos. It might even help you organize your own events to explore on ideas in the course with others. At the end I invite your feedback on this curation, and the materials it includes, and on the prospect that this kind of curatorial approach to organizing group explorations might prototype a new educational service to help our civilization better address its crisis of ignorance.

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Cover of Stephen Barr's book "Experiments in Topology")

Stephen Barr’s “Experiments in Topology” (originally published in 1964, reprinted in 1989 by Dover) is extraordinary because it treats a sophisticated mathematical subject with accessible language that can be understood by motivated junior high students. It is extraordinary because its wonderful and copious figures are remarkably clear and elucidating. It is extraordinary because it captures the flavor, depth, and breadth of a very subtle subject with carefully written passages that boil down significant complications into understandable overviews. It is extraordinary because he gives a concrete enough treatment that the attentive reader can learn something substantial of the subject while the mysteries that are both alluded to and implicit may drive the curious reader to explore its nooks and crannies. It is extraordinary because its learning-by-doing (experimental / exploring) style is infectious and the reader may be emboldened to ask their own questions and attempt their own experiments. It is extraordinary because its effective survey of key ideas in the major branches of topology make it a useful reference. It is extraordinary because it can reward the casual reader with some basic guideposts for apprehending an advanced subject while the serious student who builds all its models and tries to understand their integrated significance can extract many deeper insights from the text.

I prefer this latter, in-depth, approach and organized, through Math Counts, a mathematics group in Philadelphia, 11 deep explorations on topics from the book each with a group of 6-10 mathematically-oriented colleagues. We thoroughly enjoyed the book and our explorations, although after 11 months we wanted to move on to other ideas.

The book uses homeomorphism as its first principle for exploring topology. Barr gives several definitions, but I found the characterization on page 5 to be the most helpful: “Any distortion is allowed provided the end result is connected in the same way as the original.” This exemplifies the kind of careful but informal style of the book.

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In Buckminster Fuller’s magnum opus, Synergetics, he makes the audacious assertion that “The subjective and objective always and only coexist and therewith demonstrate the inherent plurality of unity: inseparable union” (see 1013.16). I had forgotten that, but I had remembered that in reading Bucky my understanding of the words “subjective” and “objective” was enriched and enlivened.

I subliminally remembered this quote at the end of my study of Modern and Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo) with Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania. On 18 November 2015, I attempted to explain the idea to the ModPo community.

But what did Bucky mean by “the subjective and objective always and only coexist”? Let me give my interpretation and suggest its profound significance for our lives and in characterizing the nature of Bucky’s notion of design science.

Subjectivity and Objectivity 1, illustration by Jeannie Moberly

In Bucky’s Synergetics (and probably in his entire oeuvre), I think by “objective” he usually means voluntarily working to realize an objective, a goal, or a purpose whereas by “subjective” he means involuntarily subjected to happenings (which may be due to necessity or chance or circumstance). Bucky’s meanings for “objective” and “subjective” are logical variants of their root words “object” and “subject” even though they are not the most common in contemporary parlance.

Do you agree that “objective” and “subjective” can be used in this way?

Here is my evidence for Bucky’s usage: In 302.00 and 305.05, he explicitly identifies objective with voluntary and subjective with involuntary. In 986.032, he identifies objective with experimental and subjective with experiential. In 100.010, Bucky identifies objective with active/self and subjective with passive/otherness.

Do you agree with my interpretation of Bucky’s use of the words “objective” and “subjective”? Can you cite other Bucky passages that further clarify his thinking?

Does Universe relentlessly subjugate us to situations which we did not voluntarily choose? Simultaneously, are we not also the agents of ongoing genesis intentionally and objectively building our futures (to paraphrase Harold G. Nelson and Erik Stolterman in their profound 2012 book The Design Way)?

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Addenda to My Conversation With Harold Channer

datePosted on 17 December 2014 by cjf

Harold Channer invited me to the studios of MNN (Manhattan Neighborhood Network) in New York City to record two one-hour editions of the TV program “Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer” on Tuesday the 25th of November, 2014. Since few things I write or speak come out fully baked, I thought I’d add a few additional thoughts to clarify, improve, or correct some of my comments. Since I value discussion, I sprinkled my remarks with many questions which I hope will elicit your feedback in the comments.

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I participated in the ReVIEWING Black Mountain College 4: Looking Forward at Buckminster Fuller’s Legacy conference on September 28-30, 2012 in Asheville, NC, USA. I gave two talks (click on the links below to see the PDF presentations):

  • Education Automation Now and in the Future. In this talk I recognize Buckminster Fuller as one of the conceptual founding fathers of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, detail six of his educational ideas, and give a brief review of several OER courses I’ve taken to indicate the kind of comprehensive education now possible using freely available on-line courses.
  • Synergetics and Model Thinking. In this talk I synthesize Scott E. Page’s Model Thinking with Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics. I introduce both subjects, then discuss the importance of model thinking. Then I sketch some ideas about how Model Thinking and Synergetics can inform a more incisive approach to science.

Please share any thoughts you might have about these presentations in the comments. I would value your feedback.

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Models of Projective Geometry

datePosted on 24 July 2012 by cjf

For me the most enticing facet of projective geometry is the profound way in which it treats duality. Duality is the notion that certain fundamental distinctions have similar structure in their complementary forms. In comparing a form with its dual, the basic structure remains even though the roles of the forms reverse. Inside and outside. Convex and concave. Yin and yang. In 2D (two-dimensional) projective geometry, point is dual with line; in 3D point is dual with plane while lines are self-dual. The relationship of duality is so penetrating and pervasive in projective geometry, that we might consider it the geometry of fundamental duality. It provides a geometrical stage upon which duality can be studied in a pure form.

Another profound aspect of projective geometry is its elementary treatment of incidence where one considers the join (∨) and meet or intersection (∧) of two basic geometrical objects such as point, line, plane, and hyperplane. The most fundamental correspondence of geometrical forms associates points and lines in dual arrangement: the points on a line form a range and the lines through a point form a pencil. The correspondence between a pencil and a range is a basic projection. Next a perspective relation joins a pencil with two ranges or a range with two pencils; that is, by combining two elementary projections. Such a perspectivity maps points to points, or dually, lines to lines as shown in the figure. Point and Line Perspective

In the essay “Design Strategy” in Buckminster Fuller’s book Utopia or Oblivion, he includes projective geometry in his list of recommendations for a curriculum of design science. The connection between projective geometry and design thinking is an area that deserves more attention.

A Catalog of Models of Projective Geometry

The rest of this essay tersely describes a broad listing of some of the more basic models of projective geometry. Models are a powerful tool for learning and for understanding as explained in my essay about the Importance of Model Thinking (based on Scott E. Page’s course). The models included below should provide an introduction to and an overview of projective geometry for those new to the subject (Note: some of these models require background knowledge that is not explained here. They are indicated with a Orange Asterisk from http://www.fatcow.com/free-icons licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. I encourage you to skim or skip such models, but to read on as later models may be more tractable.) I hope the experts will find the succinct summary and references useful. Although this list is fairly comprehensive, there are many models that are necessarily omitted. If you have a favorite model, please post a comment about it.

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The Importance of Model Thinking

datePosted on 14 June 2012 by cjf

Models can help us understand, predict, strategize, and re-design our worlds. This is the profound lesson from Scott E. Page’s engaging on-line Coursera offering on Model Thinking. I was particularly interested in this 10 week course because Buckminster Fuller instilled in me a deep appreciation for models. With this course, Scott Page reinforced and enhanced that appreciation in spades. Also, like Bucky, Page makes his penetrating approach accessible to a very broad audience. This is a great course for anyone with even rudimentary algebra skills.

In addition to reviewing the course, I will also suggest that model thinking is a new more incisive kind of science. This approach and its nascent toolkit for understanding, decision-making, prediction, strategy, and design is vitally important for practitioners of all types. Model thinking may be just the type of tool humanity needs to solve some of its thorniest problems. As such its arrival into broader consciousness is not a moment too soon!

So if you want to be out there helping to change the world in useful ways, it’s really really helpful to have some understanding of models.
— Scott E. Page

Why Model Thinking

There are many ways to model the world. One of the most popular is with proverbs or short pithy sayings (our modern media seem to particularly love this deeply flawed “sound bite” approach to knowledge). As Scott Page points out, there are opposite proverbs too. For instance, the opposite of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is “better safe than sorry.” Proverbs and their more elaborate cousins, allegories, can model or represent the world with persuasive stories, but they provide little discerning power and little basis for deeper understanding. In contradistinction, model thinking with its greater concern for precision can help us more carefully distinguish a complex of important factors with their interrelationships and behaviors. Therein lies its power!

Is intuition sufficient? No! Philip Tetlock, Robyn Dawes and others have demonstrated that simple naive models outperform experts of all stripes. In 1979 Dawes wrote a seminal paper, The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making, which showed the effectiveness of even “improper” linear models in outperforming human prognostication. Tetlock has made the most ambitious and extensive study of experts to date and finds that crude extrapolation models outperform humans in every domain he has studied.

That is not to say that models are “right”. Page emphasizes that all models are “wrong” too! Which leads to his most profound insight in the course: you need many types of models to help think through the logic of any given situation. Each model can help check, validate, and build your understanding. This depth of understanding is essential to make better decisions or predictions or build more effective designs or develop more effective strategies to achieve your goals.

Is intuition important? Yes, absolutely! The many model thinker relies upon intuition to select and critically evaluate a battery of models or to construct new or modified models when appropriate. These models help test our intuition. Intuition helps tests the models! Writing out a model often identifies facets and elements of the situation which intuition misses. Intuition is essential to find the aspects of the models that are a bit off the mark — and all models are a bit off. Model thinking is not “flying on instruments” or turning control over to mathematical or computer models. Instead it is about evaluating and comparing diverse models to test, build, fortify, and correct our intuitions, decisions, predictions, designs, and strategies.

Fascinating Models

Page’s course is filled to the brim with fascinating models! One of the first models Page introduces is Thomas Schelling’s segregation model which represents people as agents on a checkerboard. We discover deep and unexpected insights about how people sort themselves into clusters where everyone looks alike, for example, the segregation of neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, income, etc. It is the first of many agent-based models to be discussed.

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Dante’s Commedia, written in the early 1300s, is ostensibly an epic poem about a pilgrim who travels through Inferno (hell), Purgatorio (purgatory), and Paradiso (heaven) to encounter God face-to-face and then returns to tell us about it. More interestingly, it is a poem of learning, philosophy, and the struggles of life with more nuances, depth and perspectives than I would have thought possible had I not read it myself. To say that the Commedia is rich in a multidimensional way is an understatement. The Commedia is intricate, dramatic, thrilling, mind-blowing, cosmic, shocking, ineffable, sometimes oppressive, and altogether extraordinary!

Dante In Translation at Open Yale Courses in Giuseppe MazzottaThe pilgrim is Dante himself and his guide through most of the journey is the Roman poet Virgil. Open Yale Courses provides its own able guide in Giuseppe Mazzotta who presents a fascinating and deeply engaging course ITAL 310: Dante in Translation (videos at YouTube). Mazzotta places the Commedia, more commonly entitled The Divine Comedy, in the encyclopedic tradition (a circle of knowledge through the liberal arts) but he also calls it an epic, romantic, autobiographical, and visionary poem. Indeed by the end of the course, I had lost track of how many different angles on the poem Mazzotta had identified: prophetic, philosophical, historical, sublime, humanistic, theological, scientific, geometrical, musical, a poetry of hope, a poetry of the future, etc., etc.!

Dante makes large claims for poetry: poetry is a way of knowing.
— Giuseppe Mazzotta

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