Posts Tagged ‘systems thinking’

“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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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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Society and Our Technology Built World

datePosted on 2 June 2011 by cjf

The interrelationships between society and technology run deep. We all partake and participate in the unfolding technology evolution “discussion” Invention by Design by Henry Petroski that is our lives. The tools we use, try out, improvise, critique, and/or advocate are our minimal contributions to this discussion. The accidents of technological history set the context for the discussion. We are all technologists entangled in a technological world! Technology has been the main (perhaps the only?) means by which human progress has been achieved with tools like the pencil, slide fastener (or zipper), jet airplane, water systems, skyscrapers, bridges, and computers all dramatically changing society. Henry Petroski’s great short book “Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing” explores the design and engineering arts in the full richness of their social context in nine intriguing case studies.

I first read Invention by Design in February 1999. Recently I was re-reading it when Michael Tweed of the The Ben Franklin Thinking Society invited me to lead the group’s Science & Technology meetup every month. That led to the Discussion: Engineering Failures & Society on 8 May 2011. Here are some thoughts reflecting on Petroski’s book, the 8 May meetup, and further cogitating about the big picture of society and technology. Hopefully these notes and your feedback will help us better understand the technological world at the core of our ever changing civilization.

What is Technology?

Technology is the catch-all term used to describe objects and the networks, systems, and infrastructures in which they are embedded, as well as the patterns of use that we impose upon them and they upon us. Technology is clearly context-dependent and ever evolving. — Henry Petroski

Petroski’s definition suggests that civilization itself may be technology. So it would seem that technology embraces culture, values, psychology, history, and the multidimensional elements of the environment (materials science, biology, anthropology, geophysics, chemistry, etc.). Buckminster Fuller goes further:

In its complexities of design integrity, the Universe is technology. The technology evolved by man is thus far amateurish compared to the elegance of nonhumanly contrived regeneration. Man does not spontaneously recognize technology other than his own, so he speaks of the rest as something he ignorantly calls nature. — Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics, 172.00-173.00

By taking Petroski’s “networks, systems, and infrastructures” to the next level of “design integrities” and identifying it as technology, Bucky leads us to the biggest of big pictures: Universe itself! As social creatures we often think of society as the big picture. I think his point is well made: technology is an inhernet component of Universe itself. Human society is our storied Earth-developed technology. It seems likely that Human society will become the “brain” managing the regenerative ecological functions of Gaia, the theory that Earth is “alive”. If that happens, the storied technology of Earth would probably become even more syntropic and powerful than what life has achieved thus far. Regardless, society and the technology with which it is built are inextricably intertwined!

Design and Engineering in Society

Design and engineering are the arts of consciously working to evolve and develop our technological infrastructure to improve our worlds. Petroski emphasizes the role of society in the engineering process and vice versa in these illuminating quotes:

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