From Satori to Silicon Valley

by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.

Reversionaries and Technophiles

I should explain how I am using the term "postindustrial" here. I mean it in the sense that would supposedly place us permanently beyond the chronic the instability of

boom and bust, the waste of life and resources, the injustice and brutality. In its postindustrial phase, our society would not simply have matured but transcended, reaching that point where our technological genius would at last have freed us from the tyranny of getting and spending, compulsive productivity and frantic consumption, mass manipulation and military necessity, so that we might live a fully human life. "Postindustrial" indicates a stage of moral, not economic, growth.

That utopian goal has been with us since the first appearance of the Dark Satanic Mills. But in the western world, the vision of our postindustrial future has been polarized between two very different scenarios: that of the "Reversionaries" and that of the "Technophiles."

For the Reversionaries, who trace back to John Ruskin, William Morris, Prince Kropotkin, and the Romantic artists generally, industrialism is the extreme state of a cultural disease that must be cured before it kills us. It is a stage of pathological overdevelopment in the history of human economy from which a healthy technology -- usually seen as some form of communitarian handicrafts -- will have to be salvaged once the industrial system has reached the point of terminal inhumanity. The Reversionaries are what Paul Goodman would have called "neolithic conservatives." They look forward to the day when the factories and heavy machinery will be left to molder, and we will have the chance to return to the world of the village, the farm, the hunting camp, the tribe. This would lead us to a life close to the soil and the elements that needs only simple and communal pleasures to find fulfillment. This is the route that, for example, Stephen Gaskin chose for himself and his followers when they left the Experimental College at San Francisco State University in 1971.

Through the middle and later sixties, Gaskin, a former assistant to San Francisco State Professor S. I. Hayakawa, had been teaching a "Monday Night Class" in the student-financed and controlled Experimental College. When the class began to draw some several hundred students, it moved for a brief period to Glide Memorial Church in downtown San Francisco and identified itself as a "religion," with Gaskin as its guru. Finally in late 1971, Gaskin organized a mass exodus via bus caravan that made its way to a 1700 acre farm in Tennessee. The philosophy of the settlement was simple living and "guaranteed good karma." Some have identified Gaskin's following of reconstructed urbanites as "voluntary peasants." Gaskin puts it this way:

What we are really into is making a living in a clean way. I guess farming is about the cleanest way to make a living. It's just you and the dirt and God. And the dirt -- you can't make friends with an acre of ground and get it to give you an "A" like in college or something. If you make friends with it, you have to put work into it, and then it'll come back and feed you, it'll really do it. But you can't snow it or anything like that -- it's going to be real with you. (Resurgence, No. 59, Nov.-Dec., 1976, London, p. 12.)

The result of Gaskin's philosophy in application was to be one of the few long-term communitarian ventures to come out of the sixties. By dint of hard work, fraternal sharing, and minimal consumption, The Farm managed to prosper into the 1980's on a regimen of soybeans and natural childbirth.

Over against this stratagem of radical withdrawal and reversion, we have the technophiliac vision of our industrial destiny, a modem current of thought that flows back to Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, and H. G. Wells. For these utopian industrialists, as for Buckminster Fuller after them, the cure for our industrial ills will not be found in things past, but in Things To Come. Indeed, it will be found at the climax of the industrial process. What is required, therefore, is not squeamish reversion, but brave perseverance. We must adapt resourcefully to industrialism as a necessary stage of social evolution, monitoring the process with a cunning eye for its life-saving potentialities. As we approach the crisis that threatens calamity, we must grasp these opportunities as they emerge and use them to redeem the system from within. The way out of our dilemma is to tunnel fearlessly through until we reach daylight.

One recognizes at once the familiar Marxist pattern of history in this vision. As against the utopian visionaries who would abscond from industrial society, Marx insisted that the logic of history had to be worked through in its proper phases: from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism, from socialism to communism. But one also notices that in Fuller's foreshortened version of the philosophy, we are dealing with the views of a technician, not a political economist. In sharp contrast to Marx, Fuller was a sociological illiterate. There is simply no political context to his thought. Instead, where Marx deals in class conflict and political power, Fuller offers us . . . inventions. That is what the industrial system produces. Its inventions are simply to be appropriated by clever engineers like Fuller and used to save the human race. The inventions make possible things the capitalist owners cannot envision. But mavericks like Fuller, purporting to stand outside the system, recognize these possibilities and hasten to take advantage of them. As Fuller put it:

The individual can take initiative without anybody's permission. Only individuals can . . . look for the principles manifest in their experience that others may be overlooking because they are too preoccupied with how to please some boss or with how to earn money. . . .The individual is the only one who could think in a cosmically adequate manner. (Robert Snyder, Buckminster Fuller, An Autobiographical Monologue/Scenario, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1970, p. 38)

Thus, these "individuals" outsmart and outflank the high and the mighty, who, one is left to conclude, simply surrender to their superior insight.

What is an example of such a clever gambit? Well, Fuller was a man of one example, the invention he always fell back on to prove every point: the geodesic dome, on which he held the patent. Had not advanced engineering and industrial technology made this stupendous invention possible? And was not the whole history of the world going to be transformed by the dome? QED.

There was a cult of the geodesic dome during the sixties. It began with the popular dome books of San Francisco architect Lloyd Kahn, who was converted to domesmanship by Fuller when the inventor came to the San Francisco Bay Area. Thanks to Kahn's books and The Whole Earth Catalog, the hope sprang up that communities of domes might blossom overnight outside major cities -- like barbarian encampments embodying the new postindustrial culture. (As far as I'm aware, the closest approach to that goal was Drop City near Trinidad Colorado, a "weed patch commune" whose several funky structures were rigged up out of salvaged junk from the nearest city dump.) The dome quickly became more than an architectural eccentricity; it came to symbolize a new, worldwide style of shelters which combined the values of simplicity, economy, durability, communalism, and whose tetrahedron units had (so Fuller insisted) tapped the deep geometrical logic of the cosmos.

Fuller's followers were quick to take his claims for the dome at full value. As one of the founders of Drop City pronounced:

To live in a dome is -- psychologically -- to be in closer harmony with natural structure. Macrocosm and microcosm are recreated, both the celestial sphere and molecular and crystalline forms. Cubical buildings are structurally weak and uneconomic. Corners constrict the mind. Domes break into new dimensions. They help to open man's perception and expand his approaches to creativity. The dichotomy between utilitarian and aesthetic, between artist and layman is broken down. (Bill Voyd, "Drop City," in Theodore Roszak, ed. Sources, New York, Harper & Row, 1972, p. 276)

Another dome missionary proclaimed:

Soon domed cities will spread across the world, anywhere land is cheap -- on the deserts, in the swamps, on mountains, tundra, ice caps. The tribes are moving, building completely free and open waystations, each a warm and beautiful conscious environment. We are winning. (Hugh Gardner, Children of Prosperity, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1978, p.37)

Now there were a number of problems with domes. Most of them, even those built in the deserts, the swamps, the mountains, had to have their struts and shafts and connectors, their plywood and fiberglass, shipped in from some distant industrial metropolis. And none of them were all that much cheaper or easier to build than a Quonset hut or a Butler barn. And most of them leaked, unless they were shielded by a vast and fragile plastic skin, again imported from the metropolis. And none could be insulated unless they were sprayed or coated with an industrial chemical. And none of them in style or structural substance ever bore any respectful relationship to their locality. Indeed, the dome was designed by its maker to be placeless, meant to be plunked down anywhere from the Arctic to the tropics as an assertion of the global industrial dominance. But none of this seemed to matter to the dome enthusiasts; by virtue of Fuller's intoxicating rhetoric and boundless optimism, the dome was seen as an icon of our social salvation.

Fuller was not alone in extrapolating the technophiliac vision of postindustrial history There were others, each of whom became, at some point, a countercultural favorite. There was Marshall McLuhan, who saw the electronic media as the secret of building a new "global village" that was somehow cozy, participative, and yet at the same time technologically sophisticated. There was Paolo Soleri, who believed that the solution to the ecological crisis of the modem world was the building of megastructural "arcologies" -- beehive cities in which the urban billions could be compacted into totally artificial environments. There was Gerard O'Neill, who barnstormed the country whipping up enthusiasm for one of the zaniest schemes of all: the launching of self-contained space colonies for the millions. For a few years, O'Neill became a special fascination of Stewart Brand and The Whole Earth Catalog (later The Co-Evolution Quarterly). In each of these cases, one sees the same assumption brought into play: the industrial process, pushed to its limit, generates its own best medicine. Out of the advanced research of the electronics, plastics, chemical, and aerospace industries, there emerge solutions to all our political and environmental problems.


Some Afterthoughts in the Year 2000

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak
Copyright 2000 by Theodore Roszak. All rights reserved.