A Dream Deferred

You’re probably thinking of a lot of frustrating delays, and of MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. If you don’t know about MLK, you likely won’t recognize RBF either, though most will know JFK and USSR.

However, I’m thinking of a delay you may not be: the postponement of “smart” houses (I’m putting off a definition). Instead, the Big Promise has been “driverless cars” (aka “people movers” if you lived through the 1970s).

The autonomous vehicle fantasies have eclipsed the next generation of Florida mobile home.

If a hurricane hits, Uncle Sam might have a FEMA trailer for you, but R&D halted on better shelter technologies, except in the area of high end camping (an outdoor sport).

You may be wondering when “smart houses” were ever a dominant fantasy, in which case I’ll point you first to the DDU (Dymaxion Deployment Unit), admittedly obscure, and then to the first true Dymaxion House, which hung from a utility mast but didn’t sway in the wind.

Like a tent, or hanging yurt, the Dymaxion House was well anchored. Today it’s in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (near Detroit).

dymaxion house (with guitar)

The curious word “Dymaxion” traces to one RBF, or R. Buckminster Fuller, who is most well known for the geodesic dome.

However, his main aim was to provide high living standards to all humans, in revenge for how we’ve been prevented (at this point consciously even) from making that happen. “Shelter for all” does not have to mean a giant dome, with the camp or village inside. There’s nothing in particular it has to mean except “smart” i.e. “a solution to the problems at hand” (affordability being chief among them).

RBF bought and repurposed Shelter Magazine, then migrated over to Fortune, all the while scheming and dreaming up patentable projects. He specialized, in his books, in making a bright future (semi-utopian) seem attainable, but only if we escaped our most obsolete, dystopia-engendering reflexes.

The good news is humans are built to adapt.

The bad news is they still need generations to do it, and time is running out.

Our resources are being drained into preparations for war, which leads only to more draining, more scarcity.

A lot of architects and engineers shared RBF’s vision and have not turned their backs on the vast tent cities that blight our planet, with their message of human incompetence.

Others have decided the game is to deprive ever more humans of their means for “earning a living” (there’s a premise there, that one’s living must be “earned”), including all those who drive vehicles for a living.

RBF with shelter & car prototypes

Whereas the prospect of mortgage-free personal workspace pods dotting the landscape (forming communities) might have been appealing, a future to long for, the current dystopian visions, portrayed as semi-inevitable, have us working as debt slaves while living in illegally parked RVs (if not in FEMA trailers).

Those who still remember the “bright future” schools of thought have ways of signaling each other. We have Twitter and all the other social media.

Those of us who’ve internalized Dymaxion ethics and aesthetics are less likely to abandon our dreams.

Our immune system is robust.

But few millennials have ever heard of our network, unless they’ve seen House of Tomorrow or been to the Henry Ford Museum. It’s not like Stanford has anything intelligible to say about how it’s at the forefront of design science.

Not to pick on Stanford, but that’s where the Fuller archives is.

Fortunately, it’s not “either / or” with the autonomous people movers. We need whole cities in which to test them, with infrastructure designed accordingly, people trained.

Experimental prototype communities that compensate their people for pioneering new lifestyles in controlled conditions, means fun reality TV with product placement.

Onlookers will judge for themselves if they would ever want to live that way, setting up feedback loops with the lifestyle’s beta testers.

That both “reality TV” and “product placement” are practices we get really cynical about is just more evidence of why I’m right. I’m not suggesting we’re all suddenly wearing halos.

The difference is what’s in our shared inventory: all the components for less tragic theater.

Oregon Museum of Science and Industry

Likewise, Fuller’s vision of pod delivery by helicopter has been updated with the even more likely prospect of delivery by drone.

In sum, lets watch to see if Silicon Valley manages to outgrow its obsession with people movers (freight movers too) and include a more comprehensive vision of what “all the people” (not just “all the things”) will be doing if not driving to work.

Might a human being be taking care of business as a kind of server, embedded in cloud architecture? Lets see those diagrams. Where do the humans come in?

Don’t neglect the human mind as any less capable than a GPU, or even a whole data center of GPUs, when it comes to adaptive learning based on various types of input, such as readings and films, other life experience.

We’re responsive to feedback. We learn the ropes pretty quickly. We’re working already, even if unpaid.