Homeless in Space

Part of research aims at joining a conversation to discover what’s being said or has been said about your topic or ideas, as you develop your own statement about which there’s going to be disagreement, your own claims, your argument. It won’t take much Googling to find out most of your ideas are old hat – someone’s already been there, done that.

So it came as no surprise when I began thinking of the Mars rover “Perseverance,” now roaming the atmosphere of the red planet like a Samuel Beckett character in familiar forlorn surroundings, that when I searched for “Homeless on Mars” and “Homeless in Space,” Google instantly brought me 100,000 or so links to peruse.

What had happened was an old friend had called and our country’s ubiquitous homeless predicament came up, and I think I caught that he thought at least one of the local cause and effect issues might involve theft, that the homeless in his area were thieves, substantiated by his having seen a local police cruiser pulled over at a homeless camp under a bridge. Not adequate backing if one is building a credible causal argument, but I didn’t want to join, so I let it go for the nonce.

But I later found myself wondering, what is homelessness? What is theft? If I live in a tent on a patch of public property, is that not my home? This quickly becomes an argument of definition. What is a home? What characteristics of one’s living situation are necessary to call a dwelling a home? A telephone? An address the mail carrier will be able to locate? Indoor plumbing? A landlord or mortgagee? Bricks and mortar? A deed of some sort? A contract? Neighbors?

And having been somewhat preoccupied with and still thinking about the latest NASA enterprise, I thought it might be possible to consider the rover Perseverance homeless. And it also appears likely that NASA’s plans include stealing a few rocks from the red planet and bringing them back to Earth. Whose rocks are they?

In any case, my research into the idea of a homeless space, a homeless universe, where all housing is ultimately temporary, brought forth two interesting finds: “The Orphan Ship,” a trilogy about homeless children living in poverty in a Mars space station (Sterling R. Walker, 2013), and “The Ethics of Space: Homelessness and Squatting in Urban England” (Steph Grohmann, HAU, 2020). From the preface to Grohmann’s book, the predicament is clearly laid out:

“Through their struggles for housing, squatters initiate a more fundamental struggle to inhabit and take hold of social space, and thus to make modest but no less daring efforts to remake the world through very localized but determined measures to change their immediate, everyday lived realities. In doing so, they challenge the larger social and political order of neoliberal capitalism, and in working to transform life, they also transform themselves and their relations with the wider society, and engage in new and creative experiments with how we might begin to reorganize all of our collective social life” (Nicholas De Genova, xii).

It’s probable that former local vagrancy laws kept homeless populations from growing in the US (to the extent they exist today), or at least confined to “skid rows.” Most of those laws have been struck down as unconstitutional, often replaced by loitering laws, also mostly struck down. But today’s lack of affordable housing, endemic unemployment and job losses, generational poverty, education detrimental reliance traps, and a growing acceptance of inequality and change – all contribute to our current imbroglio.

Absurdly, as both Buckminster Fuller and Marshall Mcluhan showed, typewriters (or their replacements) asleep under cover for the night in high rise office buildings still fair better than their daytime users commuting home, wherever that might be.

Perseverance

“Houston, we have a problem.” The now cliche hyperbolic understatement comes from the Apollo 13 mission to land on Earth’s moon in 1970. Part of the flight journal, dialog between astronauts Jack Swigert and Jim Lovell and Mission Control Houston can be read on Wiki:

055:55:19 Swigert: Okay, Houston…
055:55:19 Lovell: …Houston…
055:55:20 Swigert: …we’ve had a problem here.
055:55:28 Lousma: This is Houston. Say again, please.
055:55:35 Lovell: Ah, Houston, we’ve had a problem. We’ve had a Main B Bus Undervolt.

But they persevered, came up with a plan, called an audible, held on tight, and made it home to a grateful country. Last week, a seemingly ungrateful US senator from Texas, unaware, apparently, of other cliches of crisis, such as, “The Captain goes down with the ship,” and “Women and children first,” lit out for a Cancun resort hotel while his constituents back home faced freezing weather, loss of heat for their homes from frozen gas lines, and loss of electrical power for their homes from damaged equipment left exposed to extreme weather conditions, all while remaining lined up according to protocols made necessary by a limited supply of pandemic vaccine. The New York Times editorial board provided the lessons, though we might doubt if any lessons learned will be put to the test. What seems to persevere the most is political rhetoric aimed at scuttling the facts, the issues, what actually broke and why, in short, the truth. But while Texas was suffering from a statewide major “undervolt,” the third Mars rover, “Perseverance,” landed safely on Mars, close to 300 million miles away.

The irony of another space exploration achievement while the country’s infrastructure, education, medical, work, and political systems continue to spiral out of control, reminds us of the response from the classic news journalist Eric Sevareid, who, for one, was unimpressed with the promise of the first photographs promised of the dark side of the moon, many moons ago. From his short article, “The Dark Side of the Moon”:

“There is, after all, another side — a dark side — to the human spirit, too. Men have hardly begun to explore these regions; and it is going to be a very great pity if we advance upon the bright side of the moon with the dark side of ourselves, if the cargo in the first rockets to reach there consists of fear and chauvinism and suspicion. Surely we ought to have our credentials in order, our hands very clean and perhaps a prayer for forgiveness on our lips as we prepare to open the ancient vault of the shining moon.”

And we continue to advance, to persevere, to and fro, back and forth, a few steps forward, another few backward.

Immigrants from Earth

The astrophysicists are in the ascendancy again. That’s our takeaway from a 03.2019 National Geographic article. The key is light. The scientific industry is working to build something that will travel close to the speed of light. Laser beams, solar winds, and microscopic kites. Another key is funding. They’re working on a go fund me tsunami. Government dough is drying up, but there appears to be enough interest in the private sector to fuel ever more comic book fantasy.

Surprisingly, for all our technological advancements and discoveries, not much is known about the universe. Part of what’s driving the current science buzz is a new generation of telescopes that will provide pics of the light reflecting directly off of exoplanets. That light will contain information about what’s happening on the planet. Information like who lives there, their address, what they do for a living, and other census like questions.

Meantime, back on earth, in that same 03.2019 National Geographic issue, an article on El Salvador violence, titled “No Way Out,” helps explain the immigration crisis on the US southwest border. A map of El Salvador, titled “State of Fear,” using dots to show “Homicides by municipality, 2017,” could from a distance be confused with the Milky Way pic used on the cover of the issue.

One wonders what makes scientists think there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe when evidence of intelligent life here on Earth seems close to non-existent. And why would other life forms, presumably far more technologically advanced or in other ways superior to ours, be interested in us? One scientist interviewed remarks the question is similar to asking why would humans be interested in reaching out to a colony of ants.

Ah, but there’s the rub. Maybe the ants are the aliens.

Back to School: An Interruption to Learning?

Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth is available on-line at the Buckminster Fuller Institute. I think of it as Fall nears and students return to school, though they’ve no doubt been learning all summer, and school may be an interruption to that learning. Fuller explains, “Of course, we are beginning to learn a little in the behavioral sciences regarding how little we know about children and the educational processes. We had assumed the child to be an empty brain receptacle into which we could inject our methodically-gained wisdom until that child, too, became educated. In the light of modern behavioral science experiments that was not a good working assumption” (Chap. 1, para. 9).

The Operating Manual was first published in 1969, and I first read it at Cal State Dominguez Hills in the early 1970s as part of the 20th Century Thought and Expression Minor, an interdisciplinary, non-specialist course of studies: “Inasmuch as the new life always manifests comprehensive propensities I would like to know why it is that we have disregarded all children’s significantly spontaneous and comprehensive curiosity and in our formal education have deliberately instituted processes leading only to narrow specialization” (Chap. 1, para. 10).

Fuller was an inventor and an architect, and a philosopher and a teacher whose work touched regularly on the forms and reforms of education: “In our schools today we still start off the education of our children by giving them planes and lines that go on, incomprehensibly ‘forever’ toward a meaningless infinity” (Chap. 2, para. 1).

Throughout Spaceship, Fuller illustrates the debilitating effects of specialization and reflects on the success of generalized thinking, the ability to look at one thing and see something else, to invent. The specialist is unable to invent because his learning narrows to a dead-end point in an institutionalized tunnel: “Once man comprehended that any tree would serve as a lever his intellectual advantages accelerated. Man freed of special-case superstition by intellect has had his survival potentials multiplied millions fold. By virtue of the leverage principles in gears, pulleys, transistors, and so forth, it is literally possible to do more with less in a multitude of physio-chemical ways. Possibly it was this intellectual augmentation of humanity’s survival and success through the metaphysical perception of generalized principles which may be objectively employed that Christ was trying to teach in the obscurely told story of the loaves and the fishes” (Chap. 4, last para.).

Around the same time as Spaceship, pictures of Whole Earth began to emerge. These pictures lacked boundaries: “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?’” (Chap. 5, para 4).

Operating Manual begins in metaphor. The title itself is a metaphorical argument. “I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuities. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting yesterday’s fortuitous contrivings as constituting the only means for solving a given problem. Our brains deal exclusively with special-case experiences. Only our minds are able to discover the generalized principles operating without exception in each and every special-experience case which if detected and mastered will give knowledgeable advantage in all instances. Because our spontaneous initiative has been frustrated, too often inadvertently, in earliest childhood we do not tend, customarily, to dare to think competently regarding our potentials. We find it socially easier to go on with our narrow, shortsighted specializations and leave it to others—primarily to the politicians—to find some way of resolving our common dilemmas. Countering that spontaneous grownup trend to narrowness I will do my, hopefully ‘childish,’ best to confront as many of our problems as possible by employing the longest-distance thinking of which I am capable—though that may not take us very far into the future” (Chap. 1, para. 1).

Related Post: Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller? Reposted at Berfrois as Planet Earth as Spaceship.

Problems, Inventions, and Implications

Inventions are usually a response to a problem. A problem is something that limits or impairs access to needs, wants, or values. An invention solves the problem, granting or improving access. An invention might be a machine, an idea, or a new value. Inventions alter our environment and often present side effects, good or bad, that may or may not have anything to do with the original problem, and may or may not have been anticipated. Inventions can create new problems, and changes in our environment can change us, often in unexpected ways, change our response to our environment, change us externally or internally, physically, mentally, or emotionally, change our behavior and the way we think of ourselves. Inventions can change culture and change the direction of societal development. Sometimes, as in the case of synthetic biology, an invention takes on “A Life of Its Own” (Michael Specter, New Yorker, 28 September 2009). This “life of its own” we might call implications. Invention shares with experiment, discovery, and creation what it means to be human.

As machines, inventions have a shelf life, for they are subject to entropy, wear and tear, as well as obsolescence created by changes in the environment or by other inventions. It was Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, talking about the creation of the State (which begins as an idea), who said, “…the true creator is necessity, who is the mother of our invention” (Jowett, V-128, Book II, p. 60). What happens to the old machines when we no longer perceive the necessity? And if inventions are a response to a problem, what problem did the automobile solve?

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented.

According to Google Patents, the oldest patent using the word Automobile was filed in 1809, but not issued until 1902. The patent, by J. Ledwinka, “subject of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary,” but, “residing in Chicago,” was a design allowing for the independent functioning of the four wheels of the carriage. The patent improves the efficiency of the automobile, making it easier to operate. The terms Motor-car and Auto-car will fetch other, equally old patents from Google Patents.

The word “automobile” suggests a self-moving vehicle. A US patent for L. Bollee, of France, providing improvements for a “self-propelling vehicle,” was filed in 1896 and issued in 1898. This patent involves improvements to “…five principal parts: first, the motor; second, the frame; third, the transmission gear; fourth, the brake; and, fifth, the mechanism for engaging and disengaging the motor, for changing the speed of the vehicle, and for actuating the brake.” There’s no mention of a radio or radar detector.

Many of the patents surrounding automobiles suggest that most patents are inventions of improvement. The automobile itself, as an invention, isn’t a new machine as much as an improvement on older machines. The idea of a wheeled vehicle is very old, and may be said to leverage the underlying general principle of the circle, its latent energy (as Fuller’s piano top life preserver illustrates the underlying general principle of flotation, and his magic log illustrates the underlying general principle of the fulcrum, or leverage). Humanity’s first observations of round things rolling, seemingly of their own volition, perhaps needing a kick to get things going, seems to have set off a chain of inventions in what we now call a “snowball effect.” Society seems to be a tower of inventions, not all necessarily designed to improve our humanity.

Imagine life today without the automobile – not that you simply give up your car, but that the automobile was never invented. This is increasingly difficult to do because we may have lost sight of the original problem the automobile was designed to solve, and the automobile has itself created new problems for which it is the invention that appears to be the solution. This is why Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Related:

All Stung Over By Links of Googled Grace

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

Progress Report: Our Disappearing World

Earth-Glass Half Empty or Fuller?: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth

“Now there is one outstandingly important fact regarding Spaceship Earth, and that is that no instruction book came with it,” says Buckminster Fuller, explaining the title of his 1969 book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, in the chapter titled “Spaceship Earth.”

The whole idea is a metaphor, comparing the planet to a machine. Is Earth a machine? What are the implications of our thinking of the planet as a machine? If it’s a spaceship, who’s in control? Who’s the captain? Where is the crew, and what are their jobs, or roles? Where are we going?

We may think of an operating manual as not quite the same thing as an instruction manual, yet Fuller continues, “I think it’s very significant that there is no instruction book for successfully operating our ship.” So the manual, whatever we call it, should provide both physical and mental information for the user to successfully work the machine. In Fuller’s terms, this includes physical and metaphysical work, for “In view of the infinite attention to all other details displayed by our ship, it must be taken as deliberate and purposeful that an instruction book was omitted.” Omitted by whom?

“We are forced,” Fuller says, “because of a lack of an instruction book, to use our intellect, which is our supreme faculty, to devise scientific experimental procedures and to interpret effectively the significance of the experimental findings. Thus, because the instruction manual was missing we are learning how we safely can anticipate the consequences of an increasing number of alternative ways of extending our satisfactory survival and growth – both physical and metaphysical.”

Seeing Earth as a machine provides metaphorical instruction (seeing Fuller’s title as a metaphor provides rhetorical instruction). If we think of Earth as a machine, we justify certain uses of it, and these justifications explain our behavior. Our current thinking of machines includes the idea that they break down, or wear down (entropy). Property insurance contracts include the terms “depreciation” and “actual cash value.” The actual cash value of an old machine is its value new minus its depreciated value from wear and tear, damage, and obsolescence. Using this formula of valuation, what’s the current value of Earth? What would it cost to replace it (replacement cost)?

Thinking of Earth as a spaceship reorients our position. We need not think of going into space, outer space; we are already in outer space. We are already out in space. Are we lost in space? And are we running out of fuel? Are we beginning to feel entropic effects? Should we start shopping around for a new planet? A new spaceship?

But Fuller argues that “the physical constituent of wealth-energy cannot decrease and that the metaphysical constituent-know-how can only increase. This is to say that every time we use our wealth it increases. This is to say that, countering entropy, wealth can only increase. Whereas entropy is increasing disorder evoked by dispersion of energy, wealth locally is increased order – that is to say, the increasingly orderly concentration of physical power in our ever-expanding locally explored and comprehended universe by the metaphysical capability of man, as informed by repeated experiences from which he happens in an unscheduled manner to progressively distill the ever-increasing inventory of omniinterrelated and omni-interaccommodative generalized principles found to be operative in all the special-case experiences. Irreversible wealth is the so far attained effective magnitude of our physically organized ordering of the use of those generalized principles.”

Fuller is the eternal optimist, literally. His glass is more than half full; it’s continually running over. “Wealth is anti-entropy at a most exquisite degree of concentration,” Fuller says, but one must get his brain/mind dichotomy to be persuaded by the argument: “Brain deals exclusively with the physical, and mind exclusively with the metaphysical. Wealth is the product of the progressive mastery of matter by mind, and is specifically accountable in forward man-days of established metabolic regeneration advantages spelt out in hours of life for specific numbers of individuals released from formerly prescribed entropy preoccupying tasks for their respectively individual yet inherently co-operative elective investment in further anti-entropic effectiveness.”

Systems check: Mind? Functioning near full capacity. Brain? Showing some signs of wear and tear. Coffee? Need a refill.

Update: This post selected at Berfrois for Earth Day!

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