Synergetic Earth Language

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Every day, under our noses, obsolete scientific ideas run rampant. I’m not talking about the maddening sabotage of science constantly perpetuated by ideological conservatives — that, although a daily frustration, is not unnoticed. This is a transgression that we all unknowingly commit.

Although everyone with a first-grade education knows that the Earth is a sphere — the general belief in a flat Earth died out, of course, in the Middle Ages — we still use the term “worldwide” to describe things on a global scale. The Earth’s dimensions can be measured in volume, for one, and area; the word “wide,” however, describes a proportion — width — that we have known for centuries that our planet doesn’t have. Moreover, our use of the words “sunrise” and “sunset” stems from a long-outdated pre-Copernican model of the cosmos, one which places the Earth at the center of the sun’s revolutions. Of course, the sun doesn’t rise or set: rather, it is our position relative to it which defines how it appears to move on the horizon. We’ve known this since fancy horse-war times, and yet we continue to reiterate an archaic version of the human world-view in our anachronistic everyday language. Since most modern words are intuitive (automobile, for example, is pretty self-evident), lending the English language a false appearance of clarity, deeply-engrained use of obsolete terms can only result in a misunderstanding of the world.

The visionary American architect Buckminster Fuller (who, among other utopian achievements, invented the geodesic dome) argued that the unthinking use of these kinds of terms detracts from and misleads intuition — if the words we use to describe concepts are counterintuitive, then our understanding of the reality of these concepts is weakened. Hell-bent on the debunking of phrases like “wordwide,” “sunset,” and “sunrise,” Fuller proposed more truthful, albeit strange, analogues: “worldaround,” “sunsight,” and “sunclipse,” respectively. Sure, it sounds silly, but language is a porous and ever-changing thing that can easily adapt to a culture’s changing needs; “blog” wasn’t even a word, let alone a concept, until a few years ago.

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Fuller’s involvement in shattering long-held conceptions didn’t stop with “sunclipse,” however. Frustrated with the inaccuracy of world maps — how they sacrifice the relative size of countries in the process of representing a sphere (as we established earlier, the Earth is not flat) on a two-dimensional plane — he set out to create a world map which wouldn’t prolong cultural bias. Traditional maps, still in use, attempt to fit the world’s curved surface onto a flat sheet, thus distorting its true layout. Areas far from the equator, for example, are generally distorted or exaggerated in size; on many maps, Greenland is presented as being roughly as large as Africa, when in fact Africa’s area is approximately 13 times that of Greenland. That doesn’t do much for Africa’s status in our cultural consciousness.

Further, almost all maps place North at the top and South at the bottom, implicitly privileging the Northern countries as being somehow superior. These psychological implications are subtle, of course, but we must remember that the division between North and South is pretty arbitrary on a sphere floating through space. There’s no up, no down, in the long haul.

I know that I’m always harping on this. However, we have the misfortune of living in the most severely polarized era of planet Earth. Fuller, in his essential text, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, wrote that “despite our recently developed communications intimacy and popular awareness of total Earth we…are as yet politically organized entirely in the terms of exclusive and utterly obsolete sovereign separateness.” He wrote that in 1969; our country has only become more an more of an ideological island in the years since.

Incidentally, that first Appollo 8 image of the Earth from space was titled “Earthrise,” which goes to show that scientific neologisms can be beautiful and worthy of adoption.

Bucky Fuller called us residents of “Spaceship Earth,” fervently espoused this planet’s synergetics, and designed his world map accordingly. The Dymaxion map (short for Dynamic Maximum Tension, a hybridized word applied to many Fuller structures) projects the global sphere onto the surface of a polyhedron, which is then unfolded in many different permutations and flattened to form a two-dimensional map. Sounds counterintuitive, but the Dymaxion map retains more of the planet’s relative proportional integrity than any other global map. There is no right way to look at one of these maps, and no North or South to speak of. If you peel the triangular faces of the shape apart in one way, it reveals a view of an almost contiguous giant land mass including all of Earth’s continents, as opposed to the groups of continents divided by oceans that we are accustomed to. If you configure the map differently, however, you can come to a view of the world dominated by connected oceans.

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There is no correct way to view a Dymaxion map simply because there is no correct way to view our planet. All of the rules we impose on our world-view — those barriers of incorrect language, the geometric divisions of border whose relevance we so often ignore — are as arbitrary as a flat-Earth map. The first step towards rectifying these gross global fallacies is to recognize the effect that they have on our understanding. With that kind of lucidity in tow, human beings are pretty much unstoppable; we made up the rules, and we are perfectly capable of changing them. Why not change the way we speak, or the way we represent our planet to ourselves?

Comments

  1. #1 flint
    July 21, 2006

    this entry is filled with linguistic awesomness. Everything from the double entendre of world views and world-views to posting about the wideness of the world on nothing other than this web. www. claire, you rule.

  2. #2 Starr
    July 24, 2006

    Hi there. Do you know where one could get a copy of a Dymaxion map? I just looked online and on amazon but all they seemed to have were exerpts from books referencing it or descriptions of what it is. I would really like to have one and start seeing the world in that manner.

  3. #3 Claire
    July 24, 2006

    Great! The Buckminster Fuller Institute has a good selection of fancy Dymaxion maps and globes.

  4. #4 Rich Jensen
    August 1, 2006

    This essay lingers lovingly among some of my favorite Fullerisms. The meme of an infinite, planar earth must be one of history’s most toxic gifts. Bucky’s call to stoke a new, spherical imagination with fresh and spatially accurate language ought to give important, steady work to a hundred million contemporary poets to let the air out of beguiling old terms like ‘edge’ and ‘center’.

    I drove to Portland from Seattle yesterday. (Yes, and back. What is that, 80 pounds of Carbon? Yes, part of the Problem; not all Solution. That’s me.) I started to dream in neologisms. It happens, especially on a three-hour drive. Words were spinning through my mind like cogs, or the wheels of a slot machine. Chunk-chunk-chunk. Then fitting together in unexpected combinations, sometimes mapping just-so to the nervous motions of active but emptily un-named thought-space. I’m male and therefore hostage hormonally to an erotic tendency toward mechanistic jargon. This is all apology for this phrase that fell out of my head: contemporary contours of geographical determinism. Let’s call it ‘CC.Geo-D’ism’, for short. (. . . and, sexy!).

    Geo-D’ism, seems to describe that quality of discourse that reveals itself in phrases like: “Portland is so cool.” and “That could never happen in Seattle.” It’s about mapping social attributes to large-scale spaces. Or, maybe it’s about the ripples and social consequences that follow from the encoding and decoding required of map production. Northwest of what? Mid-East? Says who?

    Rewrite, recompile, for the now feelings. People feel the small sphere in their bones now, like a homing instinct, even as all those men offer obsolete rhetoric from institutions founded on obsolete rhetoric.

  5. #5 Jae Vrai
    October 5, 2010

    Bucky is by no means the only person who has deselected misleading terms for our benefit. He wasn’t “hellbent” on it, he just knew that our words and concepts limit and control our thinking – as have so many other great teachers and so on.
    (I don’t mean to quibble and I’m on your side, so to speak.)
    The problem is, that people in general just won’t do it – change the words that they use, or correct their bad grammar – until someone on TV does is first. That makes it popular and acceptable and it then becomes imitated. Example: there is one object; there are two objects; contractions: there’s one object; ther’re two objects. But Americans will not (italics boldface) do this!! They refuse (boldface) to make the verb agree with the number of objects. I’ve corrected people for 20 years on that and it just doesn’t stick! BUT, if I were Charlie Sheen and corrected them on TV, voila’, everyone would say “there’s” for singular and “ther’re” for plural, as they ought to. Same with sunclipse, worldaround, and all the rest. Keyword:sleep. Synonym: hypnotism.
    BTW, thanks for your site. I’m a polymath and performer, and could help you decide what to call, what you’re writing;
    but of course, you’ll probably prefer your own choices over mine: that’s normal. But the help is offered.

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