by Flemming Funch, 11 Mar 95
Buckminster Fuller was very fond of the word "ephemeralization",
which he used roughly in the sense of "progressively
accomplishing more with less". A gradually smaller
and smaller amount of materials and effort will
accomplish more and more useful functions. We
get better and better at using materials in more
sophisticated ways, so we need less and less quantity
Bucky gives many examples. It took Magellan two
years to sail around the planet in a wooden sailing
ship in 1520. 350 years later it took a steel
steamship two months to do the same. 75 years
later a plane, made of metal alloys, took 2 weeks
to fly around the planet. 35 years later a space
capsule, made of exotic metals, takes 1 hour to
circle the planet. Continuously the materials
used get lighter and stronger and more versatile.
Not only can we do more with less, the rate of
doing-more-with-less-ness is increasing. There
is an acceleration taking place.
We can also very well project out that the eventual
result of increasingly doing more with less is
doing everything with nothing. Bucky gives examples
of how war shifted to being fought more effectively
with PR and economics (i.e. with no equipment)
rather than with lots of heavy equipment.
Now, the example of the Internet readily comes
to mind. The Internet represents a degree of ephemeralization
that allows one individual to influence or interact
with hundreds, thousands, or even millions of
people, with a use of resources that is negligible.
For example, my Internet account costs $17.50
per month. I get on the average 150 messages per
day and I send 15. I have two mailing lists where
400 people are having an ongoing discussion. I
participate in about 10 other mailing lists and
several newsgroups, together with thousands of
members. I have a Web area where more than a 100
people visit every day and look at about 800 different
documents with a total of 10 million bytes of
information. About one person per day picks up
one of the training manuals I've written from
my ftp site.
If I were in the business of information (which
I pretty much am) then that is a heck of a lot
of action to get for $17.50. If somebody sends
me a check for one of my training manuals, which
happens about once per month, it would cost me
in the neighborhood of the same $17.50 plus an
hour of my time to go to the local copy shop and
produce one paper copy, which I then need to package
and send. And then maybe one person will be happy.
Somebody is bound to say: "Sure, but are you making
any money off of that Internet stuff?" No, I am
not, but that is not the point, unless my purpose
in life is "making money" which it isn't. I accomplish
a lot more of what I want with a lot less than
what would previously have been required.
But now, this is the all fine in the area of information,
that is ephemeralized now. Next would be other
areas of life.
I would hardly have to work for money to pay for
my Internet account. I could mow somebody's lawn
once per month and that would take care of that.
But unfortunately I still seem to need money for
housing, transportation, food, energy, insurance,
taxes and stuff like that. That is where we need
I have the suspicion that somebody is deliberately
and artificially keeping these basics of life
ineffective and expensive. Despite phenomenally
accelerating technological changes, these necessities
appear to take about the same trouble to acquire
as they did 50 years ago. They offer more comfort
and more features and they are somewhat more evenly
distributed, but they still work roughly the same
way. That doesn't quite add up when compared with
the actual rate of technological change. Looks
like somebody's trying to make us keep running
around for money, rather than accomplishing the
most with what we can and know.
So, I am very interested in anything that will
ephemeralize other areas of our lives than information.
I think it is inevitable that the means for doing
so will appear, despite forces that might want
to work the other way. I agree with Fuller that
it is an inherent element in evolution.
It makes no sense to me that one would have to
work half one's life to be able to pay for a box
to come home to and sleep in. It makes even less
sense to me that most of the western world has
laws (building codes) decreeing that you can only
build stuff in roughly the same ways.
I can't believe that a car is still this heavy
4 wheel metal thing with a fossil fuel engine.
It is nicer to drive in than 50 years ago, but
also somebody's trying to push the idea on us
that it has to be much more complicated and take
specialized technicians with specialized tools
and computers to repair.
I would like the tools so I can build my car and
my house by myself, just like I can set up my
Web area by myself. And I'd like good enough tools
so I can build some that others can use too, without
wearing out my resources.
Energy is probably the most important area to
get ephemeralized and put into people's hands.
I don't want to buy energy, I'd like to buy some
tools for making or acquiring energy that allow
me to produce it for nothing from that point on.
There should be no incremental cost for each unit
of energy produced, just as a good Internet account
shouldn't charge you anything per byte or per