A Fun Crypto Origin Story That Happens To Be Totally Wrong

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Earlier this year, I searched for “Buckminster Fuller” on Twitter. During his lifetime, Fuller—the architectural designer, futurist, and inventor best known for the geodesic dome—was one of the most famous men in the world, but he isn’t exactly a household name today, and when I searched for tweets about Fuller with 1,000 or more likes, I found only six. The most popular was an image of Fuller’s Dymaxion Map, which depicts the surface of the earth as an unfolded polyhedron. Two more were inspirational quotes, including a catchy but probably apocryphal line shared by Andrew Yang: “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

Jasien, Poland, 18 February 2021: Golden bitcoin replica on computer circuit board. This file is cleaned and retouched.

The last three tweets had a surprising element in common. One was by Michael Saylor, the co-founder of a business intelligence company called MicroStrategy, who wrote, “In 1981, Buckminster Fuller predicted a global monetary system based upon uniform energy valuations to solve the problems of economic empowerment we faced then & now from fiat currency. #Bitcoin is the first true monetary network, based on encrypted energy.” The two remaining tweets also implied that Fuller had somehow anticipated Bitcoin, and similar statements can be found elsewhere online.

These claims usually point to one of two sources. One is an interview that Fuller conducted with Walter Cronkite on Oct. 18, 1966, in which he spoke enthusiastically of “a realistic, scientific accounting system of what is wealth.” The other is a passage from Fuller’s 1981 book Critical Path that described a “time-energy world accounting system” as part of his proposal for a global energy network: “These uniform energy valuations will replace all the world’s wildly intervarying, opinion-gambled-upon, top-power-system-manipulatable monetary systems.”

As it happens, I recently published Inventor of the Future, the first comprehensive biography of Fuller, the writing of which required that I read all his books and thousands of pages of his lectures, interviews, and articles. (And yes, the sentence that I quote above is typical of Fuller, whose prose tends to strike readers as either provocative or totally impenetrable.) In my book, which came out in August, I don’t mention Bitcoin at all, and I began to wonder if I had missed something important. Before long, though, I concluded that what Fuller was describing here had nothing to do with Bitcoin and very little to do with crypto in general. Yet the effort to link him to these concepts is revealing in itself, especially for what it tells us about what Fuller still means to a certain kind of technophile.

The virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier once told me that Fuller had been famous at his peak “maybe in the way of a figure like Elon Musk.” When Fuller died in his 80s in 1983, he was an icon in Silicon Valley, where he influenced major players like Lanier, Alan Kay, and even Steve Jobs, who met with him one day at the Apple offices in Cupertino. Fuller was convinced that social problems could be solved by technology, not politics, and he spoke glowingly of the ideal of the comprehensive designer, a visionary generalist that Fuller himself—who singlehandedly popularized the term “synergy”—appeared to embody.

The ideas in Fuller’s work that seem to evoke crypto date back even farther than most of his admirers realize. As early as the 1920s, Fuller called for a new “time standard” of wealth, which he defined in his 1938 book Nine Chains to the Moon as “a time-captured and saved unit of energy.” When we look at his arguments more closely, however, the parallels to crypto fall apart. In his proposed system, the prices of goods and services would be explicitly tied to the resources required for their production, and everyone in the world would be automatically compensated for both their labor and their share of renewable sources of power.

In other words, Fuller wasn’t describing Bitcoin, but a universal basic income, which was part of his larger goal of ending economic inequality. Although individuals were free to earn as much as they could, he expected that most people could meet their needs by working just one month every year. The value of his “true dollar” was tied to how much energy was available worldwide, and it rose as technology became more efficient. This couldn’t be further from Bitcoin mining, which consumes resources on a gigantic scale—and deliberately becomes more difficult over time—to produce a currency supported by nothing but scarcity and demand.

The closer we look at Fuller, in fact, the more opposed he seems to be to everything that crypto has come to represent. To discourage the speculative booms and busts that accompany new financial instruments, he wanted every household to receive a fixed number of credits each year. He hated the notion of fortunes made by trading assets on paper, as well as the concentration of wealth exemplified by the rise of today’s class of billionaires. In theory, he might have loved the idea of the blockchain, and perhaps specific applications like a “carbon coin” to mitigate climate change, but I suspect that he would be deeply critical of what cryptocurrency has become.

Fuller’s prestige in crypto circles is less about his actual ideas than it is a reflection of his lingering mystique, which set the standard for the technological prophets who followed. He was the prototype of the modern startup founder, whose persona is as important as the product itself. Sam Bankman-Fried, who founded the beleaguered crypto exchange FTX, was once described by Gideon Lewis-Kraus of the New Yorker as a “savantlike techno-fakir,” which could double as a description of Fuller in his prime. If crypto enthusiasts are eager to claim Fuller as a predecessor, it’s because he was better at this sort of branding than anyone else.

Instead of misrepresenting what he actually believed, it would be much more productive for the crypto community to treat Fuller as a source of powerful metaphors, especially the concept of ephemeralization. Originally, this idea simply referred to doing more with less, but Fuller ultimately saw it as a process that culminated in total abstraction: “Ephemeralization trends toward an ultimate doing of everything with nothing at all.” The venture capitalist Paul Graham explained it more recently as “the increasing tendency of physical machinery to be replaced by what we would now call software.” This sounds a lot like the transformative changes promised by crypto, which aims to supplant outdated financial systems with transactions based on the blockchain.

Fuller’s favorite example of ephemeralization was the geodesic dome. Since it was a hemisphere, it enclosed the largest possible space using the least surface area, so it could be lighter and more portable than a conventional shelter. (Musk, a noted crypto fan, has spoken of using domes to house the first wave of Martian colonists.) In practice, however, the dome had severe limitations. It often leaked; it was hard to modify or expand; and its supposed efficiency failed to account for the environmental cost of materials like plastic. In short, it was something like cryptocurrency, which has yet to succeed in its most basic function—providing a secure and stable medium of exchange—and has caused grievous ecological damage in the real world.

If neither Bitcoin nor the dome has fulfilled its early promise, both can inspire devotion for other reasons. As the cultural precursor to the personal computer, the dome was a futuristic structure that could be assembled in a garage using some basic geometry, allowing hobbyists to engage in a kind of physical coding. The dome’s early adopters tended to be young, white, and privileged, but it eventually formed the basis of a wider movement that presented classes in geodesic math—like a coding boot camp—as a gateway to a better life.’Tis the Season to Debunk Your Family’s Hunter Biden Conspiracy TheoriesThink You’re Pretty Smart? Prove It With This Week’s Quiz.A List of All the Things George Santos, the Scamming Congressman-Elect, Has Lied AboutWhy the Jan. 6 Committee Let Ginni and Clarence Thomas Off the Hook

Cryptocurrency offers similar psychological benefits. For its converts—who are increasingly likely to come from historically marginalized backgrounds—it seems to open up a world of new ideas, along with a chance to connect with like-minded believers. It also holds out the promise of riches, which was never part of the sales pitch for the dome, but is central to the myth of Silicon Valley. What all these crusades have in common are the huge claims that they make for themselves, along with the messianic figures who inevitably emerge to sell these ideas to the public.

The conviction that a new technology can change the world may be necessary for it to gain traction, and for the personal computer, it happened to be true. At the moment, the real question is whether cryptocurrency will turn out to be more like the computer or the dome. In the meantime, instead of quoting him out of context, crypto evangelists should pay closer attention to the Fuller who believed that wealth was only meaningful in terms of the number of human beings that society could support. And in Nine Chains, he even argued that innovators who genuinely improved the lives of others had the right to use their riches “in the acquisition of the most able boat to sail the seven seas, or of an aeroplane to fly to Mars.”