“For the first time in all human history humanity’s function as local Universe information- gatherer and local Universe problem-solver will be a practical reality, using the whole of Earth’s comprehensive resources and data, and incisive, computer-augmented problem- solving capabilities with all humanity’s spontaneous democratic participation, allowing humankind to use its intellect to the fullest in attempting to make our existence successful.”

Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path p.183

By Bonnie DeVarco

For more information, visit Studio DeVarco

The Geoscope was one of Fuller’s most profound ideas, a powerful tool for synoptic visualization and planetary stewardship. It was actually one of his very first visions as a futurist. His first “Miniature Earth” was idealized in his “One Town World” sketch from 1928. Through the decades that followed, the geoscope idea developed and grew as he built prototypes of many sizes.

The geoscope was proposed as an educational device like a planetarium, but also as a predictive tool: an immersive, interactive earth that would enable its users to run scenarios, see long-term change and project future trends through simulation, strategy and story. Linked to an inventory of all the world’s data, the geoscope would become a dramatic environment to increase individual agency and global literacy, where any person anywhere could work with others to test out solutions to global challenges and explore strategies to address the world’s most intractable problems.

Fuller used many words to describe his vision for an immersive Earth before he used the term, “geoscope.” He called it a “great glass globe of earth” and visualized it as a “celestial theatre.” Fuller imagined design “from the inside out” — essentially from the center of the sphere. Although this design sensibility led to his spherical geodesic domes, he also started to design a representation of Earth with that idea in mind. He found that the best way to show statistics tied to geography while viewing most of the Earth’s surface at the same time would be to visualize from the center rather than from the outside. A huge, immersive globe could allow an individual or a group of people to view Earth from the inside where they could experience the motion of our planet by looking at the movement of the celestial hemisphere through its translucent surface.

In the late 1950s, Fuller proposed that a computerized version of a dynamic Earth and its processes would have two main properties: First, it would engender a different perception of our spherical Earth. When viewed from the outside, one can see only one third of Earth’s surface at any one time. Viewed from the inside, however, one could visualize as much as 5/8ths of the sphere at once. Secondly, a globe with computerized data, visualized in layers on top of the geography, would heighten a user’s visceral understanding of long-term trends such as population growth and the dynamics of global climate, or short-term trends such as changing weather patterns.

A decade before the advent of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) using quantitative and computational geography was possible, Fuller began to view natural resource data, as well as production and distribution data, on a macroscale. When the nascent radionavigation satellite system was only used by the military, he utilized his own experience in the Navy to imagine its importance as part of a daily navigation tool that could be used by everyone on earth. When NAVSTAR, the 24-satellite system of the United States was released to the general public in 1983, it became known as the Global Positioning System (GPS). By 1989 it was available on handheld devices. In the year 2000 a more accurate GPS was released and eventually became integrated with anyone’s cell phone or computer. Other countries launched their own satellite systems as well. Geographers might say that an immersive experience made possible in a geoscope could encourage “location awareness” and increase “spatial intelligence,” both essential objectives of education today.

Evolution of the Geoscope

How did Fuller’s geoscope concept evolve? His Conning Tower, described in Shelter Magazine in 1932, was a multimedia environment that would facilitate equitable access to the world’s information. Before the first television made its debut to the general public at the 1939 World’s Fair, Fuller envisioned a network of “Conning Towers” that would combine film, visuals and sound to broadcast up-to-the-minute information to everyone on the planet. The geoscope concept was a logical extension of that. He returned to the idea in 1960 with his proposal for a “Conning Tower Program” – a spherical television with “10 million points on the surface of the sphere in response to signals from a computer.”

Looking at the development of physical prototypes, it is important to understand that the first geodesics built actually were geoscopes. Between 1948 and 1954 Fuller, his students and colleagues (Duncan Stuart, Don Richter, Jeffrey Lindsay, Shoji Sadao and others) perfected the geometry that allowed them to build geodesic domes and spheres as well as to develop Fuller’s icosahedral Dymaxion map that showed the whole earth as a “one-world island in a one-ocean world” with no distortion of the relative shapes and sizes of the land masses.

As a student, Fuller’s future architectural partner, Shoji Sadao, was able to translate cartographic details onto a high frequency geodesic sphere, enabling the first accurate geoscope prototypes to be built. These included a 20-foot diameter “Miniature Earth” built by students at Cornell University in 1952, and student-built scale models of a “Minni Earth” from 1954 to 1956 at the University of Minnesota and Princeton University. By the year 1959, Fuller began to use the term “geoscope.” In 1960 he proposed a 200-foot diameter geoscope that would be suspended above the Hudson River by a tetrahedral mast. Although it was never built, at this location the geoscope would be viewable from the United Nations Building in New York City.

In 1962, Fuller and John McHale’s students from a cluster of universities designed geoscope prototypes of varying sizes, ranging from 5-foot diameter one-person geoscopes with detachable mylar data panels to 20-foot diameter lightweight spheres for collaborative experiences. These smaller immersive globes embodied Fuller’s concept of a series of networked geoscopes that could be distributed around the world. As part of the launch of the World Design Science Decade (W.D.S.D.) 1965-1975, for the Union of International Architects (U.I.A.), these small prototypes were exhibited in the Tuileries Garden in Paris in 1965. These prototypes were later described as distributed environments in which to play Fuller’s “World Game: Integrative Resource Utilization Planning Tool.”

The largest and most complete version of the geoscope Fuller contemplated was a 400-foot diameter sphere whose satellite data could be scaled to the home. The geographic imagery on the Earth’s surface must have a high enough resolution for a user to see her home. He reasoned this size would be large enough for anyone to go from the view of the planet as a whole and to see what is most intimate and familiar: our own personal environment. Think of what most users do when they first visit Google Earth – they fly down to their own neighborhoods, hovering over their home. Fuller was thinking in those terms as he perfected his vision for the geoscope as far back as the middle of last century.

As the concept developed, Fuller felt that the 200-foot diameter 5/8th sphere would ideally be a large enough miniature Earth to be viewed from the inside. In the early 1960s, Buckminster Fuller, James Fitzgibbon and Shoji Sadao proposed such a geoscope for one venue after another to no avail. In 1964 computing was still in its infancy; the costs were far too high to build one. Going back to the drawing board, when he proposed a 400-foot long Big Map to play a computerized World Game for the 1967 World’s Fair, the cost was still too high. Instead, Fuller and Sadao proposed and built what we now know as the Montreal Expo ’67 Dome, a 5/8th geodesic sphere, a transparent, transcendent Pavilion for the United States. Although it was Fuller’s most well-known geodesic dome, becoming one of the most iconic of World’s Fair architectures, the Expo ’67 Dome was not a geoscope.

In 1969, Fuller and Thomas Turner proposed a ten-year program to create a World Resources Simulation Center (WRSC). The WRSC was to be the first fully computerized actualization of the geoscope combined with World Game. Once again, computer technology had not evolved enough to support such a lofty vision. High-resolution geospatial imagery, high performance computing (HPC), powerful graphics processors, dynamic data visualization and a high-speed Internet, all commonly available today, had not yet been developed. Again, the complex vision of a fully functioning network of geoscopes was far too expensive to fund or to realize. The publicly available Internet and the personal computer with its user-friendly Graphics User Interface (GUI) that we know today was officially born in 1983, the year Buckminster Fuller died.

Whole Systems Thinking

In 1964, when he was writing the proposal for a full-sized geoscope, Fuller thought of data in an entirely different way than most. He said we needed to have a view that was at once both “Macro-inclusive and Micro-incisive.” In other words, the combination of scale, time and space could be merged in this environment to bring forth a whole new understanding of Earth.

As an educational device and world navigation center, the high-resolution satellite data combined with layers from multiple data sources would be comprehensive. However, the interface — a synoptic environment through which interactive data could be manipulated on-the-fly, could become intuitively accessible to a 10-year-old. The largest geoscopes would be collaborative environments that allow groups of players to use them together to run scenarios and to play Fuller’s “World Game.” The geoscope could actually help people experience a profound shift of perception by seeing the Earth as a whole system, to ‘feel’ the scale of problems and to view the interrelationships within planet Earth as a complex of vibrant and nested living systems – a perspective we now call a “whole systems thinking.”

Fuller emphasized that the “World Game” could be played using a geoscope that would have the capacity to simulate and display data from its computerized inventory of combined resources, behaviors, trends, vital needs, and regenerative inspirations. Players would develop their own strategies for global solutions in an environment that could allow them to test each one by changing display speeds to expand or contract time frames. For instance, a collection of people who wanted to adopt the same practice over the course of 50 years could collectively examine the difference this behavior could make on the planet. Fuller viewed humans as “local information harvesters, local problem solvers in support of the integrity of eternally regenerative Universe.” The geoscope could usher in a visceral understanding of our role as what Fuller called “Planetary Citizens.”

What about Google Earth?

A lot has happened since we entered the new millennium. In 1998, Al Gore’s vision for a “Digital Earth” defined NASA’s “Digital Earth Initiative” to create “a virtual representation of the planet into which vast quantities of data can be embedded.” For almost a decade, a number of functioning “virtual globes” were developed by various independent groups, including Intrinsic Graphics’ Keyhole, GeoFusion’s Geomatrix, SRI’s Terra Vision, NASA’s World Wind and Art+Com’s TerraVision. These efforts finally culminated in Google’s acquisition of Keyhole in 2004 to develop, through a confluence of newer, more robust technologies, open source data sharing and crowdsourcing, what we now know as “Google Earth.”

In 2008, the Open Geospatial Consortium approved OpenGIS® KML file format became an OGC implementation standard allowing Keyhole Markup Language (KML) to be offered as an open source geospatial toolset. Users were engaged to become creators leading many to create their own 3D versions of their cities using KML, GPS and LIDAR data. Scientists, urban planners, educators and the general public are now able to associate discrete geospatial data, photo overlays, natural resource maps and timestamps into KML to create their own temporal animations and community simulations. These can be easily shared to highlight local problems or to tell global histories in Google Earth.

In 2013 Google released Google Earth Timelapse. This series of videos is available to anyone. Drawing from 15 million high resolution satellite images from NASA Landsat, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), and the European Sentinel program, it allows anyone to zoom through 37 years of looped time series data to see change on our home planet, from short-term change such as urban growth and coastal expansion to the long-term effects of glacier retreat that makes the effects of climate change visible in a powerful, intimate way.

As of 2022, Google Earth has become ubiquitous, a free app that most of us are familiar with. Anyone with a computer or smartphone can experience Google Earth, and many of today’s youth have grown up with it; they never experienced what it was like NOT to fly around our planetary home. Does this mean that we no longer need a networked device such as Fuller’s geoscope?

Although it is robust and revolutionary, Google Earth is not what Fuller envisioned. Virtual Google Earth may be closer to it when immersive media such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) scale out to become the norm. The problem is, we are using the tools, but they have not yet been synchronized into a unified environment for global communication, education and planning that could involve everyone on Earth at the very same time.

Instead of playing the popular game Pokémon Go, imagine if we could engage a new generation of players to whom planetary stewardship is a vital activity in the expanding “Metaverse.” If the conceptual toolset Fuller developed in World Game were combined with Google Earth and instantiated in planetariums around the world, humanity could swiftly become connective, collaborative stewards of Earth. With Google Sky’s planetary viewing capabilities, we could collaboratively visualize Earth in space at various scales. This could be similar to what Fuller originally envisioned with his concept of “Spaceship Earth as a “celestial theatre.” Participants are now able to have a lens in which to view real-time dynamics such as global wind patterns and thermohaline circulation. We can fly out from Earth through the celestial sphere to view a 3D model of the newly launched James Webb Telescope as it cruises into deep space.

Thus far, Fuller’s geoscope has been viewed as a utopian or idealistic vision tied to vintage futurism whose time has come and gone. Through his Design Science and World Game ideas, Fuller offered the missing piece: a conceptual tool set that could be used with an extended reality (XR) version of Virtual Google Earth. If realized, a fully functional geoscope, manifested in alignment with the seasoned technologies of today, could still become a valuable “macroscope” for global stewardship, a “place” in which to play World Game and a synoptic tool for planetary change.

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Geoscope Quotes