Bucky Fuller's World Game

Because I am writing a book about digital innovation, I find myself immersed in the digital utopians of the 1950’s. The MIT Rad Lab, Marvin Minsky, Norbert Weiner, J.C. R. Licklider, Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan and E. F. Schumacher. They may not have all self-identified as “digital utopians”–but thats what they were. One of the hurdles we face on this blog is that we all have separate sources of data and so we often find ourselves in the “you’re right from your side and I’m right from mine” framework. Bucky Fuller had a better idea and he called it The World Game and of course he imagined it long before the creation of the personal computer and the Internet.

Fuller wanted a tool that would be accessible to everyone, whose findings would be widely disseminated to the masses through a free press, and which would, through this ground-swell of public vetting and acceptance of solutions to society’s problems, ultimately force the political process to move in the direction that the values, imagination and problem solving skills of those playing the democratically open world game dictated. It was a view of the political process that some might think naive, if they only saw the world for what it was when Fuller was proposing his idea (the 1960s)–minus personal computers and the Internet. The playing field was not to be so much as leveled, or expanded, but the good ‘ol boy political process was to subverted out of existence by a process that brings Thomas Jefferson into the twentieth century. In order to have this kind of power, the game needed to have the kind of information and tools for manipulating that information that empowers. It needed a comprehensive database that would provide the players of the world game with better data than their politically elected or appointed counterparts. They needed an inventory of the world’s vital statistics–where everything was and in what quantities and qualities, from minerals to manufactured goods and services, to humans and their unmet needs as well as capabilities. They also needed an information source that monitored the current state of the world, bringing vital news into the “game room” live.

We probably have the capability to put Fuller’s vision into reality today. It would be fun to try. How would we start?

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25 Responses to Bucky Fuller's World Game

  1. Pingback: A Moment Of Zen « Jon Taplin’s Blog

  2. Mark Murphy says:

    Sir, you’re singing my song. Dr. Fuller would be too, except he’s mostly dead, more’s the pity.

    Two of the facets of the World Game are public access to quality information and public access to a coordinated debate on the issues.

    For statistical information, there’s already a ton of it online from governments and other sources, with Wikipedia helping to surface some of the data. We need more online tools to help people visualize and massage the statistics to help convey messages.

    For deeper information, some of the stuff we’re talking about over on the Military Sock Puppets post (http://jtaplin.wordpress.com/2008/04/20/military-sock-puppets/) probably would help, though more is certainly needed.

    In terms of the coordinated debate, I think we need to start by coming up with principles for such a debate. If we’re going to be trying to collect online public opinion on public policy on a grand scale, there’s gotta be some “rules of the road” to make sure one firm or one government do not seize control over the debate mechanism and have the opportunity to “fiddle with the controls”, so to speak.

    I wrote up a piece on this for the Rebooting America project at the Personal Democracy Forum:


    The good news is that from a technology standpoint, we have all the tools that we need. It’s not like we’re envisioning this in a world of disconnected PCs, figuring out how to do it over CompuServe or dialup BBSes or something. Certainly, we need to apply those tools to make World Game-specific tools, but it’s not like we have to invent HTML, or the Web browser, or the Internet, etc.

    I could yammer on about this for hours, as this area has been my object of fascination for quite some time, and I have a book, and some tech, coming out about it later this year.

  3. Jon Taplin says:

    Mark- It was of course your post that got me to thinking about the World Game. Thank you.

  4. Another Jon says:


    I am afraid I am going to have to agitate our friend Hugo with my answer when I say it begins with infrastructure. A Bucky backbone made up of (somewhat) regulated systems. I think it would be an interesting exercise to model this system in a way that would somehow appease the various degrees of individuality vs community represented in this little web community.

    As an aside…Jon, are you familiar with the work of Archigram? It may be a nice way to try and relate B. Fuller to the P. Cross’ and Morgan’s of the world.


  5. Jon Taplin says:

    AJ-Tell me about Archigram?

  6. James says:

    I love this idea, I truly do, but the data isn’t as accessible as you’d hope.

    I was working on a project to create something like a work-flow dashboard, only tracking the performance of my local police. The police make all kinds of statistics available, but where I live they don’t give out the really important ones, some of which are:

    # of times an officer discharged their fire arm
    # of times they used a taser
    # of deaths or injuries caused by an officer
    # of citizen complaints about an officer
    # of times an officer was suspended
    # of no-knock warrants executed
    # of times a warrant was issued for the wrong address or wrong person

    It’s not just this project either. I wanted to create something like a cost-of-living heat map for the USA, incorporating live pricing data for a number of consumer goods. Good luck getting your hands on that.

    It’s led me to wishing there was some sort of public movement built around making data, of all kinds, more accessible to the public.

  7. It still boggles my mind that Fuller’s ideas have received so little traction. To be sure, there are many people who have elaborated and evangelized his central tenets. Unfortunately the media, and thus politicians, continue to focus on either trivial banalities (“are people bitter” – jeez!) or superficial treatment of symptoms.

    We need fundamental systemic change and the Internet is the key to that change. One of the problems of the net in general is navigating the sheer quantity (not to mention quality!) of information. Solutions are still being crafted and tested for this problem. I think it will happen. One of the keys will be to come up with a turnkey software stack to facilitate hyper-local government. Eventually, we might be able to work our way to something on the scale of Fuller’s World Game or Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn. Keep working this angle Jon! It’s probably one of the most important vectors for change.

  8. Greg says:

    I’ve been thinking about Bucky’s word game for a while actually without knowing about it. Many ideas — political or just common-sense — seem to cross the American landscape in currents (I say America because its where I live); and to some extent I usually think that something akin to this word-game is actually already being played: ideas traverse through the media and through people from like-mind to like-mind; conversation to conversation; are disseminated; and all is good; and then I visit some large swath of the south (or other) and am re-awakened to the fact that huge expanses of this country experience an almost complete blackout of acceptable information. My heart cries out for increased education spending, but in reality I know its not that simple.

    Perhaps something like Cory Doctorow’s ‘wuffe’, or Joi Ito’s ‘Emmergent Democracy’ will find the tools to really take hold in the very near future and connect us in new, yet unforeseen ways; through social networks, twitter and the like… Usually though, it seems to require some degree of amazing technical breakthrough on the scale of Google-search; something so quintessential, that after a while the tipping point occurs, and there is no going back; we all use it.

    I’m still waiting gingerly, though many seem to be rushing it in an attempt to coax the zeitgeist out of the closet. The verdict is still out whether this is working.

    To summarize my sorry prose:
    We do have the tech, but some key ingredient is still missing; that will succeed in connecting people in a fashion superior the morass of methods that we’ve already got.

  9. World Game is already being played.

    Here’s the link: http://www.osearth.com/

  10. Patrick Freeman says:

    It seems to me that we are already on the road to the World Game. The internet is essentially unbounded, and becoming ubiquitous. And it’s not just technology. The Web is a vital, thriving entity, more AI than comm system. More and more information is available every hour via the Web. While some (much?) of this information is bogus, there is enough real info, real truth to make much of Fuller’s idea become reality. The biggest threat to this development is governmental interference and subversion of the Web. See, for instance, the attempts of the Chinese government to censor web sites and to regulate the content to be provided by its citizens. And where the Chinese despots lead, Republican senators will not be far behind. But, call me naive, I think ultimately the Web will fulfill most of Fuller’s dream.

  11. Ken Ballweg says:

    Patrick – As much as I would like to have that be true, the problem with the internet in it’s current form is signal to noise. I sort of agree that there is “enough real info”, but being able to access it, filter it, weigh the source, and assemble it with other needed pieces makes it really daunting task. We need much better tools before the infrastructure that’s in place could be adapted.

    The Wikkipedia model is a start, but probably not good enough since you can’t trust, on a given moment, that someone hasn’t been saving the elephants (Mr. Colbert, I’m looking at you!), or doing a puff piece on contract or out of vanity.

    Of course, I’ve learned that the accuracy of the web probably isn’t any better or worse than the text books I had in school, which were very much products of a committee with an agenda. But, it’s the noise part that makes interwebs very difficult to use for this project in its current form. Oh, and lets throw in the ability of bot farms to subvert the data stream for the highest bidder which may be the real Achilles heel.

    I think there is a chance the Web will be the root of something close to the Bucky dream (I am, after all writing this on a close approximation of a Buckybook), but, until there is a way to vet and lock down certain types of key information, the process is still too fragile to trust.

  12. Rick Turner says:

    If you want to see some major holes in the web of information, try Googling your parents’ names…or your grandparents. It is highly likely that they just do not exist…and so never did???

  13. Dan says:

    In a country that tunes in “Deal or No Deal” several nights a week, I find it hard to believe that the common mass of reptiles will get up off the couch and develop the mental stamina to take advantage of anything like this. So they continue to be told that people who do dig for information are elitists, and then they go out and vote.

    –Signed, Ebeneezer Scrooge

  14. Pete Wolf says:

    As much as I love the internet, and love much of the benefits that can be gained from the kind of distributed systems of social interaction it has fostered (wikipedia, microfinance, etc.) I’ve got to point out why I think its only part of the solution, and why, as wonderful as it would be to have such a freely accessible font of statistical data, even a Bucky world game structure built on it might not be enough.

    As I’ve said before, human knowledge, and the processes through which it is accumulated and evaluated, is fundamentally distributed. All of us have no direct experiential evidence for most of the claims that we hold true and deploy in reasoning and arguing for further claims. We hold such claims true on the basis of the authority of others.

    This is a very simple statement. The reality is much more complicated. We defer to different people to different degrees (one person can trump another), and we defer to them on different matters (the guy whose opinion you respect on political economy isn’t the guy you go to for info on particle physics). These individual acts of deference build up into long chains of deference (all the way from a particle physicist to me and my mate in the pub), which themselves constitute the networks of information distribution and opinion formation.

    This isn’t to say that all we do is receive opinion passively, but rather that the conceptual terrain within which we manoeuver in our own reasoning about issues is generated by these networks of deference. Essentially, authority is important, and it often trumps reasoned argument, precisely because no one has the time or the competency to assess everything they believe or are asked to believe on its own merits.

    The internet is a wonderful thing, and a fantastic source of information. However, most people who use it get their information from the same authoritative sources (newspaper and tv news websites) that they would otherwise. This isn’t to say they don’t find other interesting claims on the internet, merely that in the case of conflicting views, or even in the case that a story is omitted from coverage by major news organisations, these same authoritative sources tend to trump the others (importantly without there being any kind of dialogue, or argument between them).

    The problem I am seeing is that even if these kinds of distributed systems that are being proposed enable those individuals who do have the time and conviction to assess facts and present reasoned arguments for their positions, this does not mean that these positions and the reasons behind them will be spread wide enough to actually have a significant effect. How do ideas and arguments formed on this basis gain the necessary authority (or to put in a more complicated way, gain the appropriate position within the networks of deference I’ve been outlining) to be taken seriously, and not be simply trumped by the existing, centralised news sources?

  15. Another Jon says:


    Archigram was a group of British architects that began working in the early 60’s. I mentioned them because you said you were interested in the ideas for digital utopias that were being developed during that time. All of their work was based on some type of technologically driven ideal of the individual as he/she relates to their environment vis-a-vis mobility and consumption (for the most part). Since they were architects, most of their work was infrastructural, in that they were trying to devise a framework for indiviuals to plug into. The scale of the this infrastructure varied from the personal (pod living) to the urban (Plug-In City). So they may be somewhat on the periphery of what you are really interested in, but could be a good place to find inspiration for new ideas.

    My thinking on a lot of these utopian ideals is that they were a reaction to modernity. At the time you could really have only two approaches to the future…one being that it is finite and the other that it is not.

    So where they (Archigram) did fall short, and Bucky certainly does not, is that they did not take into account social, political, or environmental structures. Archigram dealt mostly with the individual as a passive participant in the framework. They dealt with the individual only on the “consumer” end. For me this is also one of the main hurdles of the internet as we know it. With the type of commercialization of the internet that COULD happen, and is happening to a certain extent, the interactivity can begin to be compromised.

    I have much more faith in something like The National Technology Grid, or Internet2, or some completely new backbone to accomplish the goals of B. Fuller rather than our commodity internet. And I think that it is something that would be really interesting to model, not simply in how information is exchanged, but how the systems could really interact and function to allow the true democratic and decentralized idealization of what is no longer utopian futurism.

    The more I think about it the more complex it becomes.

  16. Love the idea, and love finding evidence I’m not the lone Bucky-believer.

    The tools for participating in this game would need to be cheap, simple, and intuitive like a pencil or paper clip. We want to not only remove barriers, but to make it difficult NOT to participate.
    Are cellular phones and/or TV remotes ubiquitous enough to be inclusive of financial/social/geographical segments?
    Time to pull Critical Path of the bookshelf again!

  17. Rick Turner says:

    Not having a TV, and therefore not having a TV remote extracts me from that formula… OK, I do have a mobile phone…

  18. Jon Taplin says:

    Pete Wolf-I’ve been slow catching up. Your comment caught me at just the wrong time–when Hillary Clinton was giving her victory speech. Ikept reading over this last sentence of yours–“. How do ideas and arguments formed on this basis gain the necessary authority (or to put in a more complicated way, gain the appropriate position within the networks of deference I’ve been outlining) to be taken seriously, and not be simply trumped by the existing, centralised news sources?”

    All I could think of is the power of the centralized news source to trivialize our politics and thwart any chances for reform. I’m too depressed to imagine a solution for the dilemma you pose.

  19. Jon Taplin says:

    Another Jon- But what would keep The Grid or Internet 2 from being equally commoditiized? I’m beginning to think that people will pay good money to be on a private network.

  20. Ken Ballweg says:

    Uhmmm, wouldn’t that be a lot like The Well was back in the days of 300 baud modems? Elite, expensive and idealistic, but too small to have any major influence on the overall political process.

    You need to just put your hands up and back away from the blog for a day. Too much leakage from the primary there.

  21. Rick Turner says:

    For folks to take advantage of an Internet 2 and to use their brains requires an excellent educational system. That’s looking less and less likely here in California… We here in the blogosphere of thought are a distinct minority, I fear. And this is the basic problem with trying to bring “democracy and freedom” to the world. It doesn’t work very well for closed minds and narrowly educated folks. The most pliable people of all are the barely literate. Just enough literacy to be able to read road signs and billboards, not enough to enjoy reading to gain knowledge. Fahrenheit 451 territory…

    And why is it that nearly every bar you go into has multiple TV screens going with different things…usually sports…with the sound off? Do people who’s retinae are being stimulated buy more booze? Worse are the ones with multiple screens all tuned to the same game with the sound up. Don’t people want to chat with one another? Hell of a use for technology…

  22. zestypete says:

    Echoing much of Pete Wolf’s comments, more information doesn’t mean more understanding, as the internet makes abundantly clear. In fact, within the confines of Bucky’s proposed World Game, I don’t think the internet is the key: if anything, it proves that accessibility to vast amounts of information does not necessarily produce revolutionary change, even with the best filters available.

    What it does create is much faster incremental change. We can move from thought A to action B in much faster terms than ever before. The way in which this is applied differs wildly (from flashmobs to instant notoriety based on something as simple as a bad online video – or even a political campaign).

    The internet is more Marshall McLuhan than Bucky Fuller. It is not, to quote the above, a “tool that empowers”.

    Bucky was all about the mind and being. It wasn’t the information itself, it was what we did with it that really mattered (he was, after all, a verb, not a noun). Right now, it seems to me that all this access hasn’t amounted to much revolutionary change, just a faster pace of change. It would take another Bucky to turn it all into something seriously world changing. And right now I don’t see a Bucky 2.0 on the horizon.

  23. Pete Wolf says:

    Jon – I’m sorry if I’ve come off as too negative. I really don’t want to simply deny that there is any solution to the kinds of problems (vis-a-vis media, information distribution and democracy) we’ve been discussing. I think that there might be. I just don’t think this is it, or at least, that this is all of it.

    Any solution or set of solutions we develop must be sensitive to precisely those features of the way we, as groups, form opinions and make decisions, that are exploitable by the kinds of self-interested power we all seem to deplore. It simply seems that these distributed systems being put forward don’t yet patch these vulnerabilities in the way we collectively reason.

  24. Azmanon says:

    I’ve been pondering the topics of this post for a few years now… so I hope its OK to let some thoughts flow here. There’s plenty one can say as I feel these are more philosophical questions rather than technical ones.

    The internet is something more of a World Model than a World Game. As computer power in general was developed for modeling situations and running simulations, the current state of computing shows there is something of an evolutionary path to the nature of computing in itself. Now that computers have user interfaces and are networked, the level of interactivity between the machines and the physical world can start to become more reflexive. Until fairly recently even networked computing has remained a closed system in relation to the context in which it exists (i.e. the world).

    As a cybernetic system the World Game needs several dimensions of feedback between its essential components in order to function in a somewhat ‘natural’ or at least useful state. Taking the internet as a component, lets say the communications and information infrastructure, it is of course essential that we use the information we gather. In other words, we can sit here all we want and discuss changing the world using the latest advantages of Web 2.0 but there will be no effect until we get out and do something. Flickr is all fine and dandy, but is worthless if people don’t take and upload photos, MySpace starts to go flat if people don’t produce music and so on.

    The 2.0 part of this equation starts to look like the “next level”, where the “doing something” then produces some outcomes and thus causes us to feed that information back into the system. So at certain points the system itself needs to change or adapt in order to accommodate the changing conditions and needs of its users (and their increasing range of digital tools). With computing now having a very co-dependent relationship of hardware, software and a socially inclined human counterpart, things start to get a little complex as we move down the evolutionary chain. The noise continually increases, so the signals need more refined filters for the receptors to process and make use of the information.

    Someone once said that the human brain is the only thing sufficiently complex enough to model the world. But I’ve wondered about the ability of “networked brains” to enhance that model, where the information from language use and behaviors may be more efficiently shared in ways that help synchronize the overall system. A large scale cybernetic network that models this challenge may be just the thing we need.

    Forgive me if this sounds like the plot of an Asimov novel. I’ve possibly read a few too many at too young an age.

    Jon have you read up on Chris Anderson’s notions of “free”” in the domain of digital production and distribution? I suggest watching the lecture he gave at the last Nokia world conference.

    Mark Murphy, great response, by the way.

  25. Bubblefish says:

    Jon, I just found your website because my old link to the WORLD GAME is now dead on mine and I was looking for a substitute.

    Not only will I link over to you, but I would like to introduce you to a grass roots project that was deeply inspired by Bucky’s World Game and has the actual framework to build something like it.

    As you know, Bucky’s World Game is now called OS EARTH.

    This grass roots project I mention takes that in mind and this framework is called OS 012

    Give it a visit when you get a chance.


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