Precession and the Dolphin

| September 9, 2013
Figure 21. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path.

Buckminster Fuller demonstrates a precessional effect. Critical Path, 1981.


Precession, simply put, is a force that is generated as a side effect of another force, orthogonal to it.

A stone dropped in water creates ripples. A tensegrity structure, squashed or pulled, will bow out or squeeze in at the free sides. A spun bike wheel, suspended from only one side of the axle, will nevertheless remain eerily vertical.

Buckminster Fuller used precession as a guiding principle for his own work, and yet notes its elusiveness, in Critical Path:

It is a safe guess that not more than one human in 10 million is conceptually familiar with and sensorially comprehending of the principle of “precession.”

What is it then, and how do we feel it? Or not.

Most examples involve gyroscopes and spinning planets. But as adept at turning as we uprights are, whirling dervishes are nevertheless the exception to the rule. Our gyrations tend to be more of the “twist and shout” variety. So what does a sensory comprehension of precession look like for—to talk a bit like Bucky—vertebral frontal teleceptor orienting locomotors? It turns out that my Ah-ha moment came not by land but by sea.

As a starting postulate for Aestech, we might presuppose that Aesthetics and Technology are mutually precessional. As the front and back ends of apparata, they generate side effects through each other. Vectors in technology induce aesthetic effects, while aesthetics drives technological effects well beyond the surface of design and interface. (Witness, for example the way in which the aesthetic marked by The Jetsons continues to drive technological research and production at a massive scale long after it appears to be quaint.)

If these relations are continually at work, Bucky is no doubt right that our understanding and facility with them are lagging.

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.” —Carl Sagan

We might say the same of aesthetics. Awash in it, and even increasingly “literate” in reading it, the modes by which we engage with its production and understand its effects still largely elude us.

How, then, can we not only theorize this precessional relation between aesthetics and technology but gain a working feel for it? Like dolphins, for example.