I’m writing this down mainly as an attempt to solidify a concept that’s been nagging around my head for most of the day, so that I don’t forget the salient bits when I actually start work on my thesis. This arose out of a conversation with a Plaid acquaintance of mine on the shuttle and in Costuming. The conversation turned toward the state of Tomorrowland, a topic of particular importance to me, and I began sort of thinking aloud and bouncing things off my friend. Most of this is still thinking out loud and it's rambly and quite long, but bear with me.
I’m a Media Studies major (well, double Media Studies/English, but I’m only doing the one thesis), and the central argument for my senior thesis is going to be that the changes in Tomorrowland during the last half-century have reflected the changes in American society’s vision of the future. After our conversation concluded, I started testing the thesis.
First, there’s the original Tomorrowland, which was a space-oriented cornucopia of edutainment (side note: it saddens me a little that MS Word makes no protest to “edutainment” as a word) with a heavy focus on science. So far, so good: the sciences were experiencing a renaissance and an unaccustomed public scrutiny in the ‘50s, and the Space Race had everyone’s imagination turned toward the stars. (Note: when I say “original Tomorrowland,” I’m sort of including everything that showed up before the nuke-n-pave, not just opening day attractions, so House of the Future and Flying Saucers fall under that rather general umbrella.)
Then there’s New Tomorrowland of 1967, when the entire land was redesigned with a more unified vision. The edutainment aspect remained (Adventure thru Inner Space, anyone?), but the whole was more strongly influenced by an investigation of what these new leaps in technology could do for our everyday lives. This expressed itself in a strong transportation theme, though the Carousel of Progress certainly fits as well. Though I’ll have to do a bit more research into other media representations, this seems about right to me; technology in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s took a more practical and consumerist bent.
But when I looked at the current Tomorrowland, the thesis initially seemed to fall apart. The eastern portion of Disneyland is a mish-mash of quasi-futuristic fare, with the fantastic (Buzz Lightyear and Star Wars) thrown in with the aggressively, ploddingly practical (Innoventions). The Tomorrowland of today (and even the Tomorrowland we would have gotten had the ’98 renovation not been so disastrously underfunded; I need to find the thread that discussed that for reference) lacks an identity. But as I started examining the question further, I came to a rather shocking realization: rather than contradicting my thesis, the present Tomorrowland practically proves it. You see, Tomorrowland has no identity because we, as a society, have stopped dreaming of the future.
Think about it. Since this is, after all, for a Media Studies thesis, I look for confirmation in other representations of the future, namely in film. Just looking at my own DVDs, I see the following sci-fi titles that have been made in the past ten years: Vanilla Sky, Firefly, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the Matrix series. (I hesitated over whether to include Blade Runner, but it’s a little old to be included. It still fits, though.) Sense a running theme? All of these films are rife with dystopia. (I hear protests about Hitchhiker, but it starts out with Earth getting blown up. It’s not all sunshine and towels.) These movies are all strongly allegorical, and all present a view of the future that is not pretty. A quick mental catalogue of recent sci-fi spits out The Island, Minority Report, and I, Robot. All along the same lines.
The more I considered it, the more it made sense. If someone asked me to describe what the world would look like in thirty years, I wouldn’t really have any idea, probably imagining a world that looked pretty similar to today. But posed the same question thirty years ago, Back to the Future showed us flying cars and rampant holograms. Some of the technology imagined in that film has already come to pass (though I haven’t seen it in a while, I think of video phones; though they don’t work in real life quite like they do in the movies, the technology is there), but I’m still waiting for my hover board. I think I summed it up in a comment I made during the conversation which started all of this: “We don’t dream of robot butlers anymore.”
Part of this is because we have a sort of “the future is here” mentality. We are completely surrounded with technology that verges on miraculous. Twenty years ago, the neck injuries that my sister sustained in her car accident would have been fatal. Ten years ago, she would have been stuck on a breathing machine, or confined to a wheelchair. But today, she is almost entirely healed, and has come away with almost no lasting damage. The sort of computing power that once filled a room can be contained in the size of a thumbnail. And if we don’t have robotic butlers, we do have robotic maids (even if their skills are limited to vacuuming). Yet, you don’t see people making a big hairy deal about their Roombas. That sort of stuff is just… there.
Which is the point, in essence. There’s a distinct apathy that surrounds technology these days. While technological advances still make news, they’re small, special interest pieces. The latest developments in computers are still important, but not as much as they used to be. It’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. My generation grew up with computers, they’re just part of the normal world. (Hell, in my room right now, I can count no fewer than six computers, not including my PDA, my iPod, my thumb drives, or my Playstation 2, which are all close cousins of standard computers. But then, I’m not exactly average.) The latest developments in technology are seen more through the lens of consumerism than of optimism for the future. One of the biggest complaints about Innoventions is that it feels no better than Best Buy, but Best Buy is the destination of most of our current technological developments. The latest and greatest in personal computing isn’t valued for how it can help mankind and make our lives easier, but for what sort of framerate it can get playing World of Warcraft.
I think there’s also more to that aspect of things. Back in the ‘50s, the sort of technologies that were explored in Tomorrowland were practically alien. The average person knew nothing of how they worked, and so understood the possibilities to be limitless. Now the average person has a much better grasp of the basic technology, and is much better able to see the natural progression of technological advances. There’s also a sense of the limits being reached. How much smaller can they make iPods, anyway? How much bigger can TVs get before we give up the pretense and start installing full-size movie screens in homes? Does anyone other than Slashdot really care?
And what does all of this mean for Tomorrowland? Unfortunately, nothing really good. While the new Finding Nemo attraction promises a Disney-caliber display of modern technology, its theme can be tied to Tomorrowland by some fairly strained wishful thinking, further muddling the issue. Our social consciousness shows no sign of developing any sort of distinct vision of the future, to the point where calling a design “futuristic” is pretty meaningless. My initial reaction to the “Future that Never Was” concept of the ’98 renovation was that it smacked of cop-out, but now I see that perhaps, without our own dream of the future, the dreams of the past are all we have.