Dynamist Blog

The Future Will Seem Normal

The always interesting Joel Garreau visits Disneyland and contemplates the ways in which Tomorrowland reflects a changing dream of "the future." You should read the whole article, but here's an excerpt.

Disney -- so far into our heads, hopes and dreams that it is legendarily the Mouse that built the better people trap -- is now presenting not so much the future, but the future that it thinks we want. Wander around Tomorrowland and it no longer gleams with white plastic and blue trim. No "2001." It is an antique future, a bronze future, full of things that look like astrolabes channeling Leonardo da Vinci.

The future of the future is in the past?

"This is an aspirational future," says Disney spokesman John J. Nicoletti....

But this is absolutely not the future in the research pipeline. No genetically modified critters here that eat carbon dioxide and poop gasoline. No nanobots smaller than blood cells, cruising our bodies to zap cancer. No brain implants that expand our memory. No cellphones that translate Chinese. No dragonfly-size surveillance bots, no pills that shut off the brain's trigger to sleep, no modified mitochondria sustaining our energy while making obesity as quaint as polio.

Apparently that tsunami of change doesn't sell. That disturbing but dazzling future rumbling our way is distinctly different from the soothing one Disney thinks we crave.

The new Innoventions Dream Home aside, much of this reassuring Tomorrowland is a decade old--a revisionist "culture of futures" old enough to make the introduction of The Future and Its Enemies. While Disney's vision is almost guaranteed to miss reality, it does get something big right: Whatever mind-blowing technologies the future holds, we'll almost certainly incorporate them into lifestyles that change only gradually, where even what sound like radical social changes turn out to be incredibly bourgeois in practice. (Think test tube babies or gay marriage.) All the drawing-board ideas Garreau cites may very well come true, but once we have them they'll seem as normal as cell phones, Prozac, MRIs, or pantsuits.

The article ends with a lengthy quote from Danny Hillis about the way the idea of the future has changed since the mid-20th century. Here's an excerpt.

"We have made incredible progress. The world is way better off than it was in the '60s. But we've had enough of the future to realize that it's complicated. If you look at '2001: A Space Odyssey,' everything seemed quite plausible at the time -- especially the international cooperation aspect of it.

"What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There's a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected.

"It's a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, 'Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?' It's a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future.

"It's a core ache. Something is missing that we're searching for."

That sounds like an explanation of the Obama campaign's New Frontier appeal.

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