The Future Is So Yesterday

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008


But really. This is Tomorrowland? From the Disney force that convinced us humanity's future soared among the stars back in 1955 when television only had three channels and Sputnik was unheard of? That made rocketeer Wernher von Braun a household name and filled our imaginations with doughnut-shaped space stations?

The future it is now presenting is a pumpkin pie that smells of cinnamon.

We know because Disneyland's newest multimillion-dollar Tomorrowland attraction, the Innoventions Dream Home, is receiving its first visitor swarms this month. When you view the replica pie in the fancy oven, the cabinet next to it squirts a highly convincing aroma of Thanksgiving.

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.

What's interesting about Tomorrowland's newest future is its focus on what doesn't change. This Dream Home future at 360 Tomorrowland Way in Disney's original California park is intentionally reassuring. The cast evokes a multigenerational intact nuclear family, the Eliases, which includes one daughter ("Princess") and two sons and two vigorous grandparents who live so close as to routinely drop by. This future has the sound of crickets outside the front door, and a light breeze forever blowing through its flowering vines. This future, in Dad's room, has Lionel trains.

Of course, the future in this house-of-the-future has plenty of whiz-bang gizmos, but most of them are already on the market. If you want a drink of water, the kitchen sink is a kick. It is controlled by a joystick. Hit the trigger button on top, and -- vooop-- a curved chrome spout slides up and forward like a snake from where it has been hiding in its cabinet. If you want to make snickerdoodle soccer ball cookies, the chatty kitchen computer that reads you the recipe is nicknamed Lillian, after Walt Disney's wife. Arguably the most futuristic item is the mock-up of an affordable "fab lab." It effectively is a printer -- industrial versions of which exist -- that takes objects you design on the computer and manufactures them in three dimensions. Since one of the Home's sponsors is Microsoft, we also know the future has Windows crashes. "Photo Browser 2 has stopped working. Windows can check online for a solution to the problem," proclaims the study's screen-topped table during a recent visit.

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.

What does this disconnect say about us?

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