The Future Is So Yesterday
In the World of Tomorrow, There's a Very Familiar Feeling

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?

* * *

The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.

Paul Valery, French poet

* * *

We and Disney and the future of the future have had an intense and wildly varied bond.

Halfway down Main Street U.S.A., as Sleeping Beauty's castle looms before you, hang a right near the bronze statue of Walt and Mickey, and you enter Tomorrowland. The rest of the world disappears as you are surrounded by all the fanciful structures devoted to, for example, Buzz Lightyear's Astro Blaster, the good old Submarine Voyage that's now involved with"Finding Nemo," the Space Mountain roller coaster and the bulbous whale of a building with the long winding ramp, called Innoventions. The latter is where you find the attractions designed to be more readily modified or replaced, such as the collection of stage-set-like rooms that make up the Dream Home.

Squint a little and you can see Walt's vision of Tomorrowland was rooted in the 1939 New York World's Fair, says Karal Ann Marling, the recently retired professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, in her definitive "Designing Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance."

No previous fair had been so explicitly and self-consciously a celebration of progress. Its gleaming future offered an American urbanism "as it ought to be," with broad boulevards aiming at different grand statues or towers. "The rational decision-making, the neat subdivisions of the plan, and the sheer spit-and-polish newness stood in studied contrast to the down-at-the-heels vernacular" of urban reality after 10 years of the Depression, Marling writes.

It was all there -- Democracity, Futurama -- masterpieces of multimedia architectural modeling with autos of the future whizzing past miniature high-rises on tiny highways, heading for tidy cul-de-sacs with houses painted in happy, scientifically chosen colors. We were dazzled. This was a future we could believe in.

Disney's contribution to this fair was only a special Mickey Mouse cartoon for the Nabisco pavilion. But Walt was smitten. The idea that you could build an entire world in which visitors could step into a three-dimensional story about the future was a revelation.

You can still see this fair's aesthetics in Disneyland, especially in the monumentally tall objects like the signature castle or, in Tomorrowland, the Rube Goldberg-like Astro Orbiter ride. These are meant to lure visitors toward them down the broad boulevards. In Disneyspeak, these are called "weenies."

By the time the 1964 New York World's Fair opened, Disney's view of the future was ubiquitous there, from the Small World attraction at the Pepsi pavilion, to the Magic Skyway of the Ford pavilion, to GE's Carousel of Progress with the theme song "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow." This is also where lifelike "Audio-Animatronic" robots, which brought the effects of animation into the real world, made their big splash. You can still find baby boomers who haven't gotten over the full-size Abraham Lincoln orating in the Illinois pavilion.

But that, in many ways, was the high-water mark of the Disney core idea that "progress" was identical to the change brought to you by big corporations.

The novel technology that really launched Disneyland, of course, was television. "Disneyland," the TV show, debuted in 1954. The show became such an elaborate plug for the forthcoming park that the theme park's 1955 opening was broadcast on ABC in the biggest live telecast to date, featuring celebrities such as Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan.

Disney's television and film productions from "Davy Crockett" to "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" translated directly to Frontierland and Fantasyland. But the future of Tomorrowland, "muffled in hope and the trappings of a thousand bad science-fiction novels," as Marling puts it, was driven most directly by Walt Disney's personal fascination with institutional research and technology, from Bell Labs to the space program.

When Walt died in 1966, some of his future died with him. His original plans for the 27,000-acre Disney property outside Orlando, for example, involved a real-life 20,000-resident city of our dreams -- the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. After his death, however, the board couldn't figure out why this was such a hot idea. So it never got past the drawing boards. When Epcot Center opened in 1982, it was a prudent, feasible, corporate theme park, albeit on a far larger canvas than was available on the original 160 acres of Disneyland in Anaheim.

The '60s and '70s were not good to the original Disney vision of the future. The Vietnam War, the assassinations, the revolt against anything square, the idea that big corporate computers only served to mangle individuality and imagination, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement -- all challenged the notion that every day, in every way, things were getting better and better.

Even more profoundly, the 2,000-year-old idea of the inevitability of "progress" was taking holes beneath the waterline. As Robert Nisbet notes in "History of the Idea of Progress," across every ideology, people stopped believing one or more of the major premises that were its underpinnings -- that reason alone, and the scientific method, was inherently worthy of faith; that economic and technological flowering was unquestionably worthwhile; that Western civilization was noble and even superior to its alternatives. The theme of the Jimmy Carter years was "malaise."

Inevitably, perhaps, audacious optimism did resurface. In 1977, "Star Wars" returned us to a heroic future past. That same year the Apple II offered the novel notion that technology could empower the individual. In 1984, Ronald Reagan proclaimed "morning again in America." In 1989, the Wall fell and the generations-long Cold War cloud lifted. In 1993, a new browser brought to us the World Wide Web.

The damage to the idea of a benevolent future, however, had been done. The punk rock Sex Pistols, in their anthem "God Save the Queen," sang: "No future for you no future for me/No future no future for you."

* * *

My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.

Charles F. Kettering, American engineer

* * *

On a stage in the Innoventions building in Tomorrowland, Honda regularly presents a 15-minute showing of Asimo, its dwarf humanoid robot that trots around in a slight hunch, like the bottom of its little feet are sunburned. The climax of the big show is -- are you ready? -- Asimo walking down five steps! All by himself! His human companion calls for a big round of applause for this miracle. He gets a tepid smattering.

Sometimes it takes guts, trying to dazzle people with the current future. Especially in a Disneyland that has been making Audio-Animatronic birds, flowers and South Sea carvings sing and dance for more than 40 years.

Arturo Leyva, 36, a firefighting instructor from Monterrey, Mexico, is spending part of his vacation in the Innoventions building watching a patch of carpet about half the size of a tennis court, on which tourists drive Segways more cautiously than than they do on the Mall. The future he actually has in his hands is his tiny, talented Motorola Nextel phone. Which future would you rather have, he is asked, your phone or the Segway? "The phone," he says, his eyes going wide at the preposterous question. "It is my life."

"It's much harder to astound people today, " says Marty Sklar, the former principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, who in 2001 was named a "Disney Legend" for his work going all the way back to Walt's era in the '50s. "They see the speed of change all around them."

Yet it's not like there's any lack of head-scratching, what-do-we-make-of-this material.

In the real world, sequencing the first human genome in 2000 cost billions. It is rapidly dropping to the $1,000-per-person range. Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer at Microsoft, expects it to drop to $10. Some serious scientists at the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda bet that the first human to robustly and vigorously live to the age of 150 is alive today. Single cellphones have more computing power than did the entire North American Air Defense Command when Walt died.

Keeping up is a problem. A major Disney attraction has to last a long time to recoup its investment. To be serious about the future in Tomorrowland, one would have to be constantly vigilant for change, lest you wake up one day and whoops, what's that rotary-dial phone doing on the set? That's one of the reasons Orlando's Tomorrowland has dropped back to the last resort: irony. It's inspired by a change-proof 1920s and '30s Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon nostalgia future. Tomorrowland in Paris -- called Discoveryland -- is a tribute to European seers of previous centuries, like Jules Verne. The antidote to rapid change in Hong Kong -- one of the most futuristic cities on Earth -- is for much of Tomorrowland to be set in an intergalactic space port.

"Tomorrowland was supposed to be . . . a place where Walt could try to articulate a future so compelling that his guests and their children would want to go home and make it all come true, down to the moving sidewalks and the dancing fountains," historian Marling says.

And yet, and yet.

Tomorrowland still features Autopia, just as it did in 1955. The future is cars?

Tomorrowland still features Space Mountain. The future is astronauts?

Tomorrowland still features an attraction by Kodak (the future is Kodak?) called "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience." Its main character is a Gyro Gearloose-Nutty Professor sort. Its message: Scientists can't be trusted. Technology can run amok.

What do we make of this? Apple routinely makes the real future not only magical but covetable -- the iPod, the iPhone.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is famously indistinguishable from magic. Disney can't make the real future magic?

* * *

The future is now.

George Allen, Redskins coach

* * *

"Americans feel very little connection to the future anymore," says Danny Hillis.

Hillis is in a singular position to make this statement. He has long been a deity of the computer age, having pioneered massively parallel processing -- now the basis for most advanced computers. Then he was a Disney Fellow, and vice president for research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. He is now co-chairman of the Long Now Foundation, which fosters long-term thinking and responsibility for the next 10,000 years.

"Basically there was a time in the 1950s and '60s that were very future-oriented. Everybody wanted to be an astronaut. 'The Jetsons,' 'Star Trek,' stuff like that. Everybody was imagining that future we were all going to live in. That's how I grew up as a kid.

"It was very surprising to me, getting to the future, that nobody was all that interested. Things just started to happen so fast, we were overwhelmed. With the microchip, we stopped being able to imagine the future -- we had so much trouble handling what was being brought out in the present.

"The second thing, everyone was imagining the future was about universal prosperity -- kids being much better off materially than they were. To see that attitude today, you have to go to China and India. They are very future-oriented. The Chinese are sort of the way we were in the '60s. Everything's going to get better. There will be glitches, but we'll overcome them by progress and effort.

"We are future overwhelmed. I don't think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can't imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can't extrapolate. And if they do, it's not a very positive thing to imagine. It's about a lot of the unwanted side effects catching up to us -- like global ecological disaster. The future views are kind of negative. The most positive future-oriented stuff in the United States is around global ecology and sustainable living and that sort of stuff. It's a counterpoint to that ecological disaster future.

"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."

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