Thursday, July 5, 2007

Disney Calls Future a Thing of the Past (1997)

As I've argued before 1997 can be seen as the year that postmodern paleo-futurism went mainstream. Disney's self-aware redesign of Tomorrowland meant that mainstream American culture was out of ideas for the future.

It was as though the people at Disney were throwing up their hands and saying, "The year 2000 is just around the corner! Without flying cars we've got nothing! Check your parent's attic, there must be something cool up there!"

The most sincere and sentimental company in America had decided to simply co-opt past visions of the future.

The excerpt below is taken from a February 23, 1997 New York Times article that sums up the Tomorrowland redesign and what it meant for futurism.

''The new Tomorrowland begins with Jules Verne and ends with Buck Rogers,'' said Beth Dunlop, a Florida architecture critic who recently released a company-approved book on Disney architecture.

Tomorrowland is hardly alone. The future is growing old all over Disney's magic kingdom. From the film lot to the Epcot theme park to the real-life town that the company calls Celebration, Disney has largely given up on imagining a new future. When a story line or ride design calls for a touch of times to come, it is usually, as posters for the new Tomorrowland boast, ''the future that never was.''

The shift is profound for a company whose founder was one of postwar America's great popularizers of technology. And it is a reflection of the ennui that many Americans, at century's end, feel about the chips and bits in which they are immersed.

''We went to the Moon and all we got out of it was Teflon pans,'' said Karal Ann Marling, a professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, expressing an increasingly common attitude.

''Our goals as a people are not these pie-in-the-sky objectives that people grew up with in the 50's,'' said Professor Marling, who is the curator for a Montreal exhibit in June on Disney theme park architecture. ''They settle now for a house in the suburbs and to hell with the Moon. What's the point of building monorails if we can hardly get the car to work?''

See also:
Postmodern Paleo-Future
Article for MungBeing


Anonymous said...

Anon is torn - on the one hand, futurism is cool. On the other, paleofuturism is equally cool.

On the gripping hand, glad the last (influential) antisemitic technocrat is dead.

Joe Shelby said...

I wrote about this a bit before, looking at it from a strictly economic standpoint and that impact on culture than on the imaginative/artistic standpoint. But the net effect is the same.

We were so absolutely conditioned to call "The Year 2000" as the future that when we finally caught up with it, we hit a brick wall. You simply couldn't see ANYTHING on the other side. Except "more of the same" because all of the recaps that looked at the "progress" of the 20th century also had to look at the things unchanged, especially in the wars (often over religion) still going on everywhere.

Economically, again, we all had visions of what we wanted to be in the year 2000 and when it finally came, there was a mad rush (spending a LOT of money very quickly) to buy your way into being what you said you'd be. In particular, a lot of people took advantage of a loophole where they could borrow from their 401K to get a house with minimal tax penalties. So they did. And took the bottom right out of the market, leading (in my opinion) directly to the 2001 recessions, only later exacerbated by 9/11.

It will take our culture probably another decade before we can see more than a decade ahead. As one year 2000 prediction after another fell away uncompleted, we lost our confidence in our ability to predict, and it will take a (long) while to get it back.

Anonymous said...


Are you seriously calling Walt Disney an anti-semitic technocrat?

You're all class...

Major Pepperidge said...

Tomorrowland used to be my favorite "land"...besides the cool attractions, it presented a hopeful vision of a better future. Much like the 1939 New York World's Fair and it's "World of Tomorrow", showing how wonderful things will be even though the U.S. was in the depths of a depression and a World War was imminent.

Poor Walt, the ugly accusations of antisemitism will continue to stick no matter how much evidence to the contrary exists (see Neal Gabler's biography, for one).

Anonymous said...

Over at the WED Enterprises blog there are some great ideas to making it the way it was, futuristic!

Chris said...

We toured Tomorrowland last summer and it was a big letdown. They make you watch this presentation at the beginning that's basically just an advertisement for consumer electronics like smart pens and so on. The rest is pretty much an electronics expo. Nothing about Mars, or the new NASA space moon intiative, no space elevators - nada.

Tim said...

It's only half a thought, but it seems to me that the current zeitgeist holds that the future is not something to look forward to, but something to dread.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I stumbled across this blog and have to say I find the entire concept fascinating, especially this Disney angle (as I'm just barely old enough to remember seeing some of it back in the early 70's). And my initial reaction was similar to Tim's -- that the future has become something to dread -- but I wonder if that's maybe more pessimistic than it necessarily needs to be.

Up through Star Trek, the future was envisioned as being largely tidy, efficient and reflective of The Indomitable Spirit of Man (or, well, at least the Indomitable Spirit of American Men). This was true even in fiction where the future was dreadful, as seen in movies like Forbidden Planet and 2001, and stories like The Cold Equations.

I'd venture that, more than anyone else, our contemporary vision of the future was formed by Ridley Scott with both Alien and Blade Runner. The world in each of these stories isn't pessimistic, though it may seem so compared to the Star Trek universe, where you can push a button and be relatively sure that it'll do whatever it's supposed to do. The post-Scott future is full of tools that malfunction, vehicles and cities that look like people get around to cleaning them about as often as non-military personnel are prone to do, and people with agendas often in conflict with those around them.

Pessimistic? Maybe. Realistic? Perhaps. Then again, have you ever met a pessimist that didn't describe themself as being a realist?


Joey1058 said...

What, have you never heard of recycling the future? Instead of "turn of the 21st century" garish white plastics and glass, you get "turn of the 20th century" art deco. Copper. Bronze. Brass. Steel. Rivets. And Seams! Lots of curves, nooks and crannies.

The "future" didn't crap out, people. We just guessed wrong. Simply, our timing sucks. We have hand-held communications, like Dick Tracy. We have Airships, called "blimps". Airplanes are so common, we ignore them completely. Everyone has a PC. Interplanetary travel is happening. The robots are going first. Did you think we could just hop in a ship and go on some joyride?

We missed completely on flying cars, and anti-gravity. But it's coming. So unbunch your britches, and stop picking on the Disney guys. They can only fuel so much fantasy in one sitting before even they crap out. Your flying car is another few decades up the road, somewhere in the knee of the curve. Unless you know the math for anti-gravity?