Monday, March 4, 2013

The end of Disney modernism

Did you ever notice how a lot of visions of the future found in science fiction really consist of predicting that it will be exactly like the past. Columbus traveled across the ocean and discovered other continents with new civilizations. Kirk and Spock travel across space and find other planets with new civilizations.

"Serious" science fiction fans will now rush in and say that neither Disney nor the heavily Disney-inspired worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars and are good science fiction or perhaps that they are not science fiction at all. I won't argue the point because I don't care. The point I want to make is about the genre that those giant successes fall into and what we do or don't call it matters little to me. The thing about these series is that they are bromides that confidently predict that the future will be exactly like the past. If inter-racial intolerance is a problem now, Star Trek tells us, then inter-species intolerance will be a problem in the future.

Only the other species aren't really other species. They are always very much like human beings only with pointy ears or blue skin or something to make them stand out. They are very much a projection of racial differences and usually accompanied with a solution to the problems of racial tensions that a not-very-bright teenager could dream up.

The "science" that accompanies these fictions is interesting. It operates on the assumption that "science" and "technology" mean the same thing. The job of science is to give us cool new gadgets not to explain the world. I think that part is pretty good. That is science's job and any scientist who purports to tell us what the world is really like or what we should believe or how we behave instead of making keen new gadgets should be ordered to shut up and get back to his cave.

But these fictions are notoriously poor at predicting future technology. No science fiction author successfully predicted Google (keep that in mind as the nature of Google is important to the story). The plots of many science fiction stories would be about two pages long if the participants had simply Googled the names of the places and people they encountered as these often give away their real purpose or intent. And they give these key factors because they are inevitably drawn from human history.

Even the sole shining exception is telling. The geostationary communications satellite is a triumph of engineering. That is to say, it is the successful adaptation of old technology to a new situation. It takes the idea of an earthbound relay station and figures out how to put it on an object in space that always remains in the same relative position to the stations on earth that use it. That is nothing to sneeze at and the engineering problems that needed to be solved were formidable. But thinking up the idea—"Hey, let's put a relay station on a spaceship"—is far, far less impressive than actually making it happen.

Which brings me to Tomorrowland and a link to a post about it provided by InstaPundit. The post is by a writer named Zohar Liebermensch. She notes that Disney is abandoning exhibits based on emerging technology and replacing them with exhibits based on movies.
Rather than foreshadowing, like the early Tomorrowland did, current Tomorrowland is opening attractions like Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, where passengers shoot targets modeled from Toy Story or a submarine voyage where passengers go “under the sea” to spend time with characters from Finding Nemo.
I don't doubt that is true but what, if anything, does it signify. 

Liebermensch, to her credit, wonders if it doesn't signal a justified new pessimism on Disney's part. The new technology, she argues, just isn't as momentous as the old technology.
Facebook and the iPhone may be classified as the monumental inventions of the past decade. While they improved the social networking and convenience of society, can they really be compared the monumentality of the first airplane or personal computer? Previous milestones are being expanded and fine-tuned. Rather than thinking of new revolutionary discoveries, the current generation attempts to fix the old ones. Technology seems to be hitting a very worrisome plateau.
This is a big improvement on the usual lame arguing that we need to start thinking big again—"We went to the moon, now let's go to Mars already!" But, if anything, I'd say she hasn't been nearly pessimistic enough. Facebook and iPhone improved social networking? Does anyone seriously think that today's youth are better at these things? (And ask yourself this: did the airplane or computer have as significant a cultural impact as the car or telephone?)

If you go back through science fiction, you find a lot of predictions of videophones. People are always looking at screens of the person they are talking to. This marvel is now widely and cheaply available in the form of Skype and Facetime. Not much use is it? I mean, outside of phone sex (and perhaps even there), it's just a novelty. No one mentions Skype in the same tones they reserve for Facebook or even text messaging.

Think of Google again. On Star Trek there were often moments when someone communicated with a computer. Spock asked the computer a question and the computer replied. This model still prevailed with the later generations of the show. The Holodeck was run by a computer that answered human requests. (it also relied heavily on virtual reality, one of the great busts of computer technology.)

What no one thought of was the possibility that a simple messaging concept could create the possibility of drawing quickly on the knowledge and experience of not a computer but millions of other human beings. That is interesting and exciting. What isn't clear is how useful it will be. My guess is that Facebook and Wikipedia, to pick just two examples, will soon hit their limits, if they have not done so already. But that caveat aside, millions of people have embraced the possibilities of sharing ideas electronically.

 (You'll notice that I am very careful to not say "social networking". This for the very simple reason that the most people use these sites for exactly the opposite reasons. There are sad people who actually look for "friends" on Facebook but for most users it is really a way of holding people you have little interest in having direct contact with at bay. Similarly, there are sad people who look for love through on-line dating but for most users it is a way of finding sex partners without forming serious connections.)

That is the aspect of technology that shapes our culture right now. The optimism that drove the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises was very much of its era. Disneyland was established in 1955. That was a period of economic growth and hope in the aftermath of two horrible world wars and the great depression. Embracing "the future" was almost a desperate thing in some ways. If you had the brutal reality of Auschwitz and the brutal power of nuclear weapons suddenly thrust on you, you too would worry whether the human race had a future. In that atmosphere, a science fiction that soothingly reassured you that the future would present the exact same challenges as the past, only with way-cooler gadgetry, would be just the ticket. And it was.

Now we are entering a different era, an era when the past is becoming much more interesting (and much less frightening.) to us. This "past", of course, will often have as little to do with actual history as science fiction had to do with actual science but that matters a lot less than you might think as its job is to reflect our hopes and dreams.

1 comment:

  1. In line with your observation, it also seems to be that our images of the future tend no longer to be utopian (like Star Trek Next Generation), but rather dystopian and apocalyptic (and brutally so).

    I certainly prefer Downton Abbey & Mad Men these days (and novels set in the past), though when a boy I loved sci-fi. Recently I watched a movie set in a post-apocalyptic future, and wish I could erase some of the images from my mind.