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Tomorrowland

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Visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair rode an “electric stairway” to the Westinghouse Building, where they met a future of brave new appliances.
[Times files ]

By PAUL WILBORN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 26, 1999


The future is a catalog of stuff you can't buy yet

ORLANDO -- In his high-tech, in-line skates, he flies through the air with the greatest of teenage ease. Landing like a cat, he looks across the boulevard and spies the post-pubescent object of his affections.

A digit darts to a wrist communicator. Her wrist jingles, a sly smile crossing her pouty lips. His metallic voice asks: "How 'bout a movie?" She looks across the street at this throbbing cocoon of testosterone and whispers coyly: "I'll get back to you."

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At Disney World’s Tomorrowland, vacationers zip among the planets in 1950s-style rockets. Long live Buck Rogers. Long live nostalgia.
[Times photo: Pam Royal]
This is the future according to Motorola, now on display at EPCOT's "Innoventions" exhibit. In the digital world of tomorrow, there's no need to go all the way across the street to talk to someone. Just touch the ebony band around your wrist (pay nothing now and only a modest monthly access charge) and poof! -- she says hello to her arm.

It's not a perfect world, of course. If it were, the girl would immediately say yes.

But what do you expect from technology? More than two centuries after the Industrial Revolution, we're not close to inventing a gadget that can understand teenage girls.

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There was a time when great minds dared imagine a future of peace, prosperity and equality. In this utopian vision, technology and time would combine to birth a new Eden, where we would live happily in magical cities of light and jet about in traffic-free skies.

But the future never really belonged to the dreamers.

The future, like just about everything else, is owned and operated by the world's corporate and government power brokers. It's a future filled with products -- a better this, a smaller that, a quicker whatever.

Sometimes the corporate psychics are right: think air conditioning. More often, they get the future all wrong: Where are those pneumatic tubes that are supposed to be swooshing us from one place to another?

Their prognostications all have one thing in common: a price tag. If you take a good look around the Tomorrowlands of today, it's not about people, but stuff. It's a mail order catalog full of items you can't buy just yet. The future is bright! And now, a word from our sponsor.

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At the Carousel of Progress exhibit in Tomorrowland, the American family remains intact with an ever-improving array of electronic gadgets.
[Times photos: Pam Royal]
We didn't always see the future that way.

For most of recorded time, the future looked pretty much like the present. We got the occasional printing press, muzzle-loader, or phosphorus-tipped match, but nobody thought much about spaceships or aluminum boots. As with Darwin's evolving apes, change came slowly.

But then the first steam engine turned the shiny-new gears of the Industrial Revolution, spinning us into a future that didn't come with a STOP button. Since then, predicting what's next has been a full-time job.

For the masses, the future was unveiled at huge international exhibitions. World's fairs in Paris, London, New York and Chicago drew millions, who gawked at visions of glass skyscrapers, flying machines and indoor plumbing. Seminude women were often displayed in futuristic settings, free of the shackles of the puritanical present. (Sex will always draw a crowd.)

In his book, World of Fairs, Robert Rydell traces this fascination with the future back to London's "Great Exhibition" in 1851, as the first seeds of the modern age were beginning to blossom.

It was there, Rydell argues, that a powerful minority group -- the business and political elite -- first staked its claim on the future. These large exhibitions, which often ran six months or more, helped usher in the modern world view.

Historian Warren Susman said the world's fairs became "a key institution of a new culture based not like the older republican culture on principles of scarcity, limitation, and sacrifice, but on new principles of abundance, self-fulfillment, and unlimited possibilities."

In the view of the business monopolies, the forerunners of today's vast multinationals, the future was bigger, better and filled with wonderful stuff.

In the last days of the Depression, organizers and corporate sponsors of the New York World's Fair thought consumers needed a vision of a new tomorrow, in part to take their minds off today. They also hoped to reinforce the capitalist system, which had been shaken by economic collapse and threatened by the siren songs of socialism and facism.

Who predicted the magnificent world of tomorrow? Westinghouse, BF. Goodrich, Chrysler, Standard Brands, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Ford, and, in the hit exhibit of the show, General Motors.

Futurama, created for GM by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes, took the people of 1939 on an imaginary trip to 1960. Seated above the exhibit, visitors felt as if they were flying -- swooping down on skyscrapers with round edges and glass wrapping. Cars moved at ground level through the future cities, with pedestrians walking one level up. The Futurama countryside bloomed with apple orchards, each tree under its own glass housing.

"Atomic energy," the narrator intoned, "is being used cautiously."

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Futurama had green spaces and amusement parks but no churches, something the pious noted immediately. By the time the fair closed in 1940, hundreds of steeples had sprung from the glittering cities and tree-shaded countryside.

But the heart of Futurama, which, after all, was sponsored by a car company, was highways. Magnificent, interconnected super-highways that crisscrossed the country carrying thousands of tiny cars. General Motors cars, no doubt. Building "superhighways would enormously increase motor car usage and sales," Bel Geddes argued.

Commentators quickly divined the true purpose of Futurama.

"General Motors has spent a small fortune to convince the American public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise," wrote New York Herald-Tribune columnist Walter Lippman.

Bel Geddes proved to a be a great salesman. By 1960, American was checkerboarded by superhighways. Only they weren't quite what the designer imagined.

In his book, 1939: The Lost World of the Fair, David Gelernter describes Bel Geddes' vision this way:

"Along highways there would be lookout towers at five-mile intervals. Speeds would be maintained and entrances, exits and merges carried out automatically by a collaborative partnership between the car and the highway."

Bel Geddes predicted a future with more cars but no traffic congestion.

Oh, well.

* * *

Then again, Futurama was never meant to show an ideal world. Future perfect was always just a tense, not a possibility.

"When we picture utopia, it isn't perfect; it's just better," Gelernter writes. "It's comfortable. It is a world where, for vast numbers of people, life all in all is pretty good."

Nowadays, you have to visit the clean, well-lighted streets of Disney World to see a "pretty good" tomorrow.

Walt Disney was fascinated with the future. The original Disneyland was really just a never-ending World's Fair, minus the strippers and the peep shows.

One of Disney's original visions was the Carousel of Progress, which first appeared at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. It is still part of Disney World's Tomorrowland. The Carousel offers snapshots of an America family from 1900 to the present. The family members -- Mom, Dad, young son, teenage daughter, an eccentric uncle, Grandma and Gramps -- are the same kind of automatons that helped make the Hall of Presidents such a mind-numbing experience.

Through the century, the products around these characters change. The refrigerator morphs from a real ice box into one making ice. The fan becomes an air-conditioner, the wood stove a microwave.

What's interesting is that the family doesn't change. There's no divorce. No generation gap. Teenage daughter never gets pregnant and eccentric uncle never gets drunk. The transformation of the 20th-century American family is blithely ignored in this display. Dad isalways affable. Mom's always understanding. They're still together, and the kids are docile.

In this and other popular visions of the future, the people are little more than props. It's the stuff that counts. Tomorrowland's future comes with its own optimistic theme song:

"There's a great big beautiful tomorrow/shining at the end of every day/A great big beautiful tomorrow/And tomorrow is just a dream away."

If so, it's not much of a dream. Disney's Tomorrowland was redesigned a few years ago in a Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon motif. Instead of the shock of the new, it offers the balm of nostalgia, packaged as mass entertainment.

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Maybe Disney's researchers have discovered that we don't really like the future anymore. Consider the evidence: The optimistic Star Wars series is set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far way." And the most popular cinematic visions of the future are expressed in the bleak landscapes of Terminator or the garish, glittering ghettos of Blade Runner.

Sure, the future brings conveniences. But it also keeps showing up with its ill-tempered friends, disruption and uncertainty. What we get, along with the cool new toys, is what Alvin Toffler dubbed "Future Shock."

"The future will unfold as an unending succession of bizarre incidents, sensational discoveries, implausible conflicts and wildly novel dilemmas. This means that many members of the super-industrial society will never "feel at home' in it," Toffler wrote in his 1970 bestseller.

Thirty years later, we don't know how to program our VCRs or exterminate the bugs in our home computers. No wonder America at the turn of a new millennium is the world's most heavily medicated society.

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Though no longer the star it once was, the future continues to draw a crowd. And it is brought to you by the same gang. At EPCOT, where the Innoventions exhibit is found on "The Road to Tomorrow," the dreamers are the good people of Monsanto, AT&T, Sega, IBM, Xerox and (here's that name again) General Motors.

Again, tomorrow comes-shrink wrapped. The future is a better cell phone. A sharper television. A genetically altered ear of corn. A faster, sleeker car.

Dreaming up these items is one thing, making them real quite another. After visitors check out the Motorola video in the "Communications Dream Forum," they are invited to step up to a sleek counter where some of the company's prototype products are available for testing.

They pick up a small communicator and press the start button. Nothing happens.

Then they get it. This product is an accurate expression of the world of tomorrow:

It's high-tech, expensive -- and broken.

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