Growing up in Central Florida in the 1980s was a thrilling experience. Driving down the highway at night you could see the fireworks from the Disney Parks late into the evening, and searchlights beaming into the sky from International Drive. Every so often we'd wake to a sonic boom from a returning space shuttle, or we could go outside to see the bright flare of a launch from Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center.
As an eleven year old, I remember dreaming of the future, of trips to outer space, of a new age of humanity, of globally connected computers. These dreams didn't feel far-fetched. They were portrayed in popular culture and in media — from Back to the Future, to A.L.F., to Star Trek: The Next Generation — my childhood was filled with a refrain that there was a bright future for humanity, one where we lived and worked for a common good, and sought peace and prosperity.
Just 20 miles from my childhood home stood the monument to a not-so-distant future: Epcot Center, at Walt Disney World Resort.
Epcot - the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - didn't start its life as a theme park. Originally, Walt Disney had conceived for it to be a living and functioning city, a home base for employees and families of Disney Parks to live and to work, and to experience a community of tomorrow.
Walt wasn't just a storyteller, he was a dreamer. And boy did he dream big. His vision of Epcot was to replace cars with walkable cities, to create plenteous modes of public transportation. To Walt, innovation and imagination could solve the thorniest of problems, and Walt saw many problems with cities. From legacy infrastructure to the now-ubiquitous ownership of the automobile, cities weren't built to be equipped for modern life. Sprawl was pushing people further away, automobiles isolating humans from one another.
Could a new design of a city repair these fractures if it were intentionally designed and expertly engineered? Walt believed it to be true, and set out to build his dream in Orlando, Florida.
Walt, the creator of many Lands — of Fantasy, of Adventure, of the new Frontier, and the land of Tomorrow — passed away in 1966 at the age of 65 years old. His plans were never fully realized and the park we have today is an homage to his legacy, but not a realized vision of his community of the future.
Epcot opened in 1982 with the Spaceship Earth attraction at its entrance, a gateway into a new Land. Future World was a showcase of the future of humanity and how our advancements in agriculture, power, renewable resources, the oceans, and technology could help us pave the way towards that "great, big, beautiful tomorrow."
I remember seeing Spaceship Earth for the first time, in real life. Pictures just don't do it justice - an 18-story-tall geodesic dome glowing against the blue Florida sky - it's breathtaking. Inside it is an audio-animatronic story of mankind's technological advancements. From communal hunting to the fires at Alexandria, to our journey into the stars, Spaceship Earth, to me, was more than a ride or an amusement attraction. It was emblematic of mankind striving to be more, to do more, to ascend to the heavens.
You begin your ride in a buggy car that crawls along a track, and the ride ends with you swirling in the depths of space, suspended in mid-air from a hanging armature. To an eleven-year-old whose world was full of sonic booms and space shuttles, my imagination was firmly fixed on the future of humanity.
We caught up to the future
In a recent episode of the Future Commerce podcast, I posed a question to Brian: "of the past 40 years, which represented the most amount of socioeconomic and cultural change, and which had the most impact from a technological innovation standpoint:"
- The two decades spanning 1980-2000
- Or the years from 2000-2020
Brian unequivocally stated that the twenty year period from 1980 to 2000 represented the largest jump in technology, with the advent of the World Wide Web, and all that it has brought to a global humanity.
He went on to suggest that the latter period represented the largest socioeconomic jump, mostly in part due to social media networks built on the WWW, and that the proliferation of the smart phone was what cemented social media as part of the modern human experience: impacting everything from communications, to purchase decisions, and yes, even elections.
In looking backwards, we can see just how far we've come. We live in the world that Epcot Center had imagined in the 1980s. The "world of tomorrow" is now the world of today. Spaceship Earth no longer feels like a vision of the future, but rather a relic of the past.
Reinventing the idea of "future"
On a recent visit to my most favorite of Disney Parks, I was devastated to walk into Future World and find it in disarray. Now undergoing a multi-year construction project, Epcot will be reoriented to no longer speak of a future humanity, but rather to talk about the power of telling stories. Closing in 2020 for two years to undergo refurbishment, Spaceship Earth won't escape the revamp. As announced last year at the D23 Expo, an annual conference for all things Disney, it was declared that:
Spaceship Earth's storyline will shift from one focused on technology to that of stories that unite humanity from our earliest times through today.
At some point, we stopped dreaming of a distant future and humanity caught up to the vision of future past. This is an incredible achievement, but it makes one wonder - what is next?
If Disney CEO Bob Iger and company are to be asked, they're banking on the future of Disney-owned stories.
The construction barriers hide the burial grounds of a future-obsessed past. In its place will eventually stand monuments to the many and varied licenses that have made modern-day-Disney so successful: Pixar and Marvel-themed properties. Quotes along the signs affixed to the barricades hint at a vision that once was:
"Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim firmly focused on the future" -Walt Disney
Focused on the future, indeed. The future of the Walt Disney Corporation under the leadership of Bob Iger has been to create a dominant media powerhouse. It has consolidated power unto itself across all popular culture with a 15-year string of acquisitions including Lucasfilm, Pixar, ESPN, and 20th Century Fox, bring just about every single element of popular culture underneath the Disney banner. In 2019 alone, Disney franchises at the global box office held 7 of the top 10 positions for gross box office sales. They now have a monopoly on culture. When you hold the imagination of the entire general public why bother with dreaming of a distant future? Rather relish in the (very profitable) present.
Our modern mythology is owned, wholly, by Disney and its subsidiaries.
Free enterprise? Or a product of Monoculture?
The Walt Disney Company thrived out of the Great Depression by creating movies and attractions based on stories that had fallen into the public domain. From Snow White to Cinderella, the Disney empire was founded on storytelling, building on the work of those who had come before. He used his own unique gifts of voice acting, illustration, and imagination to tell known stories in new and unexpected ways. He married this together with ingenuity - invention - to advance animation in groundbreaking ways. His contributions to the medium cannot be understated.
Walt Disney's success could only have happened in America, and he was a true believer in the American Free Enterprise system:
“But if we can bring together the technical know-how of American industry and the creative imagination of the Disney Organization—I’m confident we can create right here in Disney World a showcase to the world of the American free enterprise system.” -Walt Disney
Walt himself was the product of the American Free Enterprise System. For those who slept through Social Studies (that'd be me), here's a refresher on the five principles of the American Free Enterprise System:
- The freedom to choose our businesses
- The right to private property
- The profit motive
- Consumer sovereignty
Despite the advantages of the American Free Enterprise System, there may never be another Walt Disney, nor another Walt Disney Company. Disney's dominance was a product of an era where monoculture chose the winners. In its early days Disney communicated its stories on film, which were distributed to theater chains through an owned distribution model. Disney then created original programming network televsion through ABC, one of the few broadcast monopolies in over-the-air television in the 1950s through the 1970s.
Home video furthered the Disney leadership as VHS and DVD, and Disney's "Vault" model, their ability to 'retire' movies from an active production catalog, kept the products in a cycle of cultural zeitgeist and manufactured scarcity.
The Disney Company's success is due largely to the distribution model being willing to distribute "safe" content, made for audiences of all ages, that were sure to draw audiences. In a post-ownership age of Spotify and YouTube, we no longer depend on big distribution models to deliver lowest-common-denominator content to our homes. Influencers command our attention now without the need to answer to networks.
As Ingrid Cordy said on our most recent podcast: the fall of a Berlin Wall in the modern era won't be broadcast on Technicolor, it'll be on Snapchat.
Cultural touchstones are harder to come by in 2020 as we each burrow deeper into vertical content and communities. Rather than men walking on Mars, and traveling outside our Galaxy, this fragmentation of influence is an eventuality that Disney has been preparing for.
"For the first time in history, all of us can have a say about the kind of world we want to live in. The choices we have made for the past 30,000 years have been inventing the future one day at a time. And now, it’s your turn." -Dame Judi Dench, from the transcript of Spaceship Earth
Rather than asking our children to invent the future one day at a time, the new Epcot will ask us to ponder the possibilities of telling compelling stories. Rather than dream of the future of our world, children of the 2020s will be asked to dream of a multitude of possible worlds.
A new free enterprise
If Disney as a corporation isn't to bring about the prototype community, why not Culdesac? If it sounds familiar you could be forgiven to think this is a repackaging of Epcot - a car-free city that has a master plan and is built for people to live, work, play, and partake in a community of tomorrow. Sounds familiar.
Culdesac Tempe, a 1,000-person development set to open fall 2020, bills itself as the “world’s first post-car real estate developer.” Founders Ryan Johnson and Jeff Berens say they want to provide people the option of living a car-free lifestyle. The mixed-use Culdesac Tempe neighborhood is a $140 million project, capitalized by traditional real estate investors, and will include a dog park, restaurants, market hall, grocery store, and gym, with access to a light rail that connects to downtown Tempe, the airport, and Arizona State University.
Venture capital, having found limited success in consumer brands, is moving on to bigger and better things. Why not connected, car-free neighborhoods?
There is much more to be said of Culdesac, but for another time. It's an exciting prospect and it's a distinctly American vision - in both capital backing and in execution - and I'm extremely here for it.
A dream is a wish your heart makes
Not to fear, we have new thinkers and dreamers in our world, such as Yuval Noah Harari. In his book Homo Deus, Harari thinks about the human being, Homo Sapien, which controls its own evolutionary path. Sapien solves hunger and disease. And then? Sapien imbues its own nature into an artificial intelligence.
Harari dreams of a cybernetic future where organic life and artificial intelligence will someday intertwine. He describes that future as being able to exist as a consciousness in no one physical location, but existing in many places at once, in a distributed network. If consciousness no longer is bound to our bodies are we still human? In his future man are no longer beings. Mankind have become gods, imbuing their likeness into silicon that we taught how to think.
If a dream is a wish your heart makes, what is to be said of a future mankind that has no heart, and cannot dream? Because dreaming, after all, is the result of organic chemistry.
As local Central Florida institutions like Martin Marietta and Cape Canaveral have slowly wound down their workforce over the years, we're seeing renewed investment in the space industry with SpaceX. Engineering departments are filling up again and skilled jobs are returning to the area. Perhaps Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are our modern-day analogs for a Walt Disney? If so they are testament to the power of American Free Enterprise.
For Epcot to remain as a relic of the past would be the saddest story of all. So, I'll welcome the change and embrace the new vision and direction for the park. In it I see a world of possibility, to inspire new generations to create and to dream. I don't know that the next generation of dreamers will necessarily hold American ideologies, such as the American Free Enterprise, as their guiding light. I am also skeptical that American Superiority will lead the way into that future — as nouveau populism has redirected the American imagination away from looking to the stars and instead inward toward American economic strength.
A future we shape
We created Future Commerce based on the idea that there is a new frontier, powered by ingenuity and creativity, in commerce. Commerce connects us as a global species. Entrepreneurship, or American Free Enterprise, is what provides us the opportunity for upward class mobility - that anyone, no matter where you are from or who you are - can create something of their own and stand to profit from it. Walt Disney believed in this, and I believe in it.
And so Future Commerce will continue to dream of that future - not one that is an inevitability, but one that we shape. Whether that future is to be powered by technology, or our ability to dream and tell stories, it's a future we will create together.
As Dame Judy says in Spaceship Earth, it's a future we shape, as we have for 30,000 years, one day at a time.