Rants & Essays
A Peek Into the Future
By Paul Somerson
It's fine to speculate about the future. It's even better to
experience it yourself. So we were all (mouse) ears to hear about Walt Disney
World's Innoventions - a new Epcot exhibit featuring technology leaders like
Apple, AT&T, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Silicon Graphics, and offering "a
special sneak preview of products for the near future."
Maybe we should have been worried that the same Disney press
blurb also hyped attractions like "Disney Presents Bill Nye the Science
blow steam out of his nose
pound nails with a frozen
" But we couldn't pass up a chance to see the future firsthand.
Epcot was lush and green, the result of the daily tropical
deluge that had turned the place into an ankle-deep lake. We slogged our way
into the exhibit through the roiling mosh pit of waterlogged future-seekers in
cheap yellow Disney rain ponchos.
Some future. It was pretty much limited to a simulated home
with fancy thermostats, a coffin-sized AT&T telephone with enormous
buttons, a dated picturephone, and a ton of video games and geeky educational
software. Few actual products were on display. Instead, everywhere we saw
printed signs that were short on devices and long on promises.
Tumbling 3-D images on rows of IBM displays caught my eye.
As my finger pressed the screen where it said "Touch Here," the system crashed.
Nearby was a chance to go behind the scenes to see
previously secret workings in a laboratory as computer graphics "wizards"
developed a virtual reality attraction. Silicon Graphics logos were plastered
all over the place. But when we tried to enter, Disney goons spotted our press
camera and barred the door.
We explained that we had made previous arrangements with the
PR department. We showed them the entrance passes the PR folks had left for us
at the main gate. We flashed the Disney PR card the press representative had
sent us. No joy.
These folks were mean. They're the kind who would shotgun
Bambi, then tear out his heart and stomp on it. Only after hours of phone calls
back to the mouse politburo did they grudgingly relent.
Once inside, we watched an unsuspecting victim struggle
inside his insect-like virtual-reality helmet. A monitor above his head
displayed what he was seeing. He obviously hadn't quite gotten the swing of
things and kept careening across the virtual city, smashing hopelessly into
walls. Not much future here.
Near the exit were a few Apple workers toying with an
inoperative global positioning tracker. We asked about other futuristic
hand-held devices. They led us over to the Hammacher Schlemmer area beside
A pair of night vision goggles sat on a shelf. "Could we
take a photo of those?"
Panic. The word must have gotten around. "No! I'm not
authorizing you to take a picture!"
"But aren't those just the ones on sale in every Hammacher
Schlemmer catalog in the country, and in the gift shop next door?"
"Yes, but I absolutely can't authorize you to take a
We turned the corner. A Disney cop materialized from out of
the shadows and blocked our path.
So far, the whole visit had been a bust - and we were about
to be busted. "I'd like to see some ID, boys."
Clots of tourists all around us were strobing their
Instamatics like groupies at a Metallica concert. "Are you going to stop these
people from using their cameras, too?"
"Yes, if we have to! Every single one!" He wandered off with
It's a tough mouse-eat-mouse world out there. What were they
so intensely afraid of? "The Shocking Expose': COMPUTER MAGAZINE BLOWS LID OFF
THEME PARK RACKET!"
The Disney cop returned. It was clear that even after making
arrangements and flying 3,000 miles, we were not welcome. We quickly headed for
I turned to my photographer, a highly respected
photojournalist who had spent some time in Iraq documenting the plight of the
Kurds. He had told me how the police were everywhere over there, and how you
had to really be on your toes to avoid getting into serious trouble. I asked
him if he had been hassled more in Iraq or at Disney.
Maybe this really was the future. Long lines. Video screens
everywhere. Rampant commercialism. Everything overpriced. Lots of unfulfilled
expectations. A consumer market expressed mostly as violent, expensive, kiddie
games. Broken promises. Secret police popping out of the woodwork.
Walt must be spinning in his stainless steel cryotank time