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The Nostalgia of Tomorrowland by Richard Seltzer

It was a first trip to Disney World.  What I remember most was the strange sensation, like deja vu, on stepping from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland.

The atmosphere of Tomorrowland was distinctly 1950s. This was the way we saw the future in the 1950s. This was the way Disney and General Electric told us the future would be. "Progress is our most important product." "Live better electrically." We leaned back, watched television, and heard about the future products of automatic, inevitable progress. Technology was marching on, steadily: machines making better machines to make better machines; man as the passive spectator and beneficiary of all this inevitable progress.

Somehow I expected to see a 1970s image of Tomorrow in Tomorrowland. Surely, the people who built Disney World intended this land to represent today's tomorrow, not yesterday's tomorrow. Probably they made this Tomorrowland like the first 1950s Tomorrowland simply out of force of habit. (Why change a good thing?)

Then the nostalgia struck me, nostalgia for the time when we could believe in ever-expanding resources and energy and wealth and progress. Nostalgia for a time when the stars were no limit, when we took for granted that sooner or later (perhaps in our lifetime) there would be regular passenger flights to Mars and beyond; when costs inevitably went down with increasingly plentiful energy and increasingly powerful mass-production technology; when it seemed that every time-saving convenience product could eventually be made cheaply, as one innovation led to another. Discomfort with a time when costs inevitably soar and technological innovations gather dust on the inventor's shelf because they'll never be economically justifiable. Discomfort with a time when the quest for the stars costs too much; when energy costs too much; and high-speed cars and big cars use too much energy. Discomfort with a time when we must cut back everywhere, slow down; must abandon one after another of the time-saving conveniences that we've grown used to; must reduce our energy and resource consumption. And there seems no end to the cutting back, the slowing down, the stepping backward we'll have to do. A generation that was promised inevitable unending progress finds itself suddenly forced to retreat before the inevitable consequences of such "progress." And we realize the necessity of cutting back. And we recognize how foolish that unthinking quest for "progress" was -- how it led to the rapid and wasteful destruction of vast resources. But we can't help but feel nostalgia for those halcyon days when there were no clouds on the horizon and it was all-systems-go.

That was how I felt when I left Tomorrowland and Disney World. But I'm reminded of the huge artificial tree in Adventureland, representing the home of the Swiss Family Robinson. Example after example of nineteenth-century ingenuity taming nature, working with nature, living in harmony with nature. Almost a celebration of natural living on a huge artificial tree. But now that tree house calls to mind all the ingenuity it took man in previous ages to accomplish the simplest tasks without electricity or internal combustion engines. And I'm amazed at what they could accomplish -- not inevitable broad sweeping progress, but hard-won individual achievement. No longer can we afford the luxury of passive consumption. More and more, each of us must struggle to cope with decreasing energy supplies and increasing costs. "Cope" reminds me of "future shock" -- another wild unexpected change beyond our control. Such vast changes have brought about our present crisis, but he crisis itself throws us back on our individual resources, our ingenuity, our ability to make the most of the objects around us. Instead of constantly facing changes and challenges brought on by advanced technology beyond our understanding, we find ourselves turning out unneeded lights, insulating the attic, patching and fixing clothes and gadgets that a few years back we would have replaced because replacement was cheaper than repair. Before, we were forever throwing everything out as soon as we had used it once or it had broken; so even inside the house we faced a constantly changing environment. Now, by fixing and refurbishing, we'll start to relate as previous generations related to the objects around them. (You get to know and love the chair -- the strictly utilitarian chair, not the antique -- that you've fixed a dozen times.)

So I see an end to "future shock" coming with the end of passive progress. Simply to survive we must act and fix and come up with innovations. And the field in which we must act is well within our control and capabilities. And being forced to be handy, persistent, patient, and ingenious, we'll develop those traits and abilities and learn everyday skills that our ancestors took for granted. A new picture of the future emerges -- a positive active future I can identify with, can look forward to participating in.

But he world doesn't stay still. Sooner or later with everyone forced to come up with household innovations -- like the U.S. in the early nineteenth century when everybody and his great-uncle had invented a gadget they wanted patented -- products and technology will be developed that have general applicability, marketability, mass-production potential. And the pendulum will swing again to "progress" on a grand scale, and another generation or two will sit back in wonder and watch and enjoy and believe the vast spectacle of the 1950s-like Disney-type Tomorrowland. Until the pendulum swings back.


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