What happened to dreaming about the future?

By Scott Dennis

Twenty-six years ago, the 21st century began. We had an extended monorail system, touch screens and the latest in voice-recognition robots. Our vision of the future was inspired by the wave of technological innovations sweeping the world.

Optimism was key.

Drew Barrymore was there at the dawning of the new century, as were Marie Osmond and a purple dragon named Figment.

Sure, the future wasn’t exactly the sparkling entity that people had expected, but they discovered instead something of even greater value: an idea.

The idea was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow – EPCOT Center – representing the 21st century and the wonders of technology. At its opening in 1982, it was radically different from any other theme park in the world.

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An offshoot of Walt Disney’s concept of an EPCOT Center was not the working city Disney had envisioned. Rather, the intent of the park was to use examples of futuristic technologies and ideas to motivate everyday citizens to step up and make positive changes in their community and even the world.

The world at the time of EPCOT Center’s arrival was an era marked by rapidly advancing technologies and community awareness. The DeLorean car was in production (sans Flux Capacitors, unfortunately), and a rise in the popularity of increasingly sophisticated video games and appliances enthused people about what the future would hold.

Disney’s ground-breaking new theme park reflected and amplified the public’s feelings about the future of mankind. The 1980s saw an advancement in public transportation with Portland’s first MAX light rail system, an improvement that echoed the sort of progressive transportation concepts on display at Disney’s EPCOT.

Today, sophisticated technology is so ubiquitous that the common person is more likely to take an interest in their MP3 player than in the future of technology.

For instance, most people probably know that new touch-screen devices are nifty, but how many have heard about a recent experiment involving monkeys, robots and marshmallows? Touch screen iPods may be cool, but the aforementioned experiment demonstrated that monkeys connected to electrodes could effortlessly manipulate an associated mechanical arm to eat marshmallows and other tasty snacks.

This is the sort of “wow”-inducing idea that speaks volumes about the possibilities of the future, yet is largely unappreciated in popular culture. This dearth of awareness and oftentimes pessimism about the future is precisely why society needs to take an interest in the future again, and Disney needs to redirect Epcot (it’s in lowercase letters nowadays) back to the future.

Pulling up the Epcot page on the Disney website, I found the four attractions featured prominently on the front page were Soarin’, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Mission: SPACE and Test Track.

The first, Soarin’, is a simulated hang glider flight over California (because Disney didn’t spend the money to create a new film when this California Adventure ride was copied to Florida). Nemo and Friends (featuring a ride through the story of “Finding Nemo”) replaced The Living Seas, a series of scientific exhibits about research and discoveries in the world’s oceans.

Mission: SPACE (where, according to Disney, “Each member of your astronaut team has a challenging role in a dynamic and daring cosmic mission dodging meteors and navigating nebulae”) replaced Horizons, an omnimover ride that took guests through a show depicting the technologies and visions of the future. And Test Track (where, according to Disney, you can “Enter the hair-raising world of auto testing on one of the longest, fastest rides in Disney history!”) replaced EPCOT Center’s World of Motion attraction, a ride that took guests through the history of travel and transportation.

These examples are symptomatic of the societal push toward cartoonization and fast thrills instead of a genuine interest in exploring the possibilities of technology. In 1982, EPCOT Center’s Communicore included a tour of the large computer center that ran the entire park, a display on the latest in robotic technology and an exhibit forecasting the advent of the Internet.

Innoventions, Communicore’s replacement, is a glorified arcade that also includes demonstrations of technologies many people are already familiar with (such as Segways and Velcro).

The EPCOT of ’82 was influenced by the prospective technology and optimism of the early ’80s. Today, Epcot isn’t even an acronym anymore. The park’s current incarnation reflects our culture’s general feeling of content with the technologies already available. Innoventions is all about material technology already in use.

However fancy these devices may be, they’re still rooted in the here and now. The old Epcot was about ideas, and while displays of today’s fancy technologies can become tired and outdated, ideas can still change the world. Embracing the promise and potential of tomorrow’s technology is about more than updated shows and character synergy – it about the future of humanity.