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AT&T also "presents" my long-distance service, and is currently getting into the Internet business. It is a company with a serious investment in the future of communication, so I was interested in its sponsored version of communication's past. Spaceship Earth's narrative is fairly straightforward. It is literally a movement from dark to light, from a time of no language to a time of digital technology that enables us to communicate around the world. We are told that innovation in communication has caused our world to shrink, that it has led to increased community.

It's an aggressively Western teleology. There is no mention of Japan or China or any of the advanced civilizations that flourished in so-called "third-world" countries. Disney, which once postulated a happy village with its "Small World' ride, has let AT&T underwrite a much narrower historical construct. The only time a non-Christian nation is mentioned after the fall of Rome is a grudging acknowledgment to the Jewish and Islamic scholars who served as life rafts of learning during the Dark Ages. There is no world outside the "civilized" nations. Has communication technology led to a divide between information haves and have-nots? Not on this ride. Here, the have-nots simply don't exist.

As the ride ends near the acme of the sphere, each passenger is asked, "A new communication highway is being built. Will it be babble, or will we use it to usher in a new era of understanding?" AT&T is anti-babble. It has eliminated dissent and blithely swept away people or nations left behind in the corporation's search for profit. Both history and the future can look great if you leave out large chunks of the story.

On the way back down, there are numerous dioramas and displays showing what the babbleless future of communication will look like. It looks like we will all own a lot of video phones, which just happen to be made by AT&T. The ride is littered with video phones, with few computers in sight. (2) As we exited, the final voice-over informed us that AT&T is "dedicated to bringing people together and giving you the information you need when you need it." But this future isn't about people or information. It's about robots and technology, exclusion rather than inclusion. We've been invented right out of our own story. Give me babble over 'bots any day.

"Difference is, today we really can bring our dreams to life."

The veneer of non-commercialization attached to the "presented" pavilions drops out of sight completdly in the two "Innoventions" pavilions. The two semicircular buildings that surround the main plaza in Future World are nothing more than a trade show, with companies from Apple to Honeywell to Sega displaying their wares and touting their technologies.



General Motors displayed its new electric car, the "Impact" (the tag line: "It ain't no golf cart"). The smiling woman at the display informed me that it will be on sale this fall, can be recharged in fifteen minutes with a 440-volt charger, will do 80 miles an hour, and can travel 70 miles on a charge. I saw her later in the day, after her shift was over, and tried to talk to her, but she blew me off, unable (or unwilling) to deal with me as a person rather than as a consumer. Perhaps she could sense my free-floating lust.

As I checked out each company's best gadgets, I sensed an odd discomfort toward the technology. AT&T has set up the office of the future, filled with video phones and Motorola Envoy PDAs. But the office itself is surprisingly stodgy; heavy oak furniture and antique books dominate the decor. I'm sure that the intended effect is a homey, comfortable feeling, but it only exacerbates my sense of being manipulated.

The same sort of thing goes on in a movie shown in the Oracle display, which portrays a family during the mother's business trip to France. Every TV is interactive, everybody has a groovy little PDA, and the kids call Mom up on (of course) a video phone. Dad makes dinner reservations online, the kids do their homework.

But when Mom arrives home, we shift to a very different scene. The kids are in the yard playing baseball, Dad is raking leaves in the background. Mom, the worldly digital traveler, is brought home in a 1950s vintage yellow taxi. We've gone from "Buck Rogers" to "Leave it to Beaver." The conservative nature of corporations comes into focus, and you realize that while these companies may get rich selling the stuff, they don't feel comfortable with it.
















You can't buy cigarettes in France

I leave Future World and enter the Twilight Zone. The World Showcase is the other main area of EPCOT--a collection of eleven villages of about four square blocks, done up as various foreign countries. In the United Kingdom, there's a bad pub called the Rose and Crown, in Italy there is an inaccurate reproduction of St. Mark's Square in Venice. It's the sort of place where one vista can include reproductions of Independence Hall, a Shinto shrine, and the Eiffel Tower.

The cumulative effect is chilling. Talking a brisk walk through the various countries, I move from nation to nation in minutes, with no travel time or transition. Imagine the instant access that the Net allows, taken to the physical realm. And imagine that that physical realm consists not of actual places with real residents, but of reproduced, sanitized versions of those places--manned by smiling cast members--and mixed up, rearranged, so that they are not in their actual geographic order, but Morocco is next to Japan.

I needed a cigarette badly. I found myself in France, where I went from shop to shop, trying to find some Gitanes, but none were available. There was not the least bit of authenticity to the place. No soccer thugs in the U.K., no hash in Morocco, and you couldn't even buy cigarettes in France.

I had to leave.

Walking out through the Italy section, I saw a large crowd forming on the street. I pushed my way through to see what the object of their attention was, and discovered that it was a park worker, painted white to resemble a statue, moving around the crowd, periodically striking various poses.

And suddenly I understood the cornerstone of the EPCOT experience. Everything is anthropomorphized here--this statue/woman, robots, even the process of imagination--and yet people are denied their own humanity. There are no "people" at the park. There are either guests or cast members. Everything, from the process of parking your car to the experience of being shuttled through the history of communication or agriculture, is designed to take away your agency. When you enter the gates, Disney takes over.


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Mark McClusky is Associate Editor of New Media at Sports Illustrated, but he often talks about things other than sports. Really.

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