Thursday, November 16, 2006
'The Hopes of Progress'
While reading the novel Saturday by Ian McEwan, I ran across this passage I wanted to share. Take from it what you will, but it seemed very relevant to the ongoing discussion of why Epcot has sunk so low and what it means about the "creative" minds at Disney. The bold highlight is mine:
He remembers some lines from Medawar, a man he admires [note: the reference is to Peter Medawar, 1960 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology and Medicine]: "To deride the hopes of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind." ...
"But if the present dispensation is wiped out now, the future will look back on us as gods, certainly in this city, lucky gods blessed by supermarket cornucopias, torrents of accessible information, warm clothes that weigh nothing, extended life-spans, wondrous machines. This is an age of wondrous machines. Whole music libraries held in an object the size of a child's hand. Cameras that can beam their snapshots around the world. Effortlessly, he ordered up the contraption he's riding in now through a evice on his desk via the Internet. The computer-guided stereotactic array he used yesterday has transformed the way he does biopsies. Digtialised [sic] entertainment binds [a] couple walking hand in hand, listening through a Y-socket to their personal stereo."
I read this passage and wondered ... where is our generation’s celebration of our world, our life? Isn't that, at its core, what EPCOT Center was and why it worked so well?
It reminded us of how much we had to be happy about, and how much happiness and improvement to our lives was still to come. It reminded us of who we were at that time, how fortunate we were to live in that time – and every once in a while chastised us very lightly for not doing more to be even more interested in our world.
It wasn't about princesses and caballeros and cartoon clownfish singing songs and imploring you to be happy and irritate your parents.
That's why I'm so disappointed: As a result of its changes, Epcot itself has begun (intentionally or by accident?) “to deride the hopes of progress” – to present exactly the wrong subconscious and contextual messages than it was intended to offer.
And, by extension, these changes to Epcot have shed light on what Disney itself has become – a country that values quick financial results over the long-term continued growth and expansion of its creative side; an organization that, for all the "happiness" it claims to offer, has developed a terrible and quite real “poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.”
It’s my hope that EPCOT will one day begin to celebrate again, to champion and proclaim the future and the world around us as worthy of optimism, of moving toward continuous and never-ending progress.
Some may believe that's a silly and naive goal (you have made yourself very clear in your e-mails), but I think it remains a noble cause, one that not only reaps accretive – but substantial – economic rewards for the company but also even greater intangible rewards such as motivating and inspiring new generations to believe in something much more than simple commercialism. For even in its previous, sponsor-heavy incarnation, the messages that came across most clearly were that people were thinking about, working on and creating a better world, not simply that our future would be brought to us by AT&T, Exxon and United Technologies.
EPCOT Center was magnanimous in spirit, was kind and gentle of nature, was of an inspiring, active and enviable mind. Those are not words that even the most lenient among us who care about this place would say about Epcot.
Where is the spirit of the old EPCOT? Can it be rescued? I hope so ... because , to steal a line from the old That's Entertainment, boy, do we need it now.
The future, as it existed in 1982, looks back kindly on EPCOT Center, not because it was perfect, but because it tried, and that in and of itself was admirable and wonderful.
The future of 2006, I am afraid, will not look back so kindly on Epcot nor on the Walt Disney Company that steadily and (I believe, more and more) quite intentionally oversaw the destruction of a cultural institution that existed so well, so lovingly, for nearly a century.
Postscript (Nov. 17, 2006): I did a bit more research into the speech that Peter Medawar gave in 1969 that contains the line quoted above. It is an incredibly rich, difficult speech to read, but for anyone interested in his observations on society and progress -- honestly, for anyone seriously interested in why EPCOT Center proved to be so much more than many people perceived and why its recent failings are so monumentally disappointing -- Medawar's speech is really remarkable and highly recommended. He may have given the speech 37 years ago, but it remains extraordinarily relevant.