When I was growing up, my family loved a good Walt Disney World vacation. We still do. I was that kid–and I am that adult–who loved Epcot best. This should have indicated to my parents that they had something of a nerd on their hands. I’m guessing they were already aware. Forget the roller coasters and princess tea parties; I wanted to see the history and future of humanity, language, communication, science, technology, and agriculture dramatized by animatronic people, set to sweeping orchestral scores, narrated by Walter Cronkite. I wanted to wander around themed pavilions and imagine a vast, exciting world (filled with delicious food and nightly fireworks).
Epcot–the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow–was Walt Disney’s dream of a Utopian city. It opened in 1982, and was it ever a child of the 80s. It still is, try though the Imagineers might to update it. You just can’t shake the 80s out of Epcot. And why would you ever want to? To live in America in the 1980s meant to be obsessed, on some level, with The Future. What would The Future be like? Would we wear metallic jump suits? Would we need Terminators to destroy robot armies? Would space travel be a normal thing? Would we drive flying cars? Live to be 150? Have personal robots?
Surely, at the very least, we would all ride around in Monorails. Right? (I’m still pretty bummed about that one–not only would it be extremely cool, light rail is an obvious solution for mass transportation.)
But it wasn’t just a theme park of speculation and imagination, a dream of the future. Epcot was also about coming face-to-face with the very present reality of life on a fragile, precious planet. A Utopia would never trash its ecosystem. In the 1980s, Epcot warned me, on some level, about climate change. Epcot knew we needed to protect the land, seek alternative energies, and pay closer attention to the people and places around us. Epcot knew the value of a peaceful world. Epcot knew the value of a child’s imagination. Epcot knew that where we have been, as a human community, would always determine where we would go. Epcot knew that “if we can dream it, then we can do it.”
Epcot also knew that Michael Jackson needed to be in a 3D movie. Thank you, Captain EO.
In the year 2013, I am living in The Future. This is it, people. It has arrived. And I very often find myself acutely aware of the fact that The Future is more or less what Epcot told me it would be (except for the whole continuing to trash the environment thing). Just like the family in the old Horizons ride, I talk to my in-laws on video chat. I work at a wireless computer. I can control everyday objects with voice commands. I could, though I do not currently, unlock my front door with my phone, turn on my porch lights from 3000 miles away, and check on a sleeping baby via video monitor. I can get everything I need to grow plants hydroponically from a local shop (owned and operated, I’m relatively certain, by a couple of home marijuana farmers). Space tourism is very nearly a reality. I could get a robot vacuum. Most of my niece’s and nephew’s toys are smarter than I am. In a matter of seconds, I can access and watch any number of videos on a cell phone (Captain EO, anyone?).
Most public toilets flush automatically these days. If that’s not The Future, I don’t know what is. You know where I experienced my first hands-free, automatically flushing toilet? That’s right. Epcot. The Communicore bathroom, most likely. That toilet knew when I walked away. It was brilliant. I was amazed. Now hands free toileting has become so commonplace, I’m startled when a public toilet doesn’t flush on its own. I rarely need to touch anything in a public bathroom. The sink turns on and off automatically. The paper towel dispenser senses my presence and provides a paper towel. The automatic hand dryers are truly automatic. The Future is a germaphobe’s dream.
And the convenience of automatic processes and robotics to accomplish mundane tasks isn’t limited to the rest area in the middle of nowhere on the New York Thruway. Oh, no. Just about everything can be automated in the name of convenience. Take for example a case I lately encountered: the Breville One-Touch Tea Maker.
Apparently, we now have at our disposal robot teapots. The kettle heats the water to the perfect tea-steeping temperature, it lowers the tea basket into the water, it steeps the tea for precisely the right amount of time, it raises the tea basket out of the water, and it then keeps the tea at the ideal temperature for drinking.
I see this, and my first thought is: Woah. Seriously?
My second thought is: See that, the future is just like Epcot said it would be. I can have a robot teapot.
Note, I said “can” have, not “will” have, or “want to” have. I’m not sure a decent cup of tea requires such robotics. Sure, I’ve oversteeped my tea plenty of times. I’ve left my British Breakfast unattended on the counter until the water grows cold and the tea has produced enough tannins to turn my whole mouth fuzzy. I’ve overheated the water for green tea only to get a little extra hit of that sort of dirt-like green tea flavor. But none of these is an unmitigated disaster. I’ve never thrown myself to the floor in a fit of despair because I didn’t get my tea timing exactly right. I have never uttered the phrase: “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t invent a robot teapot to make me a reliable cup of tea.”
I’m a tea addict. A tea devotee (devo-tea?…sorry, couldn’t resist). I cannot start my day without a cup of tea. I usually cannot face the middle of my day without tea. I have an entire kitchen cabinet full of tea. I have very specific rituals when it comes to preparing my tea–none of which involve, or would likely benefit from, the help of a robot teapot. In fact, I’m rather annoyed that a robot teapot would take my tea rituals from me.
I’m very happy for a public toilet to flush itself. Sure, I’m capable of flushing that toilet, but I’d really rather not touch it, thank you very much. But my tea? Have we spiraled so far out of control in the name of convenience that steeping tea is too much trouble? Epcot told me that if we could dream it, then we could do it, but it also helped me to understand that we shouldn’t necessarily do something just because we can. The nuclear bomb is a rather dramatic case in point, and I think most of the folks on the Manhattan project would agree with me. Now, a robot teapot isn’t an atomic weapon, but it does emerge from a similar impulse that seems to have accompanied us into the future: if we can control something, then we will. Whether a force of nature of a simple domestic process for preparing a hot beverage, The Future is about getting what we want as conveniently as possible. It’s about skipping the process in favor of the end result. It’s about losing the simple things in the vast shadow of technology and progress.
That’s definitely not The Future that Epcot told me about. Robot teapots may be pretty amazing, but I’d rather pour myself a cup of tea and remember to participate in my own life instead of automating myself into oblivion.
Now, I wonder if Captain EO is hiding somewhere on the internet. I think I’m in the mood to make a cup of tea and watch an 80s sci-fi-music-video motion picture.