A Lesson from Disneyland

Even Wednesday is a special article by an invited guest. This is our very first such post, and we're honoured to have Chris Parsons, a UK-based consultant and programmer who created the SVG Planner templates using open standards. That he did this entirely within the Emacs text editor is a testament to both his brilliance and his patience. I know it still amazes me. -- DJ

Monsanto House of the FutureWith every new technology, there’s a cascade of excitement and flurry of inappropriate use. We’re bowled over by our own creative genius and then attempt to use the new technology for everything, even when previous solutions worked perfectly well. The digital revolution is no exception to this.

An interesting example of this phenomenon can be found within the walls of Disneyland, California. In 1957, a new attraction opened there, entitled the “Monsanto House of the Future”. Designed by scientists at MIT, this was the best 1950’s guess at the way people would live in an impossibly distant future (that is, 1987). It was constructed entirely of plastic.

People loved it; for the decade or so that it was open, some twenty million people in total went to see it. Some of the ideas caught on --there was a functional microwave in the house, for example-- but plastic as an omnipresent building material did not. Proud advertisements for the attraction boasted that “Hardly a natural material appears [in the house] in anything like its original state.” It sounds amusing today and obvious to us why it didn’t catch on, but back then that was considered a top selling point.

Eventually, of course, people ditched the idea of plastic for everything. To describe something as "plastic" is even a derogatory term today: we talk about plastic (i.e., superficial) people or friendships, and plastic (flimsy) cars. We went back to wooden furniture for our houses, because it felt more comfortable and homely.

Here’s a thought: perhaps in thirty years' time, people will see our obsession with digital organisation and our craving for computerisation as, well, dated. Maybe they’ll laugh at our crude PDAs with their ridiculous writing systems and how we spent hours getting PC synchronisation software to work.

In this light, it’s not at all surprising that paper is being taken seriously again as an organisational medium. Why? Well, paper has had a hard time in the "gimmick" stakes. Paper hasn’t been news since modern methods of manufacture were introduced a hundred years ago.

After a while, all successful technology settles down and becomes part of the subconscious. In recent years, that’s just what happened to digital technology.

As an example: how many of us notice the Internet these days? I certainly don’t. I use it so often now my brain takes it completely for granted, so that I don’t "use the Internet" any more: I "search Google", "check my mail", or "pay my bills". Newspapers and magazines have stopped writing about the Internet, too. They simply write about blogs, or censorship, or freedom of speech, just taking the Internet for granted. The Internet itself is just not news these days, anymore than radio is news.

The Internet (and the computer revolution in general) has caught up with paper – it's become humdrum. Digital technology is now ubiquitous and uninteresting enough to be judged on its merits as a tool for a task. The playing field is finally level.

I see increased paper use not as a rebellion against the ravages of technology (some still stubbornly resist computerisation in all its forms), but as something more boring, I’m afraid -- the result of a slow deflation of enthusiasm for the glittering promises of the digital era. We now know that all our problems will not be solved through the use of 1's and 0's to store information. We embraced a digital world and we’ve come out of the other side. Some of the better ideas have caught on, but we need to remove the rose-tinted spectacles and let some ideas fade into obscurity, to be laughed at by our grandchildren.

Let’s learn from the “House of the Future” and throw out our digital obsession. Let’s use what works, rather than what’s cool.

Image of the Monsanto House of the Future is copyright by Walt Disney Productions.

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damn homie

That house looks awesome. I'd like one.

Paperless world

It's interesting to see the mention of increased use of paper in the digital era. I currently work at a company that recently implemented a "paperless document system". The use of paper has increased tremendously as a result.
When any sort of document circulated for approval in the past, it was printed once and passed around in sequence to the people who needed to review it. Now each of those people prints the document out and then types in comments when they're done with their review.
I don't attribute this to a failure of digital tech, however. I personally print things to read only when it would be severely annoying to do otherwise. I cringe whenever I need to make photocopies for other people. My boss still prints everything out and tells me to read it, even if there's only a sentence in the document that has what I need.
The problem, I believe, is twofold. Part one is the resistance of people over a certian age to do things differently from the way they are used to, and the other part is that my monitor was slavaged from one of the graphic artist's computers that had to be discarded, and is consequently enormous when compared to my coworkers' screens. If I had a screen as small as everyone else around here, I'd probably print out a lot more than I currently do.

I was a child of 10

living in Ojai, CA when Disney unveiled that "future perfect". I remember the crowds waiting in line in the summer heat to enter an airconditioned home with the precursors to things like microwaves, computer operated lights, tv remote controls.... I remember the smell of hot asphalt and new plastic....

I've been back to Disneyland maybe 30 times since then, but nothing they've ever done since has quite that same "rememory" impact (well, excluding the movie "Pirates of the Carribean"....)

NOTHING is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool! [Silvermoon's Law]

Digital organizers

I recall seeing my first microwave demo in the summer of '69. At the sage age of 9, I "knew" it was a gimmick.

I abandoned paper scheduling some ten years ago, when electronic synchronization meant my secretary and I could update and reconcile my calendar in a couple minutes each morning, and when the Palm Pilot meant I could hold in the palm of my hand far more information than I could ever cram into a Filofax.

Just how fat would a FiloFax need to be to hold the 4 gig of information my Palm's SD card will hold?

I do miss the sensation of my Pelikan or Parker fountain pen floating across a page of high quality paper, but.....