Artificial Worlds

By | October 11, 2007

As I mentioned on the most recent FastForward Radio, I’ve been at Walt Dinsey World this week working at a conference. I described the Disney complex as an artificial world made up of several smaller artificial worlds. Las Vegas is another good example of this.

Last night after dinner, one of my co-workers (a fellow Coloradan) was excoriating the whole Disney experience, talking about how much happier he would be alone on top of a mountain eating out of can or (better yet) hunting his own game. There was enthusiastic agreement from several of the others present. I challenged him on this, noting that our ancestors who lived on mountain tops and hunted their own game worked long and hard to create a different kind of world. For some reason, though living what my co-worker was offering up as an idyllic existence, they opted for civilization. In fact, if you took our primitive ancestors on a walking tour of the Lake Buena Vista resort complex — just a small part of Walt Disney World — they would probably think they were being given a glimpse of the dwelling place of the gods. If you told them that people staying in that world despise it and would much rather come with them to live the kind of life they lead, they would be rightly dumbfounded.

boardwalk.JPG

Across the lake from the artificial beach: an artificial seaside town.

It occurred to me after the fact that while my friend’s mountain top experience may not be as artificial as the world we were strolling around in last night, there is definitely something fake about it. After all, if he’s going to eschew civilization, then what’s with the canned food? And what’s with the rifle and ammo? Also, how was his cabin constructed, exactly? And if he’s staying in a tent, well it needs to be made of the skin of buffalos that he killed using a spear with a stone tip. Plus, the guy is a pilot and a huge aviation nut. I don’t think he’d really want to live in a world without airplanes.

But then if that’s the case, his natural and primitive lifestyle is an admitted compromise (if not outright hoax.) It’s a pleasurable experience similar to the real thing, but not identical, and made possible by civilization and technological infrastructure. His mountain cabin is — in some ways — as much an artificial world as the Norway Pavilion at Epcot.

In fact, it’s a bit like this, though perhaps not as extreme.

So, sure, he can prefer his mountain cabin and canned beans to a beach resort and yacht club built out of a reclaimed swamp. That’s his choice, and it’s a matter of taste — kind of like preferring the Venetian over Circus Circus, or Worlds of Warcraft over Second Life. There’s a big difference between where he is and where he would like to be, but maybe not as big as he would have us think. The externals are different, of course. But the fundamental distinction between the two places is not so much a difference of kind as a difference of degree.

  • Karl Hallowell

    I don’t think you get it. Nature for all its warts and such has two things going for it. First, nobody is trying to sell you anything and unless you get into trouble, there’s no urgency. If your day consists of eating either the stuff you hunted or canned food, then that’s a lot simpler than the stressful lives we normally lead. And anyone who’s ever been in Disney knows that from the moment you enter one of their amusement parks, they’re trying to squeeze more money out of you. And you run around or stand in lines all day.

    Second, the natural world is just a deeper experience. I don’t mean in that it’s somehow more mystical. I mean that if you look closely at any part of it, you see more. It’s a complex system that reveals a little more of itself every time you look. In comparison, Disney is an elaborate fascade. Once you get past that part, it turns pretty mundane. Having said that, they do have some amusing activities like finding hidden “mickeys” (hidden pictures of Mickey Mouse or other well-known Disney characters and artwork).

  • http://www.blog.speculist.com Stephen Gordon

    Karl:

    Everything you said about Disney World is true, but I think Phil gets it. He said,

    “There’s a big difference between where he is and where he would like to be”

    I’d bet that Phil is ready to abandon Mickey for some mountain biking back home.

    Phil’s larger point is that our “roughing it” is pretty civilized (and artificial) compared to the hard scrabble lives people lived 150+ years ago.

    Things are fun while they’re fun. Its being stuck that sucks. Some of my favorite vacations have been when the family and I alternated between tent camping by a beautiful mountain stream one night and staying in a fancy hotel the next.

    Yes I’d rather be sitting by a campfire in the mountains than being stuck in Disney hell. BUT, only if I had a good working car to drive me out of the woods when I was ready. An overlong work conference at Disney World is far better than true hand-to-mouth survival in the wilderness.

  • Larry

    I think Vegas and the various incarnations of Disney represent the future lifestyles of all of us. More specifically, I think we are steadily approaching a world that is:

    - safe
    - clean
    - fun
    - easy
    - nonthreatening

    The celebration of camping as the purer alternative gives us a hint about what is driving the transformation. To amplify that hint, what is something that women are often willing to do before they marry, but much less willing to do thereafter?

    Yes, I’m saying that more than ever before, women are driving the world’s evolution. It is women who will eventually liberate the Middle East, women who drive SUVs because they feel safer, and women who are turning the world into Disneyland. I.e., women define “civilization”, and this is how they now define it.

    Please not that of course I’m not saying “all women”, because many women reject all of the above (with the possible exception of women’s rights in the Middle East.) But not most women…

  • MDarling

    Human activity is an extension of “Nature”. So Disney’s constructs are just as much “nature” as that mountain top.

    Phil gets that part right.

    And I’ve known women who would camp both before and after marriage. But I’ve yet to meet the woman who prefers camping to excellent hotel accomodations. Rumors abound that they exist- I just haven’t met them.

    “…complex system that reveals a little more of itself every time you look. In comparison, Disney is an elaborate fascade. Once you get past that part, it turns pretty mundane.”

    The complexity that exists in the raw, also exists in Disneyland. You have to look harder- but it’s there. By definition it has to be.

    The complaints about incessant commercial appeal- are more a function of Disney and Vegas getting it right than wrong. They are only offering what we desire- if you didn’t want what they were offering you wouldn’t care that they were offering it and you didn’t want to give up the cash.

    I’m not a big fan of Vegas- though I have had fun there, betting on “sure thing” sports events and chasing Elvis impersonators. But I love Disneyland/World etc. To my thinking where Disney blows it is the too short experience. I’d want to move to the Kingdom for something like a year- and I look forward to staying in the apartment if I can ever afford it.

    http://www.theage.com.au/news/news/stay-in-a-dream-apartment/2007/10/11/1191696067828.html

    Likewise Skywalker Ranch.

    And I think there would be real profit from a guided, helicopter in&out, mountaintop wilderness experience.

  • Karl Hallowell

    The complaints about incessant commercial appeal- are more a function of Disney and Vegas getting it right than wrong. They are only offering what we desire- if you didn’t want what they were offering you wouldn’t care that they were offering it and you didn’t want to give up the cash.

    Imagine a DVD movie that you’d keep if someone offered it to you for free. Now that we’ve determined you want it, it’s then perfectly ok to make you wait through a five minute trailer for this movie before you can start your car in the morning? Hey, we’re just offering what you want.

    The thing that you don’t seem to get is that advertisement is an externality. It is a cost imposed on every Disney visitor. I don’t appreciate having advertising costs imposed on me especially when it is greater than the perceived value to me of the advertised good or service.

    The complexity that exists in the raw, also exists in Disneyland. You have to look harder- but it’s there. By definition it has to be.

    No. You don’t get away with that. The accepted definitions of “complexity”, “Disneyland”, “nature”, etc do not support your claim.

    Besides this strikes me as ignoring my main complaint. One of the reasons I go to a place like Disneyland or Yellowstone National Park, is to get away from work and compulsory effort. If I have to look “harder” (and having been at these parks so much, I know that it’s much more effort at a place like Disneyland) to do something I enjoy, then that’s starting to look like work to me.

  • Phil Bowermaster

    Larry,

    Risk makes life fun and interesting, so one of the things we’re figuring out how to do is to put risk into our artificial worlds. Vegas is better at the risk thing than Disney, although the risk there isn’t exactly virtual. Amusement park thrill rides are a good example of virtual risk — unless they go wrong, of course. Disney is notorius for the lameness of its “thrill” rides. Personally, though, I enjoyed both the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rockin’ Roller Coaster at MGM-Disney. Aritificial worlds like Halo find another way to add risk. And, of course, for those who prefer modified nature to more intensely artificial worlds, the natural world provides plenty of the real thing.

    MD –

    I agree. The devoutly religious (and other dualists) have the luxury of arguing that human constructs are somehow apart from nature. Heinlein once wrote about those who can see that a beaver’s dam is part of nature, but can’t grasp that a dam built by human beings is ALSO part of nature.

    Karl –

    Interestingly, I found a stay at a Disney Resort (sans a visit to any of the actual Disney parks) a lot less in-your-face with the more obnoxious commercial and advertising efforts. Like MD, I think I could do a year in such a setting (but maybe a trial three months would be better!) But Stephen was right that I would start missing my own compromised “natural” experiences sooner or later. Still, the fact that we all come to different conclusions about what works and what doesn’t seems to back up my contention that what we’re fundamentally talking about here is personal aesthetic choices.

  • MDarling

    “…advertisement is an externality.”

    In some places it is – in some places it isn’t.

    In DisneyLand- I expect it isn’t. I expect the commercial, in your face, brand positioning. It’s “Disney” land- not come and have fun land.
    If I went to Paris HIlton land I’d expect it too. Or Kraft Mac & Cheese land. Or LegoLand – or any “land” based ona branded product.

    Now if I go to XYZ Wilderness area- I’d expect no inrusions. Except cow poop- those guys seem to get to graze everywhere.

    If you can’t “let go” and let all things Disney wash over you in a fun and relaxing way- don’t go there seeking that kind of escape. Turn the channel and go find a beaver dam to observe.