September 21, 2016

As I was riding Spaceship Earth at Epcot a few weeks ago, I had a light bulb moment: Spaceship Earth is a representation of human relationships with technology, as it is meant to be, but it can also be a symbol for the discipline of Texts & Technology.

If you don’t have familiarity with this ride, it is at the entrance to Epcot, Disney’s permanent World’s Fair theme park. The ride is housed in a geodesic sphere a la Buckminster Fuller, also known as “the giant golf ball.” Opened in 1982, this “dark ride” illustrates with dramatic, kinetic scenes some key moments in the history of communication, starting with cave paintings, going through multiple civilizations and times, and ending in a garage with the development of the personal computer. After an open area that looks like an observatory, the rider is asked to select possibilities so that the computer can demonstrate a customized, animated future made possible by technologies yet to be invented. The vehicles are meant to be “time machines” that riders explore their histories in. Like the theme park it is in, the attraction about our “grand and miraculous spaceship” demonstrates principles of optimism, futurism, and technological utopianism.

The ride’s narrative and images highlight the expansion of technologies to communicate. These include cave paintings, papyrus writing, alphabets and translators, mathematics, ships, roads, music, art, libraries, illuminated manuscripts, movable type printing presses, industrial printing presses, telephones, telegraphs, radio, film, television, spacecraft, mainframe computers, and personal computers. The attraction itself is a showcase of technologies: the geodesic sphere with Alucobond panels; Disney’s proprietary Omnimover ride system, a set of continuously moving, linked vehicles with the ability to rotate; Disney’s advanced robots, Audio-Animatronics; projection technology; ride and show control systems; lighting, sound, and smell effects; interactive touch screens with animation; and image capture with facial recognition software. Other technologies are found in the post-show exhibit. Despite the presence of so many technologies in both form and content, this is not an attraction about thrill but education or even enlightenment.

Spaceship Earth is a text about humanity’s connections to technology and each other. It is a progress narrative to be sure, but it is one that honors the past. It is also a technology that is humanistic in its approach. It celebrates human striving and interprets the links between people and their machines. It clearly situates these technologies within specific cultures (Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans, et al.), time periods (classical Greece, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, etc.), and associates them with significant figures (e.g. Gutenberg and Michelangelo). The attraction is biased in its presentation; after all, it has only minor allusions to strife (the fall of Rome, the loss of the Library of Alexandria, the Civil War) and has no references to the most destructive technologies we create that lead to war and environmental degradation. Nonetheless, its humanistic viewpoint presents technologies that connect people and cultures; it is not wholly Western, as there is a reference to “Jewish and Islamic scholars” in the East who came together to preserve knowledge and save our “dreams of the future.” In the story, communication technology is what facilitates survival, great civilizations, and human progress. The ride has a standpoint and makes claims similar to some of the authors read in this doctoral program; it is in fact doing Texts & Technology. Spaceship Earth could be a multi-modal, multi-sensory text on the core candidacy exam!

Spaceship Earth can easily be interrogated using the kinds of theories and approaches found in Texts & Technology. People and machines are merged (in the tableaux and in the attraction experience), so the cyborg concept could be utilized, and in the animatronic representations of people, some may find an uncanny valley. Cultural critics might cite the impact of ideology and its being a product of and influencer of culture. They may find it a conceit for a corporation to tell the story of human history and possibly reify a universal heritage; likewise, the depictions of mass media influencing viewers are ironic. Semiotics might be employed, as Spaceship Earth is a text rife with signs that can be decoded and are essentially intertextual. Historians could look at the accuracy of its depictions or its selection of events, as tens of thousands of years are indeed condensed into fifteen minutes. Those using Marxist approaches might see a commodified text from a conglomerate meant to consume, complete with corporate sponsorship (previously Bell System and then AT&T, now Siemens). It is likewise within a larger theme park system of scientific management and control a la Taylor, with the Omnimover system even resembling a factory conveyor. The postmodernists may deem the whole thing a simulation with altered historical referents and within the larger park, Epcot, which is an inauthentic construction, a part of the hyperreal. My own research trends in a more positive direction, so this attraction is also storytelling technology, spatial narrative, a text that can be read as literature, a themed environment, an immersive world, experiential learning, a wonder, an object of fandom, and an attraction with the potential for transformation.

Spaceship Earth is a metaphor for both our human quests and that of the discipline. Like Spaceship Earth, Texts & Technology is a contemplation of human relationships with technologies. The many possible angles or tracks in Texts & Technology can be gleaned within the ride: digital humanities, digital media, design, history, rhetoric, literature, science, new media, popular culture, cinema, game studies, anthropology, sociology, or business. The ride demonstrates the progression through orality, literacy, and electracy. It reflects the evolution of new media, as the ride was altered from a more passive experience to an interactive one with a hypermediated, game-like interface that brings an element of play. In the earlier iterations, fiber optic telecommunications were the final stage of development depicted, but now a figure tinkering on a personal computer is, after which a screen of Matrix-like code strands envelops the ride vehicle. This scene, and the encapsulated form of the ride, reveal one of the most common themes of Texts & Technology: for better or worse, cultures and economies have become globalized and networked, or, as the narrator says, “a truly global community.” Spaceship Earth also encompasses both the production of a text and the interpretation of texts. It is an example of commercial art but its interpretative stance is a collective practice, a co-creation of its artists, engineers, writers (like Ray Bradbury, who worked on the original script), narrators (over the years: Lawrence Dobkin, Walter Cronkite, Jeremy Irons, and Judi Dench), the vision of the company’s foundational figure (Walt Disney, long dead when it was built), and the guests themselves, who bring their world views and hopes into the ride. Its tone is lofty, its purpose uplift, and its value idealism, with human beings displaying their better natures and noble pursuits. The merit of learning, science, and the arts are all revealed. Both individual and social group pursuits are portrayed, as discovery can be initiated in both settings. There is not much difference in our world of academia meets reality, where we want our research to either reveal something new about the world or to change it in some meaningful way. Sure, we might get occasionally bogged down in theoretical disputes, discipline stereotypes, or issues associated with academic or political institutions, but our overall orientation is also about striving, learning, and communicating.

Finally, Spaceship Earth’s physical location near the University of Central Florida reminds me of how appropriate a place to study this has been for someone who is fascinated by non-traditional texts like theme parks. This article, which hopefully exemplifies how many ways of seeing have opened during the course of this program, reminds me why I am thrilled that Texts & Technology is the program I have spent years of my life working in. While I expect to graduate within the next two years, these ways of seeing will only grow as I continue to explore our own spaceship Earth.