Sunday, 31 May 2015

Tomorrowland, Objectivism, Technique, and Optimal Behaviourism

After seeing trailers for Disney's latest attempt at a live-action Science Fiction film, Tomorrowland, I had my misgivings. It had an air of a creepy, Ayn Rand-style plot and ran the risk of making the same shallow statements of technological utopianism one finds so prevalent in Atomic Age futurism and modern Transhumanism. Still, I was cautiously optimistic and when Ashley and I went to see it last night, my fears were blessedly allayed. It didn't exactly subvert the issues I was concerned with, but it was not as bad as I was fearing either.

The following review will have the spoilers germane to a discussion about its themes and message, so if you're one of the many people who haven't seen it (based on its box office returns), you may want to exercise your own caution. The short review is that I enjoyed it. I didn't come out excitedly loving it, but then here I am writing an essay about it.

My initial concern was how closely the plot seemed like it was mirroring the work of Ayn Rand. Rand was a philosopher who, after fleeing the Soviet Union for the United States, developed a vicious ideology of selfishness and individualism that, unsurprisingly, dominates America's political establishment today. The nicest way she phrased her philosophy, called Objectivism, was "Man—every man—is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." It takes a turn to the egotistic and pathological when it essentially (and often explicitly) forbids the idea of charity, altruism, and working towards the common good of all people. That, in fact, was the basis for her objection to religion. In one blustery moment, she declared that Catholicism was evil, not for any one or another controversial event, but because it taught charity. She objected to the existence of God, not on any evidential basis, but because it would imply that there was something superior to man and an obligation to something higher than his own self-interest. "For centuries, the battle of morality was fought between those who claimed that your life belongs to God and those who claimed that it belongs to your neighbors - between those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of ghosts in heaven and those who preached that the good is self-sacrifice for the sake of incompetents on earth. And no one came to say that your life belongs to you and that the good is to live it."

Rand's belief was that, with self-interest as man's highest goal, it was self-interested creative geniuses who actually stimulated any progress whatsoever in humanity. "America's abundance was created not by public sacrifices to the common good, but by the productive genius of free men who pursued their own personal interests and the making of their own private fortunes. They did not starve the people to pay for America's industrialization. They gave the people better jobs, higher wages, and cheaper goods with every new machine they invented, with every scientific discovery or technological advance- and thus the whole country was moving forward and profiting, not suffering, every step of the way." There is a chilling naivete in this view, which Rand went to egregious lengths to expound in her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. In this doorstop of a tome, an enigmatic character named John Galt establishes a society built on Objectivist ideals, into which he gathers all the best and brightest and most creative (and from any kind of moral and relational perspective, the worst) to build a testament to their own greatness while the rest of humanity wallows in their own worthlessness. "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged" said John Rogers. "One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."

It is easy to see, from that basic outline, how Tomorrowland could invite comparisons. A secret society that pulls all of the best and brightest and most creative people from Earth to live in an alternate dimension where they are free from everyone else? Even if it presented in an altruistic form - that these people are dedicated to working for the good of humanity (at least at the start) - it is apparently still permeated with the idea that society is shaped by great thinkers, industrialists, and so on, who achieve their best work when not being held back by the rest of us. One disappointment I did have with the finished film was that Earth was going to Hell in a handbasket because of the psychic influence of some evil, spherical machine (what does Brad Bird have against spherical objects anyways?) and not because Tomorrowland has been busy pulling all the creative, optimistic, altruistic people out of the world. My other big disappointment is that, because this is still an American movie, it has to end in a fist fight and a shootout. Even after Hugh Laurie's character Nix is shown the error of his ways, he's still committed to being a growling bad guy who has to die a fiery death. It would have been much better for him to realize his error and be redeemed.

At least Laurie got to rattle off a scathing and largely accurate assessment of modern social pessimism. "You've got simultaneous epidemics of obesity and starvation, explain that one. Bees and butterflies start to disappear, the glaciers melt, the algae blooms. All around you the coal mine canaries are dropping dead and you won't take the hint! In every moment there's a possibility of a better future, but you people won't believe it. And because you won't believe it you won't do what is necessary to make it a reality... The only facts people will face are the ones that keep the wheels greased and the dollars coming in... People don’t care about a better future because it doesn’t cost them anything today... We saw the iceberg and we warned the Titanic.  But you sailed anyway because you want to sink...  They didn’t fear their demise.  They embraced it..." His speech, especially in regards to our repackaging of the apocalypse into a consumer good, mirrored the poignant remarks made by the (ironically) Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin on the aesthetics of fascism. "Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order." If any part of the film should be played an replayed in schools, it should be that speech.

But does Tomorrowland hold out a real solution to this problem? The consistent problem with dreams of technological utopia, or what Jacques Ellul called "a dictatorship of the test tube," is that it proposes no real social and political solution for humanity, only an unexamined, naive faith that somehow superior technology will magically result in a superior humanity. When all those dreams were being put forward about labour-saving devices that would free humanity for more noble or leisurely activities, who asked the important question of how much people were going to be paid for not working? There is a very real sense in which modern pessimism is the product of the past's technological optimism, because we have now seen what happens when machines free people from being necessary. Transhumanism, the belief that humanity will be positively affected by technological and biological alterations to its bodies (what used to be called "eugenics" until Hitler made that idea unpopular), is one of the most naive of faiths currently available in the ideological marketplace. One needs merely to project the present state of the class-gap in healthcare and how humanity is destroying the environment to see why allowing the rich to accrue to themselves a functional immortality would simply compound the crisis.

Tomorrowland went a long way to excoriating politicians (and rightly so), but offered no insight into how the society in Tomorrowland actually functions. Perhaps it is telling that it appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be a dictatorship ruled by David Nix that was then taken over by the oligarchy of Frank Walker and Casey Newton. In the end, the only way to enforce a technological utopia is by dictatorship. To quote from Ellul, on the subject of modern technological society and the idea of eugenics,
how shall we force humanity to refrain from begetting children naturally? How shall we force them to submit to constant and rigorous hygienic controls? How shall man be persuaded to accept a radical transformation of his traditional modes of nutrition? How and where shall we relocate a billion and a half persons who today make their living from agriculture and who, in the promised ultrarapid conversion of the next forty years, will become utterly useless as cultivators of the soil?... There are many other "hows," but they are conveniently left unformulated... there is one and only one means to their solution, a world-wide totalitarian dictatorship which will allow technique its full scope and at the same time resolve the concomitant difficulties. It is not difficult to understand why the scientists and worshippers of technology prefer not to dwell on this solution, but rather to leap nimbly across the dull and uninteresting intermediary period and land squarely in the golden age... If we take a hard, unromantic look at the golden age itself, we are struck with the incredible naivete of these scientists. They say, for example, that they will be able to shape and reshape at will human emotions, desires, and thoughts and arrive scientifically at certain efficient, pre-established collective decisions. They claim they will be in a position to develop certain collective desires, to constitute certain homogeneous social units out of aggregates of individuals, to forbid men to raise their children, and even to persuade them to renounce having any. At the same time, they speak of assuring the triumph of freedom and the necessity of avoiding dictatorship at any price. They seem incapable of grasping the contradiction involved, of understanding that what they are proposing... is in fact the harshest of dictatorships. In comparison, Hitler's was a trifling affair. That is is to be a dictatorship of test tubes rather than of hobnailed boots will not make it any less a dictatorship.     
The "technique" of which he speaks is "the totality of methods rationally arrived at, and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity." Ellul held the view that "Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity." The society in Tomorrowland would appear to have realized this dream in some key aspects, but it comes by this honestly. It is instructive to watch Walt Disney's original pitch film for EPCOT, made shortly before his untimely passing. Presently, EPCOT stands a sort of theme park of scientific innovation. In its initial form, however, Disney intended it to be an "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" which would showcase the dynamism of industry in civic design and home architecture. The intent of this project is stated outright by Disney as showcase of the American free-market system and the products of industry. Never mentioned, in the whole of his vision of a perfectly ordered, efficiently run, domed city with theme park shopping boulevards, are concepts of natural and wild spaces, public land, or democracy. Cities are messy, inefficient places because they are fundamentally democratic places filled with free human beings.

Many wonder, and Tomorrowland both asks and answers the question of, whatever happened to the future? The end credits of Tomorrowland show a montage of the past's visions for the future, from Victorian dreams of men in aerostats passing the Eiffel Tower to the metropoli of the Twenties and Thirties to the Jetsons age of the Sixties. It stops there. According to the film, right around 1969 is when the evil spherical machine was switched on and humanity was consistently pumped full of negative images of its own destruction. That in itself is a wry commentary on nightmare fueling media and clickbait journalism. But if we look at what happened in the late Sixties, we might get an understanding of why the future changed so much. The technological optimism of the Space Race ran parallel to the anxieties of the Atomic Age, both fueled alike from the end of World War II and the Cold War. The world came close to annihilation in 1962 with the Cuban Missle Crisis and thereafter proxy wars became the preferred field of combat. In 1969, Lydon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam War towards its bloody climax, which challenged America's sense of military and moral authority, and man finally set foot on the moon leaving a discomforting sense of false accomplishment. All of that effort and all those promises seemed to come to nothing substantial in the daily lives of actual human beings. New social movements and a broadening idea of society began to emerge, including the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, American Indian Movement and Native American rights, Second Wave feminism, the Sexual Revolution, the anti-war movement and even the Second Vatican Council. Attention turned from how do we make society "futuristic" to how do we tangibly make the lives of human beings better? Whether or not our efforts have actually worked, dreams of technological progress without attention to social, economic, environmental, and moral progress is simply inadequate. Futurism turned away from the stars and towards the poor and oppressed.

Therein is the thing I liked most about Tomorrowland. At the end, when Frank and Casey are setting about to rebuild the future, they don't just appeal to scientists and engineers. They also include musicians, ballerinas, neighbourhood tree planters, and African park rangers. It subverted the idea that utopianism is strictly technological, which was a welcome reprieve at the end of a movie which very well could have reinforced it. And by that choice, it put "optimal behaviourism" in the hands of the regular viewer of the film. That term "optimal behaviourism" was coined by Science Fiction author Ray Bradbury, who used it frequently in connection with Walt Disney. "I’ve learned that by doing things, things get done," he said. "I’m not an optimist. I’m an optimal behaviorist." He said of Walt that he wasn't just an aimless optimist, a dreamer, but that he believed in doing your best to make the world a better place and encouraging others to do their best. Tomorrowland isn't just a place for mechanical inventors who ranking highly on some abject scale, but for everyone through even the smallest apparent actions of charity and creativity. I would have preferred that the film end with a montage of people making the world a better place while Frank and Casey shut Tomorrowland down entirely. But at the very least Tomorrowland should get applause for showing, right at the end, how positive change is affected.


  1. I think you're spot-on about the ending sequence, which I found incredibly inspiring and touching. And I immediately contrasted the diversity of people offered the pins--men and women of all races and walks of life--with the founders of Plus Ultra: four well-off white guys who, while undoubtedly brilliant, were also blinded by their privilege and made the mistake of assuming that beneficial progress comes from a handful of "great thinkers" rather than being the culmination of an entire society's worth of efforts.

    Notice that Tomorrowland itself only progressed as long as people from Earth were still invited in--people who started out in that larger society. Once Nix closed the gates, it stagnated utterly. Its supposed genius was not self-sustaining.

    I had great fun watching the movie, though in retrospect, I can see why and where people are finding fault. But I think its overall philosophy is basically sound and not as elitist as many people perceive, and that ending sequence is what proves it.

    1. Good observations!

      From the time period that the pin "ad" took place (1960's), Tomorrowland was presented as an ethnically diverse place. In the world of this film, I don't think the founders of Plus Ultra would have necessarily been hampered by the racial views of the Victorian Era, or at least not for long.

      Privilege Theory is a demonstrably false ideology, and I think there are simpler explanations for the views that those four men would have had, which was, namely, that they were Victorian men. Edison was a captain of American industry, for example, which tends to breed a certain personality type. The hardest one for me to get over is Verne, just because I know so much about his life from this time period... The founding of Plus Ultra would have come about 10 years after an attempt on his life by his nephew that left him lame. He had taken up a position as an alderman in the town of Amiens and spearheaded many public improvements, while at the same time his work was becoming increasingly cynical and he was feeling depressed over his lack of position in French literature. His writings never were wholly optimistic and he didn't subscribe so much to a "great man" theory as he did a kind of humanist view that individual people are actually worth something (Wells was actually the anti-humanist... He LOVED destroying and debasing civilization over and over again, which is why it is surprising that he would be in Plus Ultra, but I'm guessing the writers didn't really look into it that deeply). It's hard for me to see where Verne fits into it at that stage of his life, but then this is a work of fiction and is invoking the "great man" myths about Edison, Tesla, and Verne.

      Nevertheless, good call on recognizing that Tomorrowland stagnated once they started shutting people out and that they sought out diversity when they opened it back up.

    2. Tesla had some...let's call them "period-atypical" social views as well. But I still doubt any of those founders, or Nix for that matter, would have given the woman planting trees a second glance. It occurs to me that populating the early Tomorrowland primarily with scientists and inventors probably had a sort of echo chamber effect. People can be incredibly snobbish about their own career or field, and if you go so far as to move to an alternate dimension where almost everyone is like you and thus you rarely or never encounter someone outside that wheelhouse, that tendency surely intensifies.

      As for the images shown by Casey's pin...if it can read her DNA from casual contact with her epidermis and beam a full-immersion virtual reality sequence directly into her mind, maybe it can also read her mind to an extent--enough to cast "Marketing!Tomorrowland" as ethnically diverse. Casey is a 21st Century American teenager living around large, coastal population centers and would likely expect Utopia to be diverse. As I recall, the actual state of Tomorrowland when Frank found it in the 60s was pretty Caucasian.

    3. Telsa had very neuro-atypical views in general :)

      Good points again. If I get a chance to see Tomorrowland again I'll have to take a closer look at how it was in the Sixties. I'm not chomping at the bit to get it on DVD, but you never know.

    4. Correction: The ad embedded in Casey's pin was created for the canned 1984 reveal, not the 60s.