“It might be worth it, if only to get out of this heat.

This was, without a doubt, not the most ringing endorsement for Tomorrowland (Disney, 2015) but the logic was irrefutable and so, with that, the journey began.

Opening at the 1964 World’s Fair, Tomorrowland interweaves the story of a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) with Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a girl who, in the present day, finds a special pin that transports her to the alternate reality of Tomorrowland, a manifestation of the ways in which science and technology can benefit society.

Tomorrowland, like many Disney films, has a rather straightforward moral message: in this case, the transformative power of unbridled optimism (channeled through technology). And although the treatment of the theme in this particular film threatens to veer toward a romanticization of utopia through technological progress, the argument for optimism has interesting relevance for the current generation of college applicants. Before we get there, however, let’s take a brief step back to provide some additional context.

Fighting for the Future
Situating the movie in the 1964 World’s Fair is a significant move on the part of Tomorrowland, for although the Fair’s official theme was “Peace through Understanding,” it is almost impossible for Americans to disassociate the 1964 World’s Fair from its sense of hope through technological progress. In some ways exemplified by General Motors’ exhibit “Futurama,” a subtheme of the event was the power of technological invention to make life increasingly convenient and transform society for the better.

This sense of optimism has, in modern times, become somewhat rare, notes Graeme McMillan in “Where Are Our Bright Science-Fiction Futures?” as he reflects on the dire portraits of the future oft portended by summer science fiction blockbusters. McMillan contrasts the current dystopic fascination with “a stretch of time — from the early 20th century through the beginning of comic books — when science fiction was an exercise in optimism and what is these days referred to as a ‘can-do’ attitude” before going on to write that “such pessimism and fascination with future dystopias really took hold of mainstream sci-fi in the 1970s and ’80s, as pop culture found itself struggling with general disillusionment as a whole.” And McMillan is not wrong here but he is also not grasping the entirety of the situation.

To be sure, the fallout the followed the idealistic futures set forth by 60s counterculture—again we must be careful to limit the scope of our discussion to America here even as we recognize that this reading only captures the broadest strokes of the genre—may have had something to do with the rise in “pessimism” but I would also contend that the time period that McMillan refers to was also one that had civil unrest pushed to the forefront of its consciousness. America was, at that time, a country that was struggling to redefine itself in the midst of an ongoing series of projects that aimed to secure rights for previously disenfranchised groups. McMillan’s nod toward disillusionment is important to bear in mind (as is a growing sense of cynicism in America), but the way in which that affective stance impacts science fiction is much more complex than McMillan suggests.

In his invocation of the science fiction of the early 20th century McMillan fails to recognize the way in which that particular period inherited a notion of scientific progress (and the future) that dates back to the Enlightenment but was largely spurred on by the 1893 World’s Fair and the transformative way in which the city was reconceptualized. Additionally, although it is somewhat of a cliché, we must consider the way in which the aftermath of the atomic bomb (and the resulting fear of the Cold War) shattered our understanding that technology and science would lead to a bright new world.

Moreover, the fiction that McMillan cites was rather exclusive to white middle class amateur males (often youth) and the “hope” represented in those fictions was largely possible because of a shared vision of the future in this community. Coming out of the 1970s and 1980s we see that such an idyllic scenario is really no longer possible as we understand that utopias are inherently flawed for they can only ever represent a singular idea of perfection. Put another way, one person’s utopia is another person’s subjugation. In light of this it only makes sense that the utopic post-need vision of Star Trek (1966-1969) would find no footing; American culture was actively railing against hegemonic visions of the present and so those who were in the business of speculating about possible futures began to consider the implications of this process, particularly with respect to race and gender.

Near the end of his piece McMillan concludes:  “That’s the edge that downbeat science fiction has over the more hopeful alternative. It’s easier to imagine a world where things go wrong, rather than right, and to believe in a future where we manage to screw it all up.” Which brings us back to Tomorrowland.

A Case for Relentless Optimism
At one point in Tomorrowland a character delivers a polemic on cynicism, making a case for optimism by arguing that the latter contains an impulse to do—or, more specifically, to dare to do. In this form, optimism is idealistic but not unrealistic as it surveys the landscape to ponder, “How can I make things better?” And it is this “can-do” attitude that McMillan identifies in his piece that is sometimes missing in the current cohort of students, a group who for all of their talent and ambition occasionally lack exuberance.

Over the years, in reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”

Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? As the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they themselves are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—moving from the accumulation of experience to the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth? It was—and is—about the process and not the product.

To be driven by optimism is not to be motivated by awards or designations of achievement; to be driven by optimism is to be compelled to act because you fundamentally believe that things could be—and should be—better. And although Tomorrowland paints casts optimism in terms of a force that can literally save the world, the impact can be much smaller than that. Indeed, sometimes all it takes is a belief that what you do can matter; all it takes is a belief that you matter.

This is, however, not to suggest that we should necessarily privilege a stance of unbridled optimism, particularly when it comes to understanding the ways in which science and technology intersect with American culture. Rather, a more interesting picture emerges when we consider how anxieties and hopes comingle in the wake of new technologies and how this approach just might help us to think about online education in a new way. Picking up on this thread, my next post aims to think through the possible future of Coursera, Hillary Clinton’s comments regarding online higher education, and how both of these things might play into the rallying cry around affordable education.


Contact Chris Tokuhama at Chris@Collegewise.com and read more about him here.