We All Live In EPCOT Now

If you know the term “EPCOT”, you probably know it as referring to one of many theme parks within Walt Disney World in Florida. However, it was originally not intended as a theme park at all, but an actual place that people would live.

“EPCOT” stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow

The basic idea is to have a city that is intentionally pushing at the frontiers of what the future looks like. Some people would live there, others would come visit to be inspired. Here’s a site dedicated to preserving the record of that vision.

When I first read about the concept on wikipedia, I was fascinated by one aspect in particular:

On the rim of the city core would have been high-density apartment housing. This is where most of EPCOT’s 20,000 citizens would have lived. Not much is discussed about the apartments themselves, although Walt Disney stated that no one in EPCOT would own their land. There would be no difference between an apartment and a home. All renting rates would be modest and competitive with the surrounding market. Also, the housing would be constructed in such a way to ensure ease of change, so that new ideas/products can be used. A person returning from a hard day’s work could very well come home to a kitchen with brand-new appliances in it.

I found myself thinking that this was really cool, but could also be really annoying, if you liked the old appliance design more than the new one.

Sometime later, my phone’s Android version got an upgrade, and later that day I opened my camera app to take a photo, only to discover that it now had the ability to simulate having a larger lens than it actually did, by me moving the camera slightly while taking the photo, and the app using that data to figure out which parts of the image were near/far.

Below is an example photo I took with this feature. You can see that it’s sort of like having a large lens, but not perfect: my fingers are a little blurry, and the asphalt below my hand is a bit sharp. The blurring is done manually by the software, based on a rough 3D model created by moving the camera while taking the photo.

Coincidentally, at the time I was taking a course on Complex Systems: Society, Ecology, and Nonlinear Dynamics, and that course had involved learning about a technology used by survey airplanes to get high-resolution radar images of the ground. Without this technology, an airplane would need a lens a kilometer long in order for the ground to not be blurry; this tech makes it practical. (That course, by the way, was easily my favorite course of all the ones I took while studying Systems Design Engineering. Paul Fieguth, who taught it, since has made a textbook on the subject , which I expect is really good!)

As I delighted in this new feature my phone suddenly had, it dawned on me.

I’m living in EPCOT.

I’m living in a world in which I don’t own many of the tools I use, I just rent them, and in which these tools can be upgraded not just without my asking, but without my consent. It’s just, instead of calling them appliances, we call them apps.

At least with phone upgrades, unlike living in literal EPCOT, one usually gets to choose whether to install the upgrade today or a month from now, but on Android the notification doesn’t really go away. But ultimately, the benefits of upgrading usually do outweigh the annoying changes, so people make the reasonable choice to upgrade, then grumble for a week until they get used to the new way-things-are.

With apps though, not only can you discover that your appliances have been upgraded when you come home, but you can discover this at any point in the day!

And then there’s the interplay. A friend recently messaged me to excitedly point out that Facebook Messenger now supports LaTeX. Except, I was on my phone, where it doesn’t:

Since then, I’ve noticed this phenomenon a bunch of times. Some were delightful (although none beat the lens blur effect) but others were annoying. I was once listening to the audio track I listen to while I take my midday nap, and suddenly it stopped. I awoke, confused, and looked at my phone only to discover that my music player app had updated while it was playing the nap track.

That’s like having a Disney representative come into your home and replace your toaster while it’s making toast—and them just throwing out the toast.

Anyway, this article has been on my backburner for years, but I’m finally writing it because I just upgraded my phone to the latest Android version, 8.0, and it has a ton of changes, large and small, subtle and some overt. I think some of the decisions were ill-considered, and it’s frustrating, as a customer, to not have any choice in the matter.

One of the most utterly annoying ones is that redshift, a f.lux-like app that makes your screen less obnoxious at night, is no longer able to apply its soft redness to the notifications tray. This is combined with the random decision to make the notifications white now, instead of black, and soooo… I can’t look at my phone comfortably at night.

I spent another *hour* reading this article about all of the new changes, because some you don’t notice unless you look for them, and at any rate, I was curious.

But I don’t read the changelog every time. You don’t have time to, when you live in EPCOT and everything is constantly changing.


As it happens, I am also the creator of an app. If you’d like to try it out and become subject to updates from me you can do that here. You can come hang out in my corner of the experimental prototype community of tomorrow.

And that’s the thing that’s really different, more than the difference between software apps and hardware appliances.

We’re creating this experimental prototype community of tomorrow together.

It’s not coming from the monomaniacal genius of Walt Disney and his team of Imagineers. There was a brief period when a lot of it was coming from the monomaniacal genius of Steve Jobs and his team, and even now, certainly, the source of changes isn’t evenly distributed.

But despite this, things are changing, and it’s not centralized. And it’s not just apps.

More than any point in the past, part of the toolkit of the person now is their collection of mental models, and anyone who is sharing ideas is regularly publishing updates to that mental toolkit, that readers are installing possibly even without really thinking about it.

Centuries or millenia ago, most people would learn their culture, and their set of concepts, while growing up, and that was it. Culture didn’t really change, on the timescale of a human life. Certainly you could pretend it wasn’t changing, and still do okay.

As of the last few decades, most people are trying to live in several different cultures at once, and are constantly adding new bits to our models of how the world works. A recent new thing that has shown up is #fakenews. Not just the fake news itself, but the concept of it. This concept is a tool that is being employed by individuals and institutions, that we didn’t collectively have before this year. Now we do.

All of technology is a form of cultural knowledge, passed down from generation. A human isn’t determined just by their genome, but by their… memome. And we’re finally coming to realize, as a species, that we’re driving our own cultural evolution.

The EPCOT concept is about this: consciously moving into the future. Making it overt the extent to which the meaning of our lives is a product of technological developments, whether those are flint spears, paper, or the latest Smart Kitchen appliances. And recognizing, also, the role we play in creating those changes as well.

Realizing that we create culture, and culture creates us.

The above may seem like an obvious statement, but it would have been a weird thought to almost everyone 200 years ago. Maybe even just 50. Probably many people still today.

And, as the realization sinks in deeper and we learn how to consciously exist with that awareness, we’re becoming a new kind of animal.


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