Welcome to Dataland

Design fiction at the most magical place on Earth

I am in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, and I am standing in line. My family is awaiting entrance to Be Our Guest, a Beauty and the Beast-themed quick-service restaurant nestled into the recently-revamped Fantasyland. It’s late spring in central Florida, and it’s hot. A Disney “cast member” wheels out a cart with drinking water and disposable cups, and each family in the queue quickly deploys a resupply team. At Disney World, even modest wishes come true.

A secondary queue awaits us inside, and eventually we order braised pork and cream puffs. Other vacationers are carrying away red and yellow rose-shaped renditions of the buzzing pagers common to restaurants. “Do we need a rose?” my wife asks. “No,” the cast member responds, “We’ll find you by your MagicBand.”

She’s referring to the colorful wristbands now provided to Walt Disney World Resort guests. Rubberized, waterproof, and emblazoned with Mickey’s iconic silhouette, the MagicBand bracelets are a part of a new digital parks strategy Disney dubs MyMagic+. Besides wearables, MyMagic+ involves upgrades to in-park terminals for purchases and FastPass line-skipping services, a new vacation management mobile app, and improved back-office crowd management systems for traffic flow logistics.

Previously, park visitors received a payment card-sized pass with a magnetic stripe and an embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) proximity sensor. These cards served many purposes: they provided entry to your resort room and to the parks (working in tandem with biometric sensors), as well as allowing charges to your Disney account from anywhere on the property.

I had thought that the MagicBand bracelets just replicated this old functionality in a slightly more convenient, striking format. But the Be Our Guest cashier’s words gives me pause. “We’ll find you by your MagicBand?”

We install ourselves at a table in the Rose Gallery, one of the cavernous rooms themed to mimic the Beast’s enchanted castle. Mere minutes pass, and our food arrives unceremoniously, carted forth from some unseen kitchen and dispensed without fanfare.

“What just happened?” I ask. “MagicBand,” my wife shrugs. Be our guest indeed.

Later, after deploying my MagicBand to allow entry into our hotel room, I read the My Disney Experience FAQ, which explains the operation of the MagicBand. It’s an uncharacteristic offering for a company so devoted to “magic” as a black-boxed secret sauce. I learn that in addition to the expected RFID allowing short-range communication at touch-points—room entry, park admission, and points of purchase—the MagicBand also includes a long-range radio transceiver, which communicates with receivers located throughout the Disney properties. The FAQ clarifies, in the vaguest possible way, that these long-range readers are used “to deliver personalized experiences…as well as provide information that helps us improve the overall experience in our parks.”

A forcibly disassembled MagicBand, revealing parts that include a coin-cell battery, RFID chip, coiled and copper antennae, microcontroller and integrated circuit, plastic battery and IC housing, and rubber wristband enclosure.

Disney assures guests that the MagicBands do not store any personal information, just a code used to reference your account in Disney databases. From a technical perspective, the design is ingenious. In a teardown of the MagicBand posted at the At Disney Again blog, the colorful, be-Mickeyed exterior is revealed to be stuffed with copper. The whole wristband is one big antenna.

I look up from my laptop. “Disney knows when you’re on the toilet,” I announce, placing my MagicBand on the counter before making my way to the loo.

Walt Disney, Futurist Traditionalist

A quick web search reveals that concerns about MagicBand and privacy are so common and so predictable as to meld into one boring drone. Yes, Disney can track your movements through their parks and resorts. Yes, Disney can use that information for more or less whatever they choose. But heck! Big retail companies have been tracking you for years. First with club cards, then with sensors and cameras—and now even with your own smartphone’s WiFi signals. And after all, you don’t have to wear a MagicBand to use the parks if you really don’t want to.

Walt Disney sits in front of the designs for his futuristic city design concept — a version of which would become the Epcot theme park. Image: Disney.

But MagicBand isn’t like any old data gathering practice, because Disney isn’t like any old company. And not just because Disney is a giant conglomerate that has good reason to collect as much information about you as possible. Rather, because Disney’s theme parks don’t have the same relationship to reality that Google and Costco and the NSA do. They are hybrids of fantasy and reality.

Walt Disney embodied two unlikely ideals. On the one hand, he was a traditionalist, fond of railroads and small town main streets of the nineteen-aughts, of classic adventure and of folktales. But on the other hand, he was a futurist, encouraged by the idea that technology could and would produce a more prosperous and equitable “great big beautiful tomorrow.”

An artist’s initial rendering of Disney’s late ‘90s redesign of Tomorrowland, after the original proved to be more of a Yesterdayland

His futurist proclivities were strongly connected to the populism inherent to his own conservatism. Tomorrowland endorsed the space age that coincided with its opening in the 1950s. A decade later, Disney showcased more specific future visions at the 1964 World’s Fair, among them his audio-animatronic, electromechanically actuated robots and the GE-sponsored “Progressland,” where an elaborate, rotating auditorium explained the role of electricity in the past, present and future. The PeopleMover also made its first appearance at the ’64 World’s Fair, an experimental realization of local-scale public transit designs of the 1930s.

Disney was a utopian, a role far easier to have played in the mid-twentieth century, when prosperity spread like warm butter across the growing middle classes.

While we normally think of spectacle and fantasy when we think of Disney films, television shows, and theme parks, Walt Disney was profoundly interested in ordinary life. The most ambitious and least successful of his future visions attempted to reinvent the everyday. It was the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, a concept that bears little similarity to the attraction bearing this name that finally opened sixteen years after his death.

A diagrammatic view of a typical industrial complex within Disney’s proposed city. By Marvin Davis. Image: Disney.
Aerial view of the shopping district for Disney’s conceptual city, with a much older view of Disneyland’s unbuilt international Street reused as an avenue of boutiques. A George Rester rendering from 1966, painted and modified by Herbert Ryman. Image: Disney

Less theme park than experimental city, EPCOT was originally conceived as a residence for park employees, a commercial district, a convention center, and an ongoing and evolving world’s fair where new machines might make their debut. The city was to feature a radial urban design, with regional transit provided by monorail, and local transit by PeopleMover.

Disney’s vision of a theme park as an experimental city differs from the aggressive social utopianism of his urban planning contemporaries. Compare the Swiss modernist Le Corbusier’s idea of a house as “a machine for living in,” for example, or the way New York “master builder” Robert Moses used the political cover of consolidated public works to unilaterally impose the construction of bridges and expressways. Disney’s experiments might seem daft, but at least he had the modesty to contain them within the fantasy of entertainment rather than to unleash them on the world untested.

Disney properties have more often been scorned as “false” than celebrated as tentative. But Walt Disney always saw them as provisional and speculative, even if his successors haven’t always followed his lead. Endeavors like Tomorrowland and EPCOT and their ilk are undoubtedly tactical, sponsored, corporate speech. But they are not just cynical commercial products. Like World’s Fairs, Disney parks are spaces where people negotiate with alternate experiences. They are mass-market examples of what the science-fiction writer Bruce Sterling has called design fiction, a kind of design that “tells worlds rather than stories.”

The Disney monorail after the official opening of the $1 billion park in Lake Buena Vista in 1982.

To be sure, some of these experiences embody conventional fantasies of colonialist nostalgia. But others offer embodied vistas onto alternate futures. Consider the monorail. Disney World was designed to make use of monorails for guest transit rather than just as an attraction, as Disneyland had done. For Americans vacationing from cities with little or no functional public transit, the trains become a kind of fantasy of what public conveyance might feel like in a different world—different for them anyway. If anything, such a transit fantasy is far more humane than, say, Google’s vision for driverless cars, precisely because the public is actually invited to experience this hypothetical future, rather than just to receive it.

MagicBand as Design Fiction

WE MUST TAKE CARE not to romanticize Disney World, especially via nostalgia for a version of a playful, fatherly figurehead who never really existed in such pure form. The 1960s are over. Today, a better fantasy vacation would convey us to Employmentland.

But despite it all, Disney World preserves an ambiguous membrane between reality, fantasy, and cataclysm. After the decline of the space age, Tomorrowland refashioned itself as Retrofutureland, a place to relive the past’s failed future in the present. And even after monorail transport proved unviable—the Las Vegas strip monorail reportedly cost $142 million per mile, and Disney hasn’t expanded its network since Epcot’s opening in 1982—the system remains, an object lesson in the challenges of public works, even at the happiest place on earth.

MagicBands offer another illustration of Disney World’s uncanny ability to suspend the present and the future together in an innocuous, colorful gel.

Like the monorail begets transit tourism, MagicBands offer a kind of data tourism, an uncanny experience of a future in which we don’t just tolerate surveillance but openly embrace it as fashion.

For those who reserve a vacation at Disney’s website, the MagicBands are treated like precious tiaras. Upon booking, each member of your family selects a color. Weeks before your scheduled Disney deployment, a box arrives. In it: each band, inserted carefully into a foam cutout sized expressly for it, like a James Bond weapon surreptitiously hidden in a briefcase. The forename of its owner is imprinted before it in the packaging, as well as on the inside of the band itself. Even before arriving, one can practice what it feels like to be a transmitter of one’s own unique ID. “Welcome to Dataland, princess.”

In the hypothetical future that Dataland presages, today’s common concerns about big data seem incomplete. For one part, MagicBand lays bare the process by which we produce data—not all on our lonesome, but as the result of implicit and explicit pacts with organizations, most often corporations. Often these relationships are predatory and even more often they are obscured. But the Dataland scenario suggests that we might feel less violated when data exchanges are transactional rather than secretive. In exchange for information X, we will provide service Y. And like magic, the purported “creepiness” of the data economy is short-circuited. Dataland offers a space that invites us to wonder: what if more of our information relationships took place out in the open?

Admittedly, Disney isn’t being entirely forthright about exactly what they are taking and giving in the MagicBand transaction. But their privacy FAQ is clearer and more specific than, say, Google’s or Facebook’s or any other company that thrives on aggregating and mining your data for their own ends. But even weirder, Dataland suggests that once data surveillance becomes transactional, it rapidly becomes exhibitionist.

Wristbands like FitBit and Nike FuelBand are obvious design precursors for MagicBand: self-reporting devices whose operation is more tightly defined and controlled, and whose display and customization send social signals about the wearer. But these devices are still too rare to suggest what a whole culture of data-transmitting wearables might look like. Mostly they signal affinity with a small community of like-minded, technology-focused users (as does Google Glass for an even smaller group). But at Disney World, tens of thousands of ordinary people all partake of the same unlikely, arbitrary data fashions, underwritten by the carnivalesque context of a theme park vacation.

The MagicBand is the world’s largest and most diverse experiment in wearable data fashion. And like all fashion, MagicBands are classist. Automatic visits to Dataland are limited to guests who book their stay on Disney property. Those who visit Disney World for a day trip or who stay in a nearby, non-Disney owned hotel are limited to the old RFID credit card for their park tickets. But fear not, for MagicBands can be purchased for $12.95 at any Disney theme park gift shop. And everyone is allowed the opportunity to customize and personalize their MagicBands: “MagicSliders” sleeves and “MagicBandits” charms that bear the images of Disney characters can be purchased ($6.95-14.95) and attached to a MagicBand.

Don’t get me wrong, this is nothing short of brazen commercialism. But it’s so brazen that the very subject of commercialism becomes its own attraction. Standing in the stores, staring at the wall of MagicBands and accessories, even kids can understand that they are being taken for a different kind of ride. “You can buy MagicBands?” my daughter blurts out, aghast. Even the elitism of access is on display, as her brother reminds her, “We only got them for ‘free’ because we paid to stay at a Disney hotel.”

Perhaps the most important and liberating feature of Dataland is that one inevitably leaves it—transactional relationships are also temporary ones. Disney takes care to explain that MagicBands do not make use of GPS, which means that they cannot collect information off-site. As my family settles into the seats of the “Magical Express” coach that conveys us back to the Orlando airport, the long-range RF transmitters and the copper antennae that wind around them cease to communicate with Disney’s receivers. They become souvenirs from Dataland, the big data equivalent of a die-cast monorail toy.

Disney World is many things, and many of those many things involve crass conspicuous consumption and diluted, lowest-common-denominator cultural reverie. But despite commercialization, the phantom of Walt Disney’s down-home, populist futurism still drifts between the gaslamps. It’s a subtle alternative to both the dystopic surveillance state and the autarkic techno-futurist corporation. Here at Disney World, commerce takes place within a real, bounded physical community, and one already premised on the idea of fantasy in the first place. Perhaps this is all we really want: to participate in the fantasy of the future, to be invited to ponder and respond to it ourselves, rather than to be presented with it already formed.

Original photography by Dan Depew.

You can follow Ian Bogost on Twitter at @ibogost. Subscribe to re:form’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.