David Rakoff, Consumption, and the Contradictory World of Disney

David Rakoff, who died this week, was a prolific writer.  Among his many contributions to the New York Times was a 2008 essay about his visit to Disneyland’s Dream Home (housed in the amusement park’s Innoventions building) titled “The Future Knocks Again.”

As with most David Rakoff essays, it is observant, critical, a little sad, and often very funny as he compares the 21st century model home to Disneyland’s original utopian domicile, the 1957 Monsanto House of the Future.  The reason I mention this four-year-old essay — as opposed to Rakoff’s essay on his treatments and state of mind or his moving final public dance for a This American Life stage show just three months ago — is his conclusion on how Disneyland’s celebratory design of a model home is so closely tied to patterns of consumption and waste that another arm of the parent company critiqued in one of 2008’s most popular films.

In a strange coincidence, the very week that the Dream Home opened, at the other end of the Disney corporation’s spectrum, Pixar had just released the dystopian “Wall-E” — a film premised on a world choked by garbage and waste, and made uninhabitable, at least in part, by things like gargantuan homes that make little or no concession to the limited resources out there and our heedless lack of stewardship.

“Wall-E” could have been made as a retort to the Dream Home, or even to a single appliance in it: the den’s seductive H.P. 3-D printer (after the retracting faucet, the product I coveted most). Currently sold for commercial use, it can create a fully-realized object by spraying microscopic layer after layer of quick-drying plastic. It has practical applications for a home consumer, like the ability to download the specs for the perpetually missing battery door of a remote, say, and to manufacture the replacement oneself. But there are any number of other things the printer can make, too — in the Elias family story, for example, Mom is sent a welcoming gift from their soon-to-be hosts in China by e-mail, a cunning sculpture of a dragon.

The printer is available for about $5,000, but in the normal way of these things it will most likely become smaller and less expensive, until thousands of consumers, if not millions, will be beaming plastic objects around the globe and plucking them fresh from their own printers to deposit into landfills. (And I will be one of them.)

The feeling of the Dream Home is of a dwelling from 2004, before the subprime mortgage crisis and $140-a-barrel oil. It is an exurban mausoleum, representing the kind of house that can be reached only by a decreasingly affordable car.

Rakoff’s concerns about the potential effects of 3-D printers on the waste stream mirror my own.  I, too, would not be surprised to find myself using these potentially very useful machines. His comment on recent history in the final quoted paragraph is reflected in student comments in my seminars on consumer society, especially those scheduled after the October 2008 economic meltdown — a meltdown that occurred three months after Rakoff submitted this essay. (Another exhibit for his assertion that assuming the worst means you will never be disappointed when it comes.) We may anticipate both the opportunities and problems innovation brings, recalling historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology — that it is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. How that technology is applied — and the social and environmental contexts in which it is applied — shapes the consequences of its use. Rakoff recognized the lure and danger of the 3-D printer in 2008, and I am sad he will not be around to see if his pessimism was well-founded.

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