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Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Friday, March 25, 2011

Disney fans, beware: We're getting our geek on this week on Studios Central, in a big way. We're talking sci-fi, open source licensing, and neuro-technology. We're even throwing in a little Philosophy 101. Put on your Coke-bottle glasses, grab a strong cup of coffee, and walk with me a bit.

Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a bit of a departure for many Disney Parks fans. It's a sci-fi novel set in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, where Cast Members have organized into ad-hoc collectives to operate the Park after a radical restructuring of society at large. Don't just take my word for it that this is a good read; here's what Paul Spinrad of Wired Magazine said in 2003:

"In a world of affluence and immortality, the big battles will be fought over culture, not politics. That’s the starting-point ofWired contributor Doctorow’s daring novel set in a futuristic Disney World where talent cooperatives vie to run the attractions.."

The book takes place in a future where technology has conquered death, famine, and all kinds of material want, making earlier corporate and social models obsolete, and casting timeless philosophical questions into a new light. What makes us who we are, mind or matter? What is the nature of the soul? And are audio-animatronics truly central to our experience as Disney Parks guests?

Yes indeed: That last question is arguably one of the central questions of the book. You see, Doctorow's not just a casual Disney fan; his writing demonstrates not only his love for the Parks, but also his understanding of the conflict inherent in re-imagineering attractions to leverage new technologies and improve Guest experience, while still retaining the essential nature of the attraction and its nostalgic appeals.

Case in point (and a spoiler alert!): One of the major plot points in the book revolves around whether the Hall of Presidents should remain an audio-animatronic display, or be replaced by "flash-baking" actual experiences of the Presidents onto the Guest's brain, allowing the attraction to directly manipulate their senses. And at a certain level, why should it be much different to plug directly into the brain, rather than getting to the brain through those unreliable, often-failing eyes and ears? Because we're extra-geeky this week, I'll throw in a little XKCD to get you thinking:


(Plato's Cave? Yup, there's an explanation.)

I first discovered this novel shortly after it's release, when prowling my local library for books about Disney World. Along with the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, it opened up the possibility of thinking critically about Disney Parks, taking them seriously as works of art and culture, and approaching them as implementations of virtual reality and games theory. These books also let me know that hipsters and members of Mensa were kicking back in the parks, loving the attractions as much as I do. That enjoying the Parks and taking them seriously don't have to be mutually exclusive.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is published under a Creative Commons license, allowing for free download and re-distribution of derivitive works. So, you can download it for free from Doctorow's web site, in a wide variety of file formats. You can also download it as an audio book in MP3 format, also for free.  (I'm currently reading Doctorow's For The Win on my Droid phone, using the free Aldiko ebook reader.)

And if you're intrigued by all this geeky book talk, and want to dive in further? We'll be discussing Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom in the Those Darn Cats book club sometime in April. I'd love to hear from people who've read the book -- you can drop me a note, or leave your thoughts in the comments below.