25: Space Mountain

I went to Disneyland with a few friends at the beginning of this year. For those who've never been, Disneyland consists of multiple mini-parks that branch off of "Main Street, U.S.A." It's meant to feel like stumbling out of the real world into various fantasy versions, whether a Western-themed Frontierland or futuristic Tomorrowland: each with their own themed rides, soundtracks, and eateries.

Last year, Disneyland added a new, Star Wars-themed mini-park to the map, called Galaxy's Edge. It was the first park they’d built since 1993, and progress made in the past 25 years is visible in its manufacturing and design. Galaxy's Edge, with its long winding forest path, swaying Moroccan-esque lamps, and dazzling full-replica starships, looks like it belongs at a cosplay convention rather than at Disneyland, whose older parks now seem a bit faded in comparison.

While in Galaxy's Edge, we stood in line for a ride called Millennium Falcon: Smuggler's Run. With at least a 30 minute wait, the in-line experience is designed to keep riders busy. As the line progressed, we were taken through a spaceport onto the Millennium Falcon itself. Our path was filled with thoughtful details, like an unfinished sabacc game behind a few crates, or Porg nests in the rafters. Upon boarding the starship, we were herded to a loading dock, where an animatronic Hondo Ohnaka gave us our instructions.

I'm not a Star Wars fan, and even I was impressed. The ride's designers had taken great care to satisfy the enthusiastic fans that have made Star Wars so popular for the past near-fifty years. Waiting in line was even more exciting than the ride itself! Entertaining as it was, however, I couldn't help but compare it to our experience waiting in line for Space Mountain the night before.

Of all the rides I'd heard about before going to Disneyland, Space Mountain was by far my most anticipated. Space Mountain isn't the most intense rollercoaster in the world (get outta here, Six Flags!), but it is one of the most well-known.

As we made our way through Tomorrowland to Space Mountain, I was a flutter of excitement. All day, we'd been inundated with colors, lights, sounds, and imagery—and so what I found most remarkable about Space Mountain, when we finally reached the line, was its refusal to pander to my enthusiasm.

Space Mountain, this most iconic of rides, didn't try to coax us with the bells and whistles of its ganglier distant cousin. Instead, it loomed unapologetically in the middle of the park, a silvery-blue alien object dropped into Disneyland like the inscrutable monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

While other rides crammed as much entertainment into their line experience as possible, Space Mountain offered us next to nothing. Waiting in line resembles walking through an airport, a series of clean white hallways that eventually open into to a wide, flat rooftop.

In a park where every inch is spoken for, Space Mountain’s empty rooftop is a rude violation, like spilling water onto the sandy soil of Arrakis. Not only is there nothing to look at, but you’re forced to contemplate this profligate display of austerity as you traipse along the rooftop with all the other hopeful riders.

Millennium Falcon's line experience was designed for its fans. Its designers, breathless and frenetic, worked hard to keep their riders entertained, with plenty of inside references that only a Star Wars fan would appreciate.

Space Mountain, by contrast, casts its withering sphinx glance at the rest of Disneyland's sticky-fingered maximalism. Space Mountain knows why you're there: you want to careen into a sky full of stars. And it knows that’s worth the wait in line, so it doesn’t try to cater to you.

The tradeoff to Millennium Falcon’s "Made by us, for us" philosophy is that when people are encouraged to actively participate in the show, their differences can become that much more apparent. Galaxy's Edge, the park that houses Millennium Falcon, is the only place in Disneyland where you'll suddenly become self-aware that you're wearing a T-shirt and shorts instead of Jedi cosplay.

At the rest of Disneyland's parks, the themes are all different, but each mini-park feels the same in terms of guest behavior and attire. Everyone is wearing Disney clothing: not, say, Toontown- or New Orleans-themed clothing.

The most universal symbol of Disney—a pair of mouse ears—croons with its honey voice that we can smooth away our differences by simply “getting your ears on.” Ears are not an unattainable luxury, but if you put them on, you’ll instantly fit in.

But in Galaxy's Edge, mouse ears suddenly seem a bit gauche. Instead you'll find yourself ogling your neighbor's $200 custom lightsaber (which is a thing you can do there) and feeling a bit envious that you didn't get one yourself.

I guess some people would look at Disneyland’s “mouse ears for all” battle-cry and find the demotion of self-expression depressing. But I found that I didn't mind relinquishing a bit of myself when the vision offered to me was something much grander. Disneyland, from its navigation to its bathrooms to waiting in line, never flinches from its personal standard of excellence. It is, after all, "the happiest place on Earth."

Since returning from Disneyland, I've started seeing these two versions of the world in everything. I thought about it again this past week, as debate fiercely raged on Twitter about what company culture is supposed to offer its employees.

How we choose to spend our days is an important part of one’s identity. Deciding where to work, and what to work on, is also a matter of deciding whose vision you want to buy into.

There's something to be said for the Millennium Falcon way of doing things. For many people in tech, this promise is clearly embodied by Burning Man, a festival of more than 70,000 people in the desert that's entirely organized by volunteers, whose founding principles emphasize the idea of "radical participation." At Burning Man, there are no spectators, only participants. Burning Man is Millennium Falcon.

Unsurprisingly, the company whose employees I'd consider to be most intertwined with Burning Man culture—Google—is also Millennium Falcon. (Embodying this vision, for me, was Google's big marketing push for Android in 2014, built around the slogan, "Be together. Not the same.")

But then there's the Space Mountain version of organizational culture. Space Mountain, and Disneyland itself, promise a future so exciting that people will happily put their "other selves" aside to bring it to fruition. It requires strong leadership, because you're asking people to submit to your vision of the world, and a good leader takes that responsibility seriously. Apple, the most secretive of big tech companies with arguably the most iconic technology executive in history, is Space Mountain. (When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, they told us they’d "reinvented the phone," a claim about as bold as "the happiest place on Earth.")

Bitcoin is Space Mountain. Ethereum is Millennium Falcon. Clojure is Space Mountain. Rust is Millennium Falcon. (If you've read Working in Public: stadiums, or communities formed around a single creator, are Space Mountain. Federations, or communities made by many contributors for many users, are Millennium Falcon.)

If Galaxy's Edge is any indication, an overemphasis on participation can exacerbate the perceived differences between us, because it's not possible for everyone to bring their whole selves to work without bumping up against someone else's version. I don't think these merge conflicts are necessarily a bad thing. Some companies embrace those conflicts and make active participation part of their core values. Burning Man wouldn't work if nobody pitched in.

That’s one way of doing things. But I can't help but feel enticed by the cool wash of relief offered by the enigmatic Space Mountain: an invitation to stop flooding my brain with more inputs, and instead focus on getting to the stars.

Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Going to school, but instead of paying tuition to someone to teach you, getting paid by your readership/audience to learn in public and document your learnings

  • Ways of creating serendipity online - are stadium-style communities particularly well-suited for this? (Specifically in terms of addressing the serendipity q, i.e. meeting ppl outside of your known social circles) I feel like they’re well-primed bc you’re in a high-context situation and also you’re both “watching the stage,” so you have this built-in activity you’re already doing together. Small group chats are block-y, but stadiums can be porous and help naturally facilitate some of that serendipity

  • Games that help us teach virtues to kids. Ex. Telephone teaches kids that what you say isn’t always what’s heard. What are other examples?

  • Companies as Schelling points for impact (again, “great prophet” rather than “great founder” theory). Instead of “it’s a great founder who drove this forward,” it’s more like “this is happening in the world whether we like it or not and you guys happen to be at the center of it”

Links

  • "Bring Back the Bison" (Santi Ruiz): Why we should save the American bison. In addition to the reasons you'd expect, like climate change and economic development, I was particularly intrigued by Santi’s treatment of an unlikely source of support: megafauna nationalists, "a form of meme-friendly esoteric politics [who] dream of rewilding the country." Conservation efforts (and environmentalism more generally) historically draw supporters from across the political spectrum (think John Muir vs. Rachel Carson), so I enjoyed seeing that reflected in digitally-native political culture as well.

  • "Me, Myself and my Multiple Avatars" (Jill Carlson): A short story about living in a future where we're all hiding behind avatars. In addition to being a great read, I just love that Jill did this; I wish more of my peers wrote fiction or explored creative outlets in public (I know, I know, be the change you want to see in the world…)

  • "Formality Considered Harmful: Experiences, Emerging Themes, and Directions" (Frank M. Shipman III and Catherine C. Marshall): This piece argues against overly-opinionated user interfaces that get in the way of non-linear thinking, particularly in unstructured creative work like writing and design. As much as I'd like to use any of the formal note-taking systems out there, I'm always wary of adopting someone else's way of thinking, and this helped me articulate why. (h/t Andy Matuschak, who wonders if building these “non-linear release valves” could actually improve linear output.)

  • "On the use of a life" (Colin Percival): Colin, a mathematician and FreeBSD developer, explains why he spends his days working on Tarsnap, a for-profit online backup service, instead of working in academia.

  • "Recreating the local newspaper in digital form" (Andrew Wilkinson): I try not to link to Twitter threads, but I wish this had been a full post! Andrew describes how he started what became the leading local newspaper in his hometown of Victoria, Canada. I do wonder if there will be a land grab of mini-Jeff Bezoses itching to build their own local news fiefdoms. Feels like someone could spreadsheet the opportunity to find local news areas that are low-competition, high ability to pay from at least some of its residents, and a big enough market of potential subscribers. (Not saying if that’s good or not, just...interesting?)


Millennium Falcon photo: WDWMAGIC
Space Mountain photo: Wikipedia

Loading more posts…