Wonder and Control

by Johannah King-Slutzky

I love the Apple Watch commercial. Its syncopated ticks and whirs, the cog-like rotation of the band with snare-drum clicks transforming the entire spinning timepiece into a synecdochic gear, or maybe a film reel. But the commercial exacts its deepest tug in its final moment: Here’s Mickey! The classic Mickey Mouse watch by Ingersoll, itself the reification of an animated, virtual icon, has come to life in the form of a digital gadget.

In the Apple Watch, the mouse best known from commercials, TV programs, and movie shorts has a new screen: the digital watch. Digital devices are a new class of screen for cartoons and other virtual images, and we should contextualize the Apple Watch as a cladistic branch in animation’s history. In digital devices, “animation” combines the old sense of animation dating from the sixteenth century — meaning “to instill with life” — with the new sense, dating from the twentieth century, meaning the manipulation of images to create the illusion of motion. Mickey Mouse roguishly tapping his foot on your wrist isn’t just a transposition of an old cartoon into a new medium; it’s a millennial fulfillment of the fairy tale in which children’s toys spark to life at midnight.

There are strong parallels between Disney marketing and the marketing of Apple gadgets; viewed together, they reveal a highly salable impulse to interact with non-living beings in a way that neatens and intensifies lived experience. This is reflected in the content of Disney’s cartoons, in the marketing of licensed merchandise, and in its theme parks. Apple (whose former CEO Steve Jobs was Disney’s largest private shareholder until his death, after the acquisition of Pixar) has borrowed lately from Disney-pioneered marketing. For example, the introductory sketch to the 2015 Worldwide Developer’s Conference Keynote includes such leggy personifications of Apple-gadget animated characters as Angry Bird, crow people and App icons in the style of Disney theme parks’ Donalds, Hooks, and Winnie-the-Poohs — not to mention the cinematic conceit that facilitates Bill Hader’s directorial thaumaturgy.

Here’s the #WWCD15 intro starring Bill Hader!

Here’s the opening video to Apple’s Worldwide Developer’s Conference! #wwdc15

Posted by BuzzFeed Tech on Monday, June 8, 2015

The drive to interact more fully with non-living objects significantly predates the invention of animated cartoons in the early twentieth century. Automata famously appear in The Iliad as “twenty tripods…[that] wheel down on their own to the gods’ assembly”; the Chinese mythologized automata as early as the third century B.C.E., describing a horny, winking wooden robot in the Zhou royal court; and humanoid, often musical automata have existed in the Muslim world since the eighth century. Interest in automata continued to pique and flag over the centuries, with modern flare-ups around the Renaissance and Industrial Revolution.

Automata like the cuckoo clock — a stock image in the Disney unconscious — often stir whimsy into the quotidian. The cuckoo clock delights by animating a house, a bird, the time, all nothing special. Its wondrousness comes from its unremarkableness; automata and animated machines are made of unremarkable materials and clumsily replicate living creatures or attend to our most boring needs. Relatedly, they are also playful to the point of condescension. One of Europe’s most beloved automatons, an eighteenth-century shitting duck that can eat and digest grain from a spectator’s hand, has been glossed by a book extract for the Guardian as “a highly skilled joke. Had the duck been an artificial defecating man, there would no doubt have been a more complicated, less rapturous response.”

When we rapturously respond to Disneyland, a mechanical flute player, or the ensouled furniture of Beauty and the Beast,we delight in the utter simplicity of these fantasies. Animated machines facilitate wonder by taming the more overwhelming sublime. An 1877 volume of the Fortnightly Reviewunintentionally alluded to the simplicity of wonderful objects when it questioned, “Before comparing the activity of an automaton with that of a dog or man, would it not be wiser to compare it with that of a plant of a jelly-fish?” The suggestion is patently ridiculous because automata and animated creatures have systems that appear complex and super-interactive only because their scope is limited.

Like automata, cartoon animation creates life out of inanimate materials such as ink, plastic, and metal. Cartoons have always been a between-world where real people can interact with non-sentient and unintelligent beings. The conceit of jumping “into” a cartoon, familiar from movies like Mary Poppins and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is as old as the medium itself. One of the earliest examples of this trope is “Gertie the Dinosaur,” a novelty cartoon by Windsor McCay that toured the country in 1914 as a vaudeville act. In it, the IRL — not filmed — McCay performs tricks “with” the amiable brontosaurus before disappearing behind the screen and re-emerging as an illustration from the proscenium of Gertie’s fountain-like mouth.

Disney was the first corporation to capitalize on our desire to interact with fantastical creatures. They achieved this through licensing and theme parks. Disney licensing was original and rapacious. For decades, almost a hundred percent of Disney’s profits came from merchandising and theme parks that allowed consumers to interact in real life with the animated images they saw on screen. Disney cartoons lost money. Fantasia, now a classic, was called “Disney’s Folly,” and Cinderella was reviewed as a dud. Snow White, Dumbo, and Bambi are the only Disney movies that made respectable profits in Walt Disney’s lifetime.

Harry Woodin, a movie theater manager from Ocean Park, Los Angeles, invented the interactive element that has become Disney’s trademark. Woodin organized the first Mickey Mouse Club in 1929 as a promotion to fill his theater on Saturday afternoons. Supplicants took a Mickey Mouse pledge, played in a Mickey Mouse band, and watched Mickey Mouse cartoons on the big screen. Woodin’s marketing was a success, and he mailed Walt Disney a letter advising Disney to take Mickey Mouse Clubs national. Walt agreed, tacking on his own merchandise clause: “I feel positive that a stunt like this, combined with a Comic Strip and various toys and novelties…might be made around MICKEY,” he wrote to business partner Charles Giegerich. Theaters could buy a Mickey Mouse Club license from Disney Studios for twenty-five dollars, for which they were encouraged to host Mickey matinees, live contests (pie eating, marble shooting), and Mickey-themed bands. Children recited, “Mickey Mice do not swear, smoke, cheat or lie” before every Club meeting, and sang a song written by Carl Stalling, called “Minnie’s Yoo Hoo”: “Neither fat nor skinny/ She’s the horse’s whinny/ She’s my little Minnie Mouse.” Disney Studios funneled the revenue into manufacturing licensed merchandise like Mickey pins and toys, which salesmen bought from Disney. Woodin and Disney had devised a world that appeared complete and comprehensively systematized (arts, ethics, commerce) but remained simple.

Among the earliest Mickey products were dolls, animal storybooks, and a candy bar made by Mars. Demand was so huge that Disney had to open an office in New York just to handle the business that spilled over from George Borgfelt, with whom the Disneys had struck their first licensing deal. Some of this decision may have been a canny financial move, as the Disneys thought Borgfelt handled business like “some bunch of farmers.” In response, they gave more and more of their business first to Harry Woodin, the Mickey Mouse Club originator, and then, in 1932, to their to-be closest licensing partner, Herman Kamen, a department store window designer from Kansas City. Kamen immediately canceled the contracts Borgfelt had made with smaller partners — Disney was known for shoddy merchandise — and sidled up to national companies like Cartier Jewelers, General Foods (who put Mickey on Post Toasties), and Ingersoll, the maker of the iconic Mickey Mouse watch. By 1933, Mickey was licensed for use on forty different products. A year after that, Disney merchandise was racking up seventy million dollars in sales a year. The New York Times even wrote a trend piece on Mickey goods, writing that the country was “bursting with Mickey Mouse soap, candy, playing cards, bridge favors, hairbrushes, chinaware, alarm clocks and hot water bottles wrapped in Mickey Mouse paper tied with Mickey Mouse ribbon and paid for out of Mickey Mouse purses with savings hoarded in Mickey Mouse banks.” The drive to touch and play with things you saw on screen was a profitable business. By the mid-thirties, six years after Mickey’s first sound short, merchandise sales exceeded ticket sales.

The Disney theme parks are even more immersive and interactive than Disney’s licensed merchandise. As the historian Jackson Lears has noted, “The quintessential product of the [Disney] empire…[is] not the cartoon character, but the ‘audio-animatronic’ robot.” Disneyland was immediately popular and, unlike Disney films, made buckets of money when WED, an independent company owned by Walt Disney, opened it in 1955.

Walt had begun work on the theme park in spring of 1948. It was too expensive and complicated, so he first launched “Disneylandia” instead — a touring display of miniature figurines, furniture, boats, farm equipment, and little homegoods like tiny liquor bottles in tiny crates. The manipulation of scale was an important element that later made Disneyland feel more like a wonderful, controllable toy. Walt hired an artist to draw Norman Rockwell-style scenes of Americana and enlisted the help of machinists and sculptors to help him design figures based on the windup toys he’d seen on an expedition to Europe in 1947. Then, in 1951, Walt began implementing designs for early animatronics based on the movements of a filmed dancer named Buddy Ebsen. Disneylandia finally premiered in 1952 in the Pan-Pacific Auditorium at the Festival of California Living.

A mix of Disney cartoons and Disneylandia, Disneyland is one part movie, one part plaything. Walt spoke of everything in the theme park as a film. Staff must be “cast,” rides are described as movie experiences (the darkness outside your car is intended to replicate the experience of a theater), and environments down to the level of pavement fade and blend together like a panning camera. I was delighted to discover from Kate Losse’s memoir Boy Kings that staff positions at Facebook are also called “roles,” which Losse says are meant to imitate cinema — so although I am focusing on the parallels between the marketing of Apple gadgets and Disney corporate strategy, Disneyland’s cinema heuristic may have predicted the strategies of many screen-worshipping corporations in Silicon Valley.

Equally important, Disneyland had the feel of a large toy. The bottom floors of its shops are nine-tenths scale, the second floors eight-tenths, and the rest of the park is, in Walt’s words, a “matter of choosing the scale that could be practical and still look right.” Scale was important to Walt because it “made the street feel like a toy,” and it made people feel paradoxically more childish and in control. Disneyland visitors subliminally exert control over their environment by towering over the mildly miniature buildings, but the change in scale also makes visitors feel like a gleeful child playing with miniature trucks or dolls.

Theorists of Disney theme parks like Alan Bryman generally focus on wonder and control as the twin pillars of Disney’s success. Apple owes its success to the same. However, it’s a mistake to suggest that wonder and control are distinct experiences. For example, although I might fantasize about the ability to talk to animals, if all animals could speak it wouldn’t feel “interactive” any more than talking to other humans feels “interactive.” But by keeping the digital or animated environment controlled, predictable, and efficient, wonder can safely kick into gear. Thus the constant schadenfreude delight in iPhone obsolescence — like Cinderella’s pumpkin, the iPhone’s capacity to induce wonder is on a highly controlled, predictable time limit. And culture critic Elayne Rapping’s account of visiting Disney World for the first time feels like the experience of using a great, crash-proof OS, comparing the park to “a series of prescribed routes to preplanned itineraries….Indeed, the sameness, the static predictability of this wholly managed, wholly simulated world of ‘Taylorized fun,’ as it’s been described, seems to be a large part of its appeal.”

The Apple Watch breeds control and calm with particular acuity. It will monitor your health, manage your schedule, and extend tactile intimacy with your partner when you’re apart. The Apple Watch is methadone to the iPhone’s meth. It is marketed to loosen you up. Yet it’s also fun, like a toy. It’s slightly larger than a normal watch, yet more miniature than an iPhone (it has been compared to the iPod mini) — there’s that manipulation of scale again — and it’s a little clunky, like a parachute pack for your wrist. Its intuitive design is not only efficient and simple, it’s soothing. The circles in the watch’s Workout app are calming, lacking any corners. (Incidentally, this is an attribute to which many pin Mickey Mouse’s success. Mickey’s head and torso are all circles.)

The watch feels particularly like interacting with an inanimate object because it looks like a watch, not a screen, monolith, or abstract slab. Maurice Sendak, in accounting for the popularity of Mickey, has suggested that the famous mouse is “immanently touchable” — and the Apple Watch is, too. Apple markets the timepiece as super haptic. It can simulate heartbeats, “tap” you on the wrist instead of vibrating, and responds to “force touches,” meaning it’s sensitive to fleshy pressure. When you talk to Siri, you’re talking to a watch — the bewitched “Cogsworth” in Beauty and the Beast remade in the twenty-first century’s image.

In general, wonder-inducing objects are reiterations of familiar objects. Mickey merchandise excites because Mickey is a familiar character from the movie or television screen, made touchable; the Mickey plushie or Cinderella doll is, strangely, more exciting because it is not inventive. The drive to blend cartoon with reality either by reifying cartoons as merchandise or through the fantasy of jumping into animated worlds is a repetition compulsion: every time Disney prints a new Mickey T-shirt, a new Mickey doll, or a new Mickey costume with an oversized head, it’s pushing to produce an impossible object — a real, interactive, non-simulated Mickey. Yet these reproductions seem to make us neurotics even hungrier for the impossible. You can build a Mickey Mouse plushie to fondle or a timepiece that dances, but no matter how many cross-platform iterations of a character you manufacture, you’ll never reallybe able to interact with it person-to-person.

Of all the profitable tech companies, Apple emphasizes its repetitive lineage the most. One of Tim Cook’s first observations in the 2015 WWDC Keynote was that this WWDC was Apple’s twenty-sixth. Like the reiterative principle that translates animated characters into Disney merchandise and theme parks, Apple’s message is “We’re the same as before, only slightly more intelligent, more seamlessly animated, and more touchable.” Not only does the iPhone repeat from generation to generation, it also repeats across platforms, like iPhone to iPad. The Apple Watch is the timepiece iteration of an iPhone, which is a digital iteration of a phone. It’s not insignificant that the closing image of the Apple Watch’s first commercial was a shot of the Mickey Mouse watch face. The insinuation is that this is the animated version (Apple Watch) of a reified version (Ingersoll watch) of an animated character (Mickey).

Apple executives often promote the watch in the press as, essentially, an animated or filmed product. “Apple photographed many different species of jellyfish to make up a single, moving Watch face,” reads the caption to a Wired story’s lede photo. The resultant moving images are intricately constructed, similar to animators’ slow-mo studies of tap dancers or leaping cats

They built a tank in their studio, and shot a variety of species at 300 frames-per-second on incredibly high-end slow-motion Phantom cameras. Then they shrunk the resulting 4096 x 2304 images to fit the Watch’s screen, which is less than a tenth the size. Now, “when you look at the Motion face of the jellyfish, no reasonable person can see that level of detail,” Dye says. “And yet to us it’s really important to get those details right.”

Dye was the graphic designer-trained head of Apple’s “human interface” team (now a vice president) on the Apple Watch. He made technology — or in this instance, a mini-movie of a flower — feel personable enough to touch and talk to.

Digital technology is appealing in part because it’s a way for animated characters ranging from the iconic, like Mickey, to the anonymous, like blooming flowers, to ghost our machines. This is only the latest in humanity’s recently accelerated project to interact with inanimate creatures. Early cartoons featured inanimate objects suddenly jumping around and talking, handshaking, back patting, or whistling at people. We should recognize interactive technology as belonging to that legacy. The parallels between cartoons and digital technology shed light on the cultish wonder attached to many products like the Apple Watch, since they are being marketed like toys that give you an opportunity to interact with virtual characters much in the manner that Disney theme parks and merchandise give consumers the chance to interact with characters they’d seen on-screen. All tech companies consistently market their products this way, but Disney did it first; now Apple’s perfecting it again. This wonder-control hybrid drive, whatever it is, has been successful across industries, and it sells billions.