Living Dangerously - Issue 30

In My Humble Opinion: "Oz uses more fiber optics than any other theme park in the world."

It's almost here, the millennium. Don't worry about computers botching the hurdle to 2000. What you really need to worry about is your mind. How are you going to drag your lizard brain over the speed bump and into the new world? How do you expand your thinking to a size that's appropriate to the new millennium so that you're not a total embarrassment to Stanley Kubrick and the other visionaries who got there way before you? I don't know the answers myself, so I went to see somebody who's already living in the new world, and has been there since the Elvis '60s.

I went to see Dan Mapes, 53, technology director of the largest startup in America -- a NASA-size operation dedicated to producing far-flung visions and mass-marketed adventures: "A $771 million startup," Mapes says, explaining his millennial vision. "We've started from nothing. In Silicon Valley, having a $10 million startup is a big deal. We're building a theme park based on "The Wizard of Oz." It's dedicated to this proposition: We intend to produce extraordinary new media for the global digital theater. "Oz" is one of the most archetypal stories of this century. Do you know what the number-one attraction at the Smithsonian is? It's the ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore in the movie."

Dan Mapes is as skinny as a snake and has an abundance of energy. Watching him, you worry that he might explode and hurt somebody. This is a guy who calls NASA a "baby" project. Set on 2,000 acres just outside of Kansas City, Kansas and scheduled to open in 2003, Mapes's Oz will include a theme park, a hotel, and a golf course, and will eventually house water parks and residences. All of the houses will be wired for high-speed connectivity. "It's like Disneyland, except that there are screens all around," he says. "Even if you're in France or China, you can come to Oz. If you're physically in Tokyo, you can take a virtual ride seated next to someone who is physically in Washington, DC." A Middle Eastern sheikh put up the initial funding, but then, feeling cash poor, he sold his stake to the good people of Kansas and to Salomon Smith Barney.

I'm hearing about Oz as I'm being driven down Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, the city of skyscraper blondes. All at once, all of the lights up ahead turn green, and speed is possible. Mapes takes his eyes off the road and his hands off the wheel to make a point about the art of building for the next century: "Oz uses more fiber optics than any other theme park in the world. We're coming to life right on the cusp of the millennium. We believe that the millennium is a story in itself. It brings with it a sense of a new period. What happened at the end of the post-World War II period probably comes closest to matching this feeling. By the end of 2002, the World Wide Web will be significantly linked through cable-television and satellite networks. New technologies and media that are now heating up will take off in wild new directions. It's in the nature of society to use that numbering system to represent a kind of crossover point, or a rite of passage -- the same way that we use college graduation as a crossover point. And our graduation gift to ourselves is to lay down the great highway."

In this movie, on this day, I am Dorothy. Since Mapes is driving, he's the Wizard. Mulholland Drive looks like a yellow-brick road (must be the glint coming off all those blondes). And we are both very far from home -- which is still 1999. I am checking in with Mapes because he is unlike any other futurist. He believes that if you're serious about it, you don't just talk about the future; you build it. Mostly, I'm in his car because I want to know what qualities will make it possible for a person to survive a few decades from now. What kind of equipment do futurists need? Why are they so good at spotting things before the rest of us?

"How do you focus on the future?" I ask Mapes. Mapes says that he does it by having a tremendous appetite for the new. "I don't think it's an accident that man flew in 1903, rather than in 1899," he tells me. "There is no software for this new highway, just as there was no software for the personal computer when it was created. At that time, the number-one word-processing program was WordStar, and the number-one spreadsheet program was VisiCalc. Right now, we still have a Kitty Hawk Web; it's basically pages of information sent over 28-Kbps modems. The Web we're going to have in two years is a million-bit Web, which will demand new applications. That's what I'm working on."

And what does it take to get you into the Mapesian future? The foremost piece of equipment for a time tourist is trust. "Trust the innate wisdom of the evolutionary process," says Mapes. "If you don't, you'll try to control everything. If you do, you'll be like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz": You'll just believe that the process that made Shakespeare will also make things beyond us."

Mapes believes that the millennium is a personal event, like buying a house, rather than just a flip of the numbers. "What happens with a rite of passage is that you become a different person, just as boys going into the forest come back changed," he explains. "These crossing points are rites of passage. The personality structure has defense mechanisms built into it. During a rite of passage, your personality structure collapses. Look at how tribes arrange a rite of passage: They insist on separation and on extraordinary physical-endurance tests. It's a big event. You come back with a different name and different boundaries -- and a bigger sense of purpose." Mapes's personal rite of passage came through rock climbing: "You know that you're going to fall at some point. You have to figure out if you're going to fall in a state of terror or a state of joy."

Rock climbing also helps him recognize Jung's distinctions between the successful-and-happy and the successful-and-tormented. "Jung used to say that it's not the bad things that you hide from yourself but the great things," Mapes says, still speeding along the LA freeway. "If you could see those, then you'd be so challenged that you'd have to act in a state of joy, not terror."

The next thing that you want in your millennium backpack is what Mapes calls the "secret of life": "Do what you love, with people you love. Everything else takes care of itself. That's the whole secret. With that formula, you discover new things to love and new people to love. If you use that formula, you never have to do much." And in Mapes's own backpack is one item that he never travels without: death. More to the point, he always respects death. "We have this remarkable invention, death," he says, which is what I'm thinking about right now given the speeds that we're approaching. "Death is the best thing we've ever invented, so we save it for last. I've lost 10 or 15 friends in the past 10 years. So I might as well do what I believe in. I'm on free time -- time to bring my dreams to life."

If Mapes can make the journey into the future, anyone can. He grew up in the Midwest. "I'm a heartland kid all the way," he says. "I had to do a lot of drugs and make a lot of love in Europe to evolve out of it. I have a degree in autopoesis [the study of artificial life and of systems that self-evolve] and an MBA. By the time I was 33, I had walked on every continent. I've been a dervish and a cowboy. I made possible the first global Internet meeting for the United Nations. The planet now feels like home."

The most important element that Mapes packs is an appreciation not for what's past, what's now, or what's in the future, but for what's timeless. "Oz" is the best story for the millennium: a map for the journey from passivity to activity, from dependence to independence, from childhood to maturity. It's because of this subtext that the film and the book reach out to so many people.

That's why he's spending his millennium rebuilding Oz. "'The Wizard of Oz' is a myth about discovering lost parts of ourselves," he says. "It's a great myth for the millennium. It's about looking for lost parts of ourselves that we need to discover: love, innocence, and courage. You need characters -- other people -- to help you, and a wizard who, like good parents, sets you on a path where you learn to help yourself. The wizard has to turn out to be not so smart, so that you can get back home on your own. It's an ancient story, the most mystical nonreligious story in America. It's right out of Jung. Five-year-olds like this story. Everyone likes this story. The journeying dimension wonderfully ties into our feelings of being lost. If you trace the steps that we go through, you'll see that life is a journey. That's the yellow-brick journey that we're all on. That's why we try things that we've never tried before."

Mapes drops me off at LAX. I'm about to climb on board the oldest of the new technologies. As the plane reaches altitude, for one scary minute I feel like we're flying farther and farther upward. Could we be heading over the rainbow? Is it that close after all?

Harriet Rubin (hrubin@aol.com), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in New York City. Contact Dan Mapes by email (dan.mapes@worldofoz.com), or visit the Wonderful World of Oz on the Web (www.worldofoz.com).

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