In his classic ’90s work, In the Beginning was the Command Line, Neal Stephenson wrote about computer operating systems as metaphors. He argued that the differences between operating systems were best seen as reflections of differences in the way that people wanted to see the world. So, for instance, he thought that millions of people were buying Windows 95 mostly because they wanted to feel like they were purchasing something of value. That they were engaging in a real business transaction like a responsible adult. Even if the product they were purchasing was really just a long string of ephemeral 1s and 0s that people down the street were giving away for free or nearly so, like BeOS or Linux.
He then went into an aside where he talked about Disney and how they are experts at what he called “mediated experience”. Being Stephenson, this aside lasted quite a while before eventually looping back around to computers and culture. But his claim that if Disney really understood what an operating system was and applied their talents to it the way they do to their amusement parks, they’d crush Microsoft in a matter of years. In the late ’90s, when Microsoft was under siege as a monopolist because their products ruled the world, this was a much more bold statement than it might seem now.
Eventually, he concluded by declaring that the world was separated into two main camps, whom he named based upon H.G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine: the Eloi and the Morlocks. However, unlike the book, Stephenson claimed the main difference between them was that the Eloi were just consumers while the Morlocks where those few who actually understood how everything worked. Thus the vast, happy flock of Eloi would use simplified graphical user interfaces to accomplish whatever they needed done without needing to deeply understand the machinations required. Meanwhile the few Morlocks would access the system using the command-line to understand and create the world the Eloi inhabit.
It’s a very hacker-centric vision of what the world is about. Which makes sense, given that Stephenson has made a pretty good career out of being a hacker prophet and popularizer. But I believe he showed great insight by recognizing that in his model virtually everyone is Eloi in regard to virtually everything important. Even the best hackers find it impossible to understand everything about everything. If nothing else, it may not be worth your time to actually put in the effort if you can consume the product of someone else’s deep understanding. And, if you think about it, this is a rephrasing of the logic behind the division of labor in the broader society.
Anyhow, I was spending some time thinking about this claim of Disney’s powers in the context of the primary subject matter of this website. If Stephenson is correct, the Disney corporation owns and operates the most potent priesthood in the history of mankind. At least, if we measure that by their ability to build metaphors that are absorbed through the carefully crafted experiences at their theme parks (and through their video offerings) that appeal strongly to a vast swath of people all around the globe.
What if the Magic Kingdom were a real kingdom? And, moreover, one that was tailored to the particular challenges of the emerging economic, military, and social realities we have previously identified? What would that look like?
To begin, I will define a new form of government that I will call “fictional monarchy”. This is an extension of the worldwide trend away from more traditional forms of monarchy and toward what we now think of as constitutional monarchy. In an absolute monarchy, the head of state and the head of government are the same person: the King. In a constitutional monarchy, the King remains head of state while the head of government is his Prime Minister. And in the more modern incarnations of the form, the identity of the Prime Minister is not at the monarch’s discretion (as one might conclude from the term “minister”) but is required to be selected by the people at large through some form of election.
In creating a fictional monarchy, we dispense with the need for the head of state to be an actual person. Instead, we declare the monarch to formally be a fictional character whose likeness and representation are owned by the polity. Which character serves as head of state rotates on an irregular but rather short-term basis. Say somewhere between one and five years. At the end of each reign, the previous character is quietly removed from office and the new one is coronated in a grand celebration.
So, for instance, say Snow White is the current ruling Princess of the Magic Kingdom. Any time there is a formal state event, like say a state dinner surrounding a treaty signing, an actress dressed up as Snow White attends in character surrounded by a royal retinue. Dignitaries both foreign and domestic refer to her as the ruler of the Magic Kingdom. And it is her signature on the treaty (as Snow White, not as her birth name) that legally binds the Magic Kingdom to whatever agreement has been arranged.
There are several key advantages to this structure over existing constitutional monarchies. First, we have openly embraced the symbolic nature of the head of state. In a constitutional monarchy, the King is still nominally in charge of everything, though in practice he is expected to defer to the Prime Minister on all important issues. But he could theoretically cause a national crisis if he attempted to seize power from the elected government. In a fictional monarchy, on the other hand, the power is vested in the character. Just like in the theme park, the actor is just one of a rotating cast of anonymous thousands who have put on the suit.
Second, since the rulers are fictional, it is not necessary to actually house royal families at large expense. Neither must a fictional monarchy suffer the indignity of tabloid journalism reporting the peccadillos of their high status royal family. Once the actor takes off the costume, the ruler just disappears until such time as the next actor inhabits the character. Lèse-majesté, or unauthorized depictions of the ruling characters, would be a correspondingly serious crime in the Magic Kingdom. Judging from the Disney Corporation’s iron grip over global copyright law, this isn’t really too far off from the present state of affairs.
Third, it is not necessary for the Magic Kingdom to invest heavily in security for any royal appearances. If a crazed gunman shoots Snow White, well, this is the Magic Kingdom. Death need not be a true obstacle. A national day of mourning is ordered and a ceremony is held, at the spectacular end of which a new actress wearing her raiment “comes to life” and declares that the magic of her loyal subjects’ love and devotion was able to conquer death itself.
Knowing this, it is possible for the Magic Kingdom to ensure that their subjects get semi-regular, intimate-feeling face time with their leaders. Instead of standing at an impersonal rope line hoping to shake the President’s hand for a second, the ruler of the Magic Kingdom could actually have a short, individual conversation with each subject and then let him take a picture with the character. In modern terms, it would be as if you were a major campaign contributor to the President’s campaign instead of a mere voter.
Economically and socially, the Magic Kingdom would be primarily focused on mediating the experiences of its subjects in a way very similar to the experience presented by modern Disney theme parks. Their major industries would be cultural production and tourism. So, in other words, they would continue to make movies, action figures, and operate theme parks for foreigners. The big difference is that the Magic Kingdom would need to be more vertically integrated and would need to apply its mediation efforts to much of its own populace as well as to the tourists.
If one looks closely at the way Disney runs their theme parks, you can see that Stephenson is correct. The whole operation is a technically-sophisticated marvel that goes to great lengths to hide the real workings from the customers. That’s what they mean by magic. If it’s working correctly, everything about the experience seems miraculous and delightful to the Eloi. Under the covers, this means that it requires a vast amount of low-paid human labor to serve as the pleasant, smiling interface between the customers and the marvels the elite Imagineers were able to create.
This business model maps very well onto the economic trends that we see growing throughout the global economy. Technological progress is concentrating economic value in a technical elite as their work replaces many existing occupations with increasingly sophisticated automation. Currently, these workers are being thrown back into the general economy and finding employment as low-level service drones, if they find any at all. These people are occasionally referred to as workers with zero marginal product. But the high-touch theme park business model can readily find profitable places for virtually everyone. Even the heavily disabled are currently put to work taking tickets and serving as greeters.
One can imagine this extending throughout the entire economy of the Kingdom through vertical integration. Begin by imagining a factory built as if it were a Disney theme park. Instead of being utilitarian and focused on low-cost output, everything about the parts where the human workers are housed is designed to make the worker’s experience one full of happiness and felt (as opposed to actual) productivity. This may seem crazy, bordering on impossible, until you realize that Disney has currently managed to make the experience of standing in line pretty entertaining.
Whatever part of the process they are necessarily involved with is sold as “handcrafted” in order to increase margins and/or written off as marketing expense. Meanwhile, any part of the factory that actually needs to run efficiently at scale in order for the overall operation to be profitable is handled by automation, well away from the common worker. Just as in the park, only a few elite Imagineers and their skilled technicians need ever actually interface with the “bare metal” of the largely autonomous factory floor.
Similar modifications to economic processes can be imagined for sectors that are not manufacturing. For instance, in housing construction, we could imagine a swarm of human workers that do the relatively less arduous customization and artistic touches. They work atop one of a scant few base cookie-cutter housing plans that are created by massive industrial processes at the behest of expert Imagineers. The end result would be a house that is equivalently expensive to an existing model in terms of material and labor. The key trade-off would be in sacrificing core customizability (in such features as room size and layout) in exchange for increased quality of the parts of the house that one interfaces with every day.
So, in essence, the Crown will be the single monopolist provider for virtually every good and service in the Kingdom. Similarly, it will be the sole monopsonist purchaser of labor. Which is what you’d expect if you assume that every subject is essentially living and working in a theme park. Therefore, one would naturally expect that this would just collapse under its own weight, in the way of all large-scale command economies. The main reason why it doesn’t is that we have no expectation of the Eloi economy being actually productive. If it actually generates value, then that’s great. But it’s mostly there to build the brand. The underlying Morlock economy, on the other hand, is plugged tightly into the overall world economy. That sector operates under the discipline of the broader international market and generates the necessary hard currency through the generation of efficient exports.
Let us assume for the moment that the Magic Kingdom’s economic model is sufficient to generate growing surplus energy while providing a good standard of living for its largely Eloi citizenry. The next question, then, is internal security. How will the Magic Kingdom maintain internal order? I suspect that the answer to this problem requires very little extension from Disney’s current population control mechanisms. As is the case today, the entire Kingdom would be routinely under complete, unobtrusive surveillance. The central control nodes for each region would be responsible for the moment-to-moment monitoring of these feeds and ensuring that key metrics of governance remain in the green.
This means that any instance of personal or property crime would be quickly identified and the perpetrators swiftly and silently apprehended. Like today, the common punishment will likely be banishment from the Kingdom for a given period, up to an indefinite blacklist. Therefore, there is no need for the Magic Kingdom to own or operate any prisons, correctional facilities, or really any overt justice system. Any malcontents can just be coldly and quietly exiled. Or killed and silently disposed of, possibly, if they violate the terms of their sentence and are caught in the Magic Kingdom while being on the proscribed list.
The Magic Kingdom has little need to conquer or occupy territory, as it makes most of its money through cultural exports and tourism. So the Kingdom’s military force will be organized solely to ensure that their territorial integrity remains unquestioned. Therefore, external security can probably be handled by drones run by the same department that handles internal security. I would presume that they would be purchased abroad, but it is certainly possible that they could be constructed largely in-house, as the Kingdom will require considerable drone expertise for its extensive surveillance systems.
So, if internal and external security appear to be solvable problems, then the final remaining issue is how the Magic Kingdom will handle intra-elite competition. The Kingdom will have little trouble handling their Imagineers, as engineers are notoriously easily led. The artists may pose more of a problem, as they are crucial to the process and often rather rebellious. But Disney seems to have been able to attract a good supply of excellent artists in recent years, so a combination of well above average pay and prestige, the threat of exile, and the Disney ideology should suffice.
The real problem is handling struggles among the “ministry”. In the current Disney corporation, the real power is held by the executives who manage the company. And the profits from the operation are returned to the shareholders via dividends. But public struggles between a board of directors and the top executives would be disastrous for public perception. As would any coup d’état attempt by the internal security forces. To all the Eloi, both foreign and domestic, it must appear as if the Kingdom is as one, united under the absolute authority of the fictional monarch. All the ministers (now-sovereign executives) merely speak on behalf of the monarch as they explain and implement her preferred policies.
There are a couple ways to manage this. The first is purely informally. In this case, real politics in the Magic Kingdom would essentially take the form of court intrigues. The churning tides of fashion, personality, and sentiment among the ruling oligarchy would raise different luminaries to power over time. But each faction would be unified in the necessity of maintaining the illusion, for fear that the entire system would collapse on their heads. The best modern examples of this sort of organization can be found in East Asia. Governments like China, Japan, and Singapore are each relatively non-ideological oligarchies run by people who have systemic stability and profit as their foremost concern.
The other possibility I envision is some manner of strict technocratic control applied reflexively to internal governance. After all, every other part of the operation of the Magic Kingdom is a data-driven, metrics-based endeavor. For instance, wait times at various attractions need to be under X minutes or some alert goes off and Operations is expected to do something to ameliorate this. One can imagine handling top-level governance similarly. Various overall efficiency and profitability metrics can be established while giving the Prime Minister full operating authority. Then, if the numbers come in low, a change in leadership is automatically triggered. If the chosen metrics are difficult or expensive to game, while simultaneously being publicly available and easily verifiable, then this can serve as a foundation for legitimacy and, thus, a Schelling point for internal power struggles.
This is less outlandish than it might seem. Robin Hanson has done some work with the theoretical basis behind a form of government he calls futarchy. This is essentially our idea for technocratic governance, but driven by a futures market instead of any particular authority. So, instead of having the system appoint a Prime Minister or CEO which goes on to make the important calls for the country or company, instead it drives each of them independently by referendum. The winning option is determined by the highest priced futures contract at some date. So, for instance, there might be three options trading on the futures market at once: A pays out proportionately to the underlying stock price (or GDP, or whatever) if policy A is adopted; B pays out if B is adopted; and C pays out only if C is adopted. The money paid for options that aren’t taken (the counterfactuals) are refunded. The idea is that the system is structured such that the price of each of these options should reflect the market’s expectation of the future stock price under each of these conditions.
If the market is liquid enough, then it is likely the best available information aggregator available, so therefore Hanson argues that it makes sense to plug decision making directly into the output of the market. Since you will maximize the company’s stock price by always picking the highest priced contract, then just do that every time and you don’t actually need a CEO to make decisions. The market does it for you. Hence, rule by futures market, or “futarchy”.
For our purposes, we don’t need to go so nearly so far. We can retain the position of Prime Minister as the supreme executive authority in the Magic Kingdom. Nor do we need to run a separate futures market in order to make decisions. Instead, it should be possible for such a relatively small, highly automated, data driven organization to decide to replace the Prime Minister based on already available metrics. We can imagine several possible mechanisms to select a replacement. But my preferred model would be to randomly choose to elevate one of the current high ministers (think Cabinet-level officials) to the big chair. Since it’s random, and assuming that there are enough high ministers in the pool, there is no particular incentive for any given subordinate to tank the metrics so as to force a change in leadership.
Either way, we do not require a bulletproof system, as none has ever existed to this point in human history. All we need for our purposes is a path to viability and the expectation that the novel model will tend toward some reasonably stable equilibrium. And for these purposes, I think the fact that either of these distinct proposed models above is likely sufficient is a good sign. The Magic Kingdom would likely be able to settle on some workable system to quietly handle behind the scenes discord among the real decision makers.
OK. So we’ve created a brand-new model that’s designed to be better adapted to the key secular economic and social trends we expect to take place in the coming decades. It might even greatly increase the average person’s reported happiness and satisfaction with his government, while addressing his growing insecurity with his place in the world. Unfortunately, it does so in a way that’s completely anathema to virtually every existing elite.
First, it is violently and comprehensively anti-liberal. From the left-liberal perspective, the Magic Kingdom is running a Panopticon-style surveillance state without even a pretense of democracy or respect for human rights. Censorship is rife. And there isn’t even a public judicial system. Even the North Koreans have judges. This state of affairs is obviously abhorrent.
Similarly, from the right-liberal perspective, the Magic Kingdom might as well be Communist. After all, virtually everyone is employed by giant, inefficient, state owned and operated industries. Plus they’re pushing a saccharine, cloying, New Age/hippie agenda that might as well be atheist. To a lot of people, “magic” will serve as a very thin-gruel replacement for a living God.
And from the more anarchist/punk/existentialist perspective, the idea that everyone is actively conspiring to maintain kayfabe on such an obvious thing like who’s in charge of the country would be maximally infuriating. There are lots of people out there who are still bitter about being lied to about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as kids. To people with this mindset, the fact that there is nothing even remotely authentic about the experience of life in the Magic Kingdom would be awful. After all, literally everything around is processed, sculpted, and carefully mediated to appeal to the average person. But this appeal is always safe. It’s kid-friendly. Non-threatening. All the edges are soft and rounded. It follows that anyone who seeks the truth or who has any rebellious streak in them at all will either be co-opted into the ruling Morlock elite or rapidly exiled.
So, for all these reasons and more, I have no expectation that the Magic Kingdom will declare its independence and take an equal place among the sovereign nations of the world any time soon. But I think it’s quite interesting to realize that even such a seemingly crazy idea as this probably would actually work better for more people than any extant form of social organization. That’s a sign that the future’s going to be a wild and crazy ride.