Directed by Don Hertzfeldt, 2015
by Raqi SyedJune 11, 2015
Don't be scared...it is me. Love you and miss you.
Wow...this is so cool!
-Jan. 6, 1993, The First AOL Instant Message Exchange
I came of age with the internet. In 1994, I opened my first email account and used a unix based client called Pine to read it. With Pine I learned about not just the first inklings of a kind of anxiety-reward based system of behavior we now call social media, but also the language that is so specific to it. Hastily typed incomplete sentences. Commands such as “quit,” and “bang!” ASCII art. And of course humor, conveyed through the pithy storytelling that has come to comprise so much of online communication.
Pine and ASCII may be considered the dead media of the 90s; delivery technologies that have been replaced by more elegant, streamlined apps. And yet, there was a raw, partially formed quality to the discourse of futurism and human potential taking place in the 1990s that has been missing from our culture in this past decade as we hurtle from one killer app to another, closing the gap between synaptic impulse and actualization. Few films have managed to convey this movement from individual network connectivity to what has been hypothesized as the singularity, while utilizing the language of convergence culture, as thoughtfully as Don Hertzfeld’s animated short, World of Tomorrow.
It follows the adventures of four year old Emily 1, pulled across time by Emily 3, her future clone/offspring. Emily 3 introduces Emily 1 to a semi-post-human society in which the class based system of capitalism still persists, allowing the wealthy to live forever in a networked world of connectivity and leisure, while the poor upload their consciousness’ into rudimentary memory boxes and primitive robots. Inter-planetary colonization has yielded mixed results, and now when time travel and cloning have created a near perfect society, Emily 3 finds herself filled with anxiety and dread as she mourns the death of her true love, and prepares for the impact of an asteroid that will destroy Earth.
World of Tomorrow operates as a poem constructed around the most pervasive ideas about humanism circulating in popular culture. It asks a very basic question: where are we going? And it uses the schematic language of cartoons to unravel the complexity behind dense subject matter. The formal language of the film is its most striking feature—stick figures and abstract backgrounds alluding to geometric shapes and amorphous space. By stripping back the hyperreal imagery that has become the stock and trade of science fiction films, we can begin to sift through the opposing forces of human existence—rational ideas and incoherent emotions. It is because the film resists spectacle that it can tackle ideas about how people relate to each other across time and space. Just when Emily 3 hits upon the true existential dread of living, Emily 1 offers unintelligible baby babble. This is the push-pull experience of the knowable and the unknowable that the world really is. And the kind of absurd humor we have come to expect from the internet of things.
In fact it is the humor that defines World of Tomorrow. Were in not for Emily 1’s nonsensical reactions to her adult counterpart’s Socratic musings about the meaning of life, the film would be another gen sci-fi peppered with big ideas. But placing a regular four year old out in the cosmos—not the precocious spoon-bending variety we have become so accustomed to—turns the film into something else entirely. It is the provocative questioning of human existence remixed via non sequitur comedy that allows the film to function as a revelation rather than more of the same.
The film does not hesitate to take up the great philosophical themes of our time—what does it mean to be human, how can we learn to be present in every moment, and how can we learn from our past in order to form better versions of our future selves? When Emily 3 speaks to the original child version of herself, we see the film play out as a kind of ancestor simulation. According to Nick Bostrom, this would indicate that Emily 1 is living in a simulation and humanity has progressed towards a post-human society. But the beauty of World of Tomorrow is its resistance to polemics. Complex mathematical formulas be damned, this is a future in which the ancestor simulation and the great filter of the fermi paradox are both happening.
We do not have to choose the red pill or the blue pill, there will instead be time enough for all the possibilities of the future to play out. As Emily 3 is to Emily 1, World of Tomorrow is to The Matrix; a natural extension and a stripped back exploration of ideas and possibilities. The film is the moving image equivalent of the ASCII Mona Lisa, an emoji heart, or an email sent out of the blue by a long lost friend. It is a charming story the viewer wishes to immediately download and read again and again. Without saying so, in her own raw unformed child babble, Emily 1 tells her future self what we all wish to hear when faced with uncertainty: don’t be scared...it is me. Love you and miss you.