I was touched by this Economist article and its report that some dreamers (you might call them money-grubbing, ecology hating real-estate developers, but I call them dreamers) have decided to sink millions in building surfing parks in landlocked cities and ski slopes in places whose thermometers never see the south side of the freezing point. While waterparks might be the “hottest artificial experience in the United States” according to the amusement park industry spokesperson the article cites, I’m more touched by those people who feel the need to go even further than building a roof over fake whirlpools and waterslides in their attempts to negate nature. And I also find nothing to impugn in the seemingly malapropist notion of “artificial experience.” Real experience is somewhat mundane, available to anyone simply by waking up. Whereas artificial experience, preferably in impossible man-made landscapes, is a testimony to humankind’s epic discontent with the given world and its restless efforts to alter it, even at the flimsiest prod of the possiblity of more amusement. It’s easy enough to find pleasure in nature as given—to enjoy a sublime landscape or a clear-running stream or a majestic ridge of mountains or whatever. But the desire to “beat mother nature” as Cleveland indoor-mountain-biking entrepreneur Ray Petro claims to have done, produces something of Promethean grandeur.
Criticizing “artificial experience” has the taint of class warfare about it—after all, as the positional goods of authentically natural leisure in genuinely recherché locales become more scarce, they become more the province of only the rich, and talking up the regality of such experiences serves to enhance their usefulness in creating distinction. Meanwhile the non-positional manufactured forms of leisure—engineering marvels in their own right—become contemptible because of the plebian taint they take on. I’m not usually one to champion the so-called democracy of mass entertainment and see something inherently cheering in whatever forms of leisure become popular. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by Disney World or its totalitarian approach to leisure, whereby attempts are made to control everything, including the patrons themselves. But there is something seductive about nature minus Nature, about nature reconceived as serving the sole purpose of pleasing us—rather than, say, destroying our forests with insects or our towns with floods. Of course, our own efforts may have turned Nature largely against us, but this only strengthens the allure of a fantasy that foregrounds our complete mastery over it.
The Economist writer snarkily opines, “Nature, clearly, is too inconvenient to fit the modern lifestyle,” and an insane and aberrently unquenchable desire for convenience may be behind some of these au rebours projects. Certainly there is the appeal of sheer decadence, as well, the implied luxury that comes from the Las Vegas-style idea that anything can be brought to you to serve your leisure. But the pleasure of simulation itself should not be underestimated—people don’t choose to visit these parks or Las Vegas or other manmade monstrosities because nature is inaccessible to them. These parks are intriguing precisely because they are human products, not in spite of it; they fire the atheistic dream of a world without any creator other than humankind itself, and that we can produce anything we want to, given the proper incentives and capital.