Inside Out

After long distraction, I have been catching up on movies, along with much else. Last week I got around to renting “Inside Out.” I was especially eager to see it because of rave reviews and also because it stole my title. Two years ago, when I had the honor of giving the da Vinci Prize Address before the Society of the History of Technology, I titled it “Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out.” Just so you know, I was there first….[see link at end of post]

What I meant by the inside out, in speaking to my SHOT friends, was uncomplicated. I had begun with the non-controversial suggestion that as historians of technology we should aim high and ask really Big Questions. I went on to propose that one such question is asking what we mean when we say we live in a “technological age.” All the time we are referring to “our technological age.” What defines a technological age and why is it ours? How is it different from previous ages of history? Didn’t people in the past have technology too?

In the da Vinci address I suggested that we answer this Big Question from the inside out: not by looking at the objects in the world around us, but by examining our subjective experience of the world. Maybe the essence of our technological age is not any invention or device but a shared consciousness: “a redirection of human energies and desires toward inquiry into and manipulation of the material world for all sorts of utilitarian and non-utilitarian purposes” (to quote from the lecture). I went on to give examples of how we might observe this redirection in various ways from imaginative literature. Writers like Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson, I said, explored “the history of technology as a history of consciousness, from the inside out.”

Did the movie make the same point? Its mission was to look at a series of events through the consciousness of one eleven-year-old girl named Riley. But this runs counter to the medium of cinema, which are notoriously challenged in expressing subjectivity. The premise of movie-making is a focus (literally) on material reality. Moods may be set by sound and color and manipulations of the visible, consciousness is more than moods. Reality, in cinema, keeps returning to what we see.

In “Inside Out,” much of the fun came from clever ways of representing what we think as what we see: cartoon characters that incarnate different emotional states; spheres that represent memories; the mazelike path leading from the conscious to the subconscious; islands of consumer stuff that represent clusters of everyday experience. The inside experiences were turned into new types of visibilities that were both apt and amusing. By animating the findings of neuroscience, the movie illustrates the workings of “our technological age.” It redirects human curiosity about the workings of our own consciousness into manipulation of the material world. Complex emotions and memories are shown as striking and amusing gadgets. The movie uses magical realism to remind the moviegoer that conventional realism–reproduction of the visible world–does not well express what goes on inside human consciousness.

But what about the series of events that put all this into motion: that is, the plot? It is very simple. The parents in a one-child nuclear family decide to move from Minnesota to California for unspecified but apparently job-related reasons. Whatever they are, these economic pressures follow them from their old home to their new one, as conveyed by the parents’ worried expressions, gestures, and conversations. At the semi-happy ending, Riley and her parents reunite in mutual empathy, appreciating that everyone has a hard time adjusting to the move, but that in the long run it will be for the better.

Nothing could be a more American story than this: westward migration to find a better life. These days, for the relatively well-off, we call it relocation, but it is still migration. Talk about core memories! This is the core collective American experience, of people migrating across the country, or across the borders, in response to fierce demographic and economic pressures. In the movie, however, that history is scarcely mentioned, much less examined. Why did the parents decide to move? What were the pressures on them to do this, and the pressures on them once they were there? Feelings are probed but not the plot that gives rise to them. The animated gadgets are so vivid and eye-catching that the plot almost gets lost in the action – but the action of the plot, as it were, is what set the rest in motion.

The plot, too, is “our” technological age, but these forces are often off-stage, revealing themselves indirectly and mysteriously. They may have something to do with “globalization,” which is another way to think about “our technological age”—but this requires thinking from the top down and the bottom up, in the social world, as well as from the inside out in the individual one. For big questions, the historian has to think big, in many dimensions at once.

The moral of the movie Inside Out is that we must embrace sadness as well as joy as essential human experience. This is not just a message about individual psychology, because joy and sadness also have collective sources and meanings. The plot of migration is always mixed. We Americans prefer to read the story line as a happy one –migration equals progress equals joy—but it is also always a sad story. Much may be gained, but much is inevitably lost.

This is the note on which I ended my talk on “Our Technological Age, from the Inside Out.” The imaginative writers Verne, Morris, and Stevenson all illustrate, I concluded

“a deep and fundamental contradiction in historical consciousness. They are excited by a realm of new possibilities, while also preemptively mourning the inevitable losses it entails….This deeply conflicted inward experience of history—more than any technological object or process—is a defining quality of our technological change.”

Now that I have seen “Inside Out,” I can add another name to the list: Verne, Morris, Stevenson, and an imaginary eleven-year-old girl named Riley. For all of them–no matter how much neuroscience tells us about their consciousness–historical experience remains mysterious, troubling, and deeply conflicting.

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