March/April 2011
Peter Lunenfeld

The Factory Model
of Desire

Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner Moved
to L.A. and Forever Changed Sex, Death, and Boredom in America.

Discussed: L.A.’s Corn Belt Diaspora, The Maslow Pyramid, The Dangers of a Lone Ben Wa Ball, Weenies in the Gesamtkunstraum, Penicillin, Immanent Whackableness, The Pill, Talking Mice and Sexy Bunnies, Oompa Loompa Tans, Distressing Zombie Qualities, Extrusions of the Cinematic

The sex of the millennium is pornography. —Germaine Greer

If anything is more irresistible than Jesus, it’s Mickey. —Carl Hiaasen

I. The Clever Midwesterners

Once upon a time, there were two young men who wanted to change the world. The first, raised in the small town of Marceline, Missouri, was named Walter Elias Disney. The second, Hugh Hefner, hailed from the bustling streets of Chicago. Both men found their way to the magical land of Los Angeles, where their dreams came true—one by tapping into childlike wonder, the other by fanning and satiating adult desires.

Though Walt and Hef were a generation apart (Walt was born in 1901, Hef in 1926), in many ways they are strikingly similar. Both were raised by a warm, supportive mother and a father who could be distant and demanding. Both had backgrounds in commercial art; both served in wars but saw no action; both were serial entrepreneurs, though neither was particularly interested in the minutiae of business; both became world famous for success in a single medium and moved on to create complex ecosystems of media, formats, and environments. Most significantly, Walt and Hef simultaneously perfected what we might call the Factory Model of Desire, wherein the only fantasies that endure are those that can be fulfilled by a preexisting, branded, mass-marketed commodity.

Back in the middle of the twentieth century, psychologist Abraham Maslow distilled his years of research on human needs into a powerful graphic that has been taught in undergrad psych courses for decades. A marvel of information design, Maslow’s Pyramid cleverly shows how humans negotiate their needs. At the bottom are what Maslow called “deficit needs,” because we feel them most acutely when they are unfulfilled. These are our needs for air, water, and food. These also include our needs within the social sphere, such as finding others with whom to talk, work, and mate. At the apex of the pyramid we confront the most abstract “being needs,” which, when met, literally make us into better people.

What Maslow’s Pyramid does not address is a phrase that now returns more than 3.25 million Google hits: entertainment needs. As insightful as Maslow was, Walt and Hef were more forward-thinking. Both understood that human needs change, and, furthermore, that the notion of enlightenment Maslow located at the top of his pyramid would never be as popular, much less as profitable, as entertainment.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Peter Lunenfeld’s latest book is The Secret War Between Downloading and Uploading: Tales of the Computer as Culture Machine (MIT Press). He is a professor in the Design Media Arts department at UCLA. His office is within walking distance of the Playboy Mansion.

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