What do sewing machines, electrical outlets, and elevators have in common? They were all introduced to the public for the first time at a Universal Exposition, more commonly known as a World’s Fair. As I’ve written before, World’s Fairs used to be the go-to place to pioneer inventions and ideas. Sure, Fairs had rides and shows and concession stands. But visitors also expected to see inventions and get a preview of what companies were going to sell next. This was the public’s best chance to learn what was happening all over the world, to get excited about the future, and to feel engaged in the global experience.
While in college I stumbled upon a collection of diaries and newspaper articles written by people who attended the grand World’s Fairs of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. I got sucked into these travelers’ journeys, intrigued by what it must have been like to wander the fairgrounds. The combination of discovery, amazement and, often, disappointment, was fascinating. World’s Fairs inspired these travelers to think about their own place in society, analyze their homeland’s reputation, and predict how things were going to change next. Everything from their interactions with people from another country to their explorations through corporate-sponsored exhibits made an impression, and shaped their point of view.
Recently I read a letter written by Isaac Asimov about his visit to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. As a biochemist and author, Isaac was certainly qualified to analyze the technology he saw on display. But rather than simply talking about what he saw, he predicted what people would see at a similar Fair in 2014. His letter starts by talking about an attraction sponsored by General Electric at the ’64 Fair: the precursor to Disney World’s Carousel of Progress ride. The Carousel of Progress is comprised of four rooms, each set in a different time period to show the evolution of American life and technology over time. The final room is set in the future, as a statement on what may come. With the Carousel as inspiration, Asimov dug into his predictions.
Some of his predictions are about technology: appliances without electrical cords, better robots, moving sidewalks that crisscross entire cities. Others are about food: the rise of non-meat proteins and algae as alternative food sources. He talks about how the population of the world will grow so big, cities will have to move structures and people underground to make space. That ceilings and walls will use electroluminescent panels. That we’ll have contactless, airjet travel instead of ground transport.
A few of his predictions have rung true – we do have 3D TVs and video-conferencing technology, and soy protein sure is on the rise. The most interesting prediction, though, is his expectation that we’d be bored. Asimov assumed that the world would be so automated, so machine-dependent, that humans would essentially have nothing to do. In his words: “the lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.” This hasn’t come true – but it’s certainly a big scare of our generation. We see article after article telling high school students what major to choose so their skills don’t become “obsolete.” We see warnings to find a job that can’t be automated. We hear about layoffs due to better technology. Of course, the concern today is unemployment and lack of income, not boredom.
There’s actually a World’s Fair next year – yes, they still happen. Expo 2015 is going to take place in Milan, with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Given the theme, I don’t think there will be too many of the inventions Asimov predicted to see in 2014. But I’d love to see someone take his letter to the Expo and compare it to the technology on display. Or better yet – why don’t I do it myself? Anyone want to buy me a ticket to Italy?
In 2008, I went to an International Exposition in Zaragoza, Spain. International Expos are smaller and shorter than Universal Expos like the one in ’64 and the upcoming Milan 2015. Zaragoza’s theme was “Water and Sustainable Development,” so a lot of the exhibits focused on water in one way or another. Here’s some shots to show you how that plays out.