The Golden Anniversary of the New York World’s Fair
In innumerable ways automation touches our lives – and reshapes them. Automation is a simple thermostat keeping a house evenly heated; it is also a continental network of computers – the background of Bell Telephone’s coast-to-coast direct dialing system. Serving the speed work or add to pleasure, automation is a threat as well as a boon. It can both boost production and leave men jobless. Many U.S. factories are already automated. In years to come, machines with electronic intelligence may well be able to staff a corporation from the blue-collar worker to the vice president in charge of marketing. At the Fair, computers and other electronic instruments help visitors find pen pals, pick a restaurant or plan a trip.
“The Awesome Advent of Automation” in New York World’s Fair 1964/1965 Official Souvenir Book
As NPR’s Planet Money playfully reminds us, fifty years ago this summer New York hosted a gaudy World’s Fair redolent of techno-utopianism. Like others who have commemorated/mocked the golden anniversary, the NPR piece focuses on which of the Fair’s bold technological predictions came true (the ubiquity of color television) and which did not (a much longer list including the wide availability of jet packs, undersea hotels, smoothly functioning private car-filled highways alongside efficient public transportation, and space colonies).
Planet Money leads with the “picture phones” that drew long lines. As the Bell Telephone “Ballad for the Fair” instructed visitors, “Someday, people may want to see, as well as talk, over the telephone.” Bell’s pavilion was “the place where electronic wonders abound, a marriage of sight to the drama of sound.” Visitors could glimpse and hear the future by having a conversation through a small television set. That this particular setup worked better a few years later in 2001: A Space Odyssey than in real American homes dampened little of the Fair’s enthusiasm. “Even now in the era of Skype and Facetime, people mostly just want to talk on the phone, without seeing the person on the other end.”
If the Fair imperfectly anticipated the age of Skype, so too, it awkwardly imagined the computerized future of teaching. Visitors to the Hall of Education encountered “Automated Schoolmarm.” The Autotutor – “a teaching machine” – could instruct students and train workers, a notion sure to warm the hearts of corporate executives if not teachers.
Matt Novak, writing for Smithsonian, points out that in the late 1950s-1960s, a great deal of buzz had been generated by the prospect of an automated classroom. Some welcomed the arrival of “Push-button education” and the attendant demise of the human teacher, while many Americans expressed alarm at such a drastic change. In some of the utopian notions, “Movies, ‘mechanical tabulating machines’ and teachers instructing by videophone were all envisioned for the classroom of tomorrow.” Children would use a console with “a screen displaying equations, multiple colored buttons” and perhaps “a video camera or microphone mounted on the top-center of the desk.” Against such visions, the National Education Association reassured parents their children would not be the pupils of “Robot Teachers.” Today’s controversy over Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has a Space Age antecedent.
Planet Money, New York Magazine and others are entitled to their sport in lampooning the hubris of the Fair. It seems incredible that just months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (what Don DeLillo called “the seven seconds that broke the back of the American Century”) and on the eve of the nation’s tumultuous and agonizing conflicts over civil rights, Vietnam, the counterculture and more, the Fair’s maestro, Robert Moses, and corporate giants like Bell, General Electric, and Coca Cola blithely imagined an impending “end of history.” The Fair’s motto, “Peace through Understanding,” stood as a vacuous enjoinder to a world set on the brink of conflagration.
However, the purpose of the Fair was never to accurately forecast the future, or even to attempt to create a better world. It was merely an advertisement for corporate America and the Cold War cultural consensus that secured its profits. What was good for General Motors, as the saying went, was good for America. The souvenir books and official guides to the fair which I and many others buy from sites like eBay, like the plenitude of images and videos online, evoke the banality of the New York World’s Fair not because of Moses and other elites’ failure of imagination, but rather because of the innate emptiness of their meaning. Their American Century did not last two decades.
Their World’s Fair was quickly forgotten because of its aesthetic poverty and its fatuous prognostications, to be sure, but more so because of the political obsolescence of its makers. Then, too, we should recall how the managerial elite of the 1990s assured us that the World Wide Web would finally enact that “Peace through Understanding.” The illusions of the era, though deeply rooted in a brief Cold War moment, persist even now in their mischief.