Friday, June 6, 2014

A Visit to the Worlds Fair of 2014

In 1964 there was a World’s Fair in New York City. More correctly these events were named “Expositions.” Starting in London in 1851, these world-wide displays were very common and held in the U.S., Europe, and even Australia. The theme was often the future … new technology and new ways of living … the world of tomorrow. These great expositions pre-dated Disneyland, yet they had many of the Disney touches as he, too, was interested in the future of technology and mankind.

The most recent were held in China in 2010 and South Korea in 2012. Planned for the next few years are fairs in Italy, Kazakhstan, and United Arab Emirates. The best-known “first World Expo” was held in The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, United Kingdom, in 1851, under the title "Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” The Eiffel Tower was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris. The Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 was a showcase for Edison and his new electric light powered by the nearby dam at Niagara Falls.

It was at this exposition that President William McKinley was shot by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, at the Temple of Music. Although one of the exhibits was the new X-Ray machine, the doctors didn’t use it to treat the president because they were concerned about “side effects.” The president died eight days later from gangrene caused by the bullet wounds.

The 1939–40 New York World's Fair diverged from the original focus of the world's fair expositions. From then on, world's fairs adopted specific cultural themes; they forecasted a better future for society. Technological innovations were no longer the primary exhibits at fairs. The theme of the 1939 fair was "Building the World of Tomorrow"; at the 1964 New York World's Fair, it was "Peace Through Understanding"; at the 1967 International and Universal Exposition in Montreal, it was "Man and His World". The fairs encouraged effective intercultural communication for the exchange of innovation.

While visiting the 1964 World’s Fair, the “good doctor,” Isaac Asimov, wrote an article for the New York Times in which he described attending the 2014 World’s Fair. Now Science Fiction is often thought of as predicting the future. After all, Jules Verne envisioned rockets to the moon and submarines as long ago as the middle of the nineteenth century … just in time for the first World’s Fair.

In point of fact, most sci-fi writers don’t consciously make predictions. They are not concerned if their vision of the future turns out to be correct. Rather they will take an idea from the present and project it into the future. A method often called “what if?” What if mankind reaches the moon and beyond? What if ships could voyage under the sea, or we could visit the center of the earth, or what would life be like with robots or teleportation?

Often science fiction tells the positive side of technology and man. One of the most endearing traits of the Star Trek series was the positive view of mankind and human behavior. Expositions were meant more to celebrate today’s technology than to predict the future. And what a glorious future it will be as all this new technology is implemented.

Yet, no honest science fiction writer will pass up the chance to describe their vision of the future. That’s what Isaac Asimov did in his article. Of course, making predictions is difficult, especially about the future. A lot of unexpected discoveries as well as unanticipated problems can occur between 1964 and 2016. Why I’ve spent my entire adult life dealing with just those discoveries and problems. Welcome to the future. So what did Isaac get right? Turns out, not much.

To begin with, there is no 2014 World’s Fair … not in New York, nor anywhere else. However, he did get a few right:

  1. ”Robots will be neither common nor very good in 2014.”
  2. ”By 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars.”
  3. ”As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set.”
  4. ”On Earth — laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interferenece.”

Still, that’s a pretty good batting average for seeing 50 years into the future, especially with the current rate of discovery and implementation. He said that:

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.

While that technology does exist, or very nearly exist in our modern world, this is not common … yet. Plus, I don’t really think mankind, at least in the U.S. and certain developed counties, has withdrawn from nature. Homes in the U.S. are bigger and more comfortable with air conditioning and Internet access and cable TV. Still, I think camping, and parks, and picnics, and family vacations in the mountains has increased with the advent of Interstate highways, more reliable automobiles, and fancy recreational vehicles. Oh, wait, maybe we have withdrawn when you talk about giant motorhomes with color TV, refrigerators, and A/C.

He further stated, “The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.”

Got the batteries right. It is becoming a cordless world. Just check out the tool section at Home Depot. But, we haven’t figured out good “atomic” batteries, and struggle with odd chemical constructions using weird metals like NiCad and other unknown to common man materials. He did understand the issue of disposal of radioactive materials, but the “authorized agents of the manufacturer” have not materialized. Even the federal government is struggling with radioactive material disposal.

He predicted fusion power. Oh, if only he’d been right on that one. We could do without Fukushima. He predicted vehicles riding on compressed air and not touching the roadways as well as moving sidewalks and other conveyances of this type. Again, we have that technology, but rarely see it implemented except on television shows or in airports.

Did he predict cell phones? The Internet? What about men on the moon? Well, close:

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the '64 General Motors exhibit).

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between earth and moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space. On earth, however, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes, to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be playing with that problem in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

Hmmmm, we’ve sort of got this, although no-one is calling Antarctica, or are they?

He did get the population explosion:

As I stood in line waiting to get into the General Electric exhibit at the 1964 fair, I found myself staring at Equitable Life's grim sign blinking out the population of the United States, with the number (over 191,000,000) increasing by 1 every 11 seconds. During the interval which I spent inside the G.E. pavilion, the American population had increased by nearly 300 and the world's population by 6,000.

In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.

Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral. General Motors shows, in its 1964 exhibit, the model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouth-watering luxury. The 2014 World's Fair will have exhibits showing cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss.

Living under the ocean, often predicted, hasn’t happened yet.

With this next one, he came pretty close, and — if Monsanto has anything to say about it — it is probably still just around the corner.

Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be "farms" turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which "mock-turkey" and "pseudosteak" will be served. It won't be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.

He spoke a lot about population and even population control. He predicted by now Boston and New York City would have grown together as one giant metropolis. “Well, the earth's population is now about 3,000,000,000 and is doubling every 40 years. If this rate of doubling goes unchecked, then a World-Manhattan is coming in just 500 years. All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!” He may yet be proven right with this prediction.

He even predicted the current economic downfall and loss of jobs. Although most blame our current predicament on the housing bubble, banks, and shipping jobs overseas, a big part of today’s unemployment picture is due to automation. He said:

The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary "Fortran" (from "formula translation”).

Remember, one of the largest exhibits at the ’64 Fair was IBM’s hall of computers.

He concludes with a dire statement. It is no surprise that such an energetic and busy man as Asimov would feel this way. Yet I wonder if today’s population would agree with this final comment:

“Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!”

"Enforced leisure," now that's a concept. Welcome to 2014. Now we just call it "unemployment." (And that includes yours truly. That's how I find all the time to write these things.)

No comments:

Post a Comment