China

It Happened at the World's Fair

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Former glory
Fox

Virginia Postrel visits the World Fair in Shanghai, where she considers the conventional wisdom "that Americans lost their fondness for world's fairs because we became pessimistic and disillusioned about progress."

If so, the naïve enthusiasms on display in Shanghai suggest that the future belongs to the Chinese. But the real story is more complicated. In part, world's fairs were simply victims of the prosperity they prophesied. The more affluent, well-traveled, and media-saturated the audience, the harder it is to impress. World's fairs are designed for people from homogeneous cultures who are still impressed by electricity and foreigners. In 2010, that means the Chinese.

A world's fair is a chance to see the cultures and people of other lands—to "smell, touch, and taste far-off places," promised a pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. A Shanghai writer observes that for older locals and migrants from the countryside, "the Expo is—and may well remain—the closest that they will ever get to seeing the world."

Deeper than that, there's a shift in political attitudes:

General Motors's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair turned this idea into a seductive and memorable experience, as visitors soared over a miniature world of superhighways and high-rise, self-contained cities. "No matter what I had heard about the Futurama," recalls the protagonist of E.L. Doctorow's World's Fair, "nothing compared with seeing it for myself: all the small moving parts, all the lights and shadows, the animation, as if I were looking at the largest most complicated toy ever made!…It was a toy that any child in the world would want to own. You could play with it forever." The Futurama was enticing because visitors never considered what it might feel like to be someone else's toy.

1964: It's paleolithic!
Hanna-Barbera

That vision did give America interstate highways and a trip to the moon. But it also sparked a backlash. In the 1960s, the New Left and the Goldwater Right, hippies and hackers, personal liberation movements and historic preservationists all rebelled against the tyranny of expertise. Within a few years, Robert Moses, the New York infrastructure and planning czar who ran the 1964 World's Fair, had gone from city-building hero to neighborhood-wrecking villain. (In Shanghai, the government displaced some 18,000 households to clear the land for the Expo site, Moses-style; the official account portrays the relocations as a move to a "sweet and fresh" new life, while others disagree.) With its mix of do-it-yourself technophilia, hippie experimentation, and environmental consciousness, the best-selling Whole Earth Catalog captured the Zeitgeist and won the 1972 National Book Award.

Twentieth-century world's fairs had encouraged visitors to equate progress and technological optimism with the Galbraithian vision of stable, heavily bureaucratic, industrial quasi-monopolies—the corporate version of nation states—working with government to determine the future. All the rage in the first half of the 20th century, this technocratic theory of progress became not only less popular but much less believable in the second half.

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  1. the 1960s, the New Left and the Goldwater Right, hippies and hackers, personal liberation movements and historic preservationists all rebelled against the tyranny of expertise.

    Uh . . . wait, what?

    Twentieth-century world’s fairs had encouraged visitors to equate progress and technological optimism with the Galbraithian vision of stable, heavily bureaucratic, industrial quasi-monopolies — the corporate version of nation states — working with government to determine the future.

    Ah, you mean fascism?

    1. No, no, Elderly Wetback. Only political conservatives can be fascists. Even if, you know, the fascist party calls itself the “National Socialist Workers Party.”

  2. Uh…

    How about “People stopped going to World’s Fairs because they were boring”?

    Also, the fact that travel became cheaper and more popular meant that people could actually go see other countries and their people instead of the Official, Government-Approved Version of other countries and their people.

    1. Or as Postrel put it: “The more affluent, well-traveled, and media-saturated the audience, the harder it is to impress. World’s fairs are designed for people from homogeneous cultures who are still impressed by electricity and foreigners.”

      1. But without government, we wouldn’t have electricity OR foreigners.

      2. Now that she is back, are things the same here?

        1. Jesus Fucking Tapdancing Christ, you are tedious. You know it, I know it, we all know it, but you keep going. What drives you, JohnSukiMoronBot? What is your mania?

          On second thought, I don’t give a shit. Just go away, you vapid parrot.

          1. Stop responding to me. Pick a handle, I only use one. You no longer have permission to respond to anything I do anywhere on the internet or in reality.

              1. Apparently it’s all a plot to slowly drive Epi mad, mad I tell you.
                And apparently it’s working.

          2. Almost forgot, good morning.

          3. Episiarch,
            You’ve won the Internet for the day. Where would you like to pick it up?

            1. John/Suki to Epi: “One of us, one of us, one of us.”

              1. Why is Episiarch angry?

    2. People still seem to enjoy EPCOT.

    3. Speaking of “official, government-approved” versions, did anybody go read the Chinese version of the relocation story? I laughed out loud and said, “Wow, people actually still write like that?”

      The relocation and resettlement work for the World Expo Shanghai could be said to be a really transparent’sunshine’project, enabling about 18,000 families to be relocated to sign the relocation agreement, bid goodbye to their old dwellings and greet the upcoming World Expo light-heartedly.

      All it needs is a reference to the traditional and typical of Chinese glonous history to make it complete. Then I remembered that White House press releases look like that too.

      1. I did, and thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the sub-headline:

        “Bidding goodbye to their old dwellings joyfully”

  3. I was immediately reminded of this World’s Fair story.

    I’ll bet Knoxville is still paying that off.

    1. That’s where the first image came from.

      1. +1 ROFL, thought so.

      2. Damn you and your subliminal messages!

      3. And you used the title of one of Kurt Russell’s first movies for the thread title! 😉

        1. After reading your comment, I’m immediately reminded of this World’s Fair story.

  4. Damn it, a Ginnie Postrel posting I can’t make fun of. The same thing happened with the last Cathy Young column. I’m starting to agree with Matt Welch: the world really is going to hell.

      1. That reminds me of an old Eddie Murphy routine:

        You know what I was wondering about movies? I was watching those movies–I’m moving out of my house, I was watching movies like Poltergeist and Amityville Horror. Why don’t the people just get the hell out of the house? You can’t make a horror movie with black people in it ‘cuz the movie’d stop, you’d see niggers runnin’ down the street, the movie’s over! That’s the movie. You can’t have a movie like that. See, white people, you all sit on the toilet, see blood in the toilet, and you all go get Ajax. Brothers won’t sit on the toilet. Movie be just like this: [brother’s voice] “Wow, baby, this is beautiful. We got chandelier hangin’ up here, kids outside playin’, it’s a beautiful neighborhood, I really love–this is beaut–” [demonic whisper] “Get out!” [brother’s voice] “Too bad we can’t stay.”

  5. I went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. I thought it was pretty cool, though I was only 15 at the time.

    1. You haven’t aged a bit.

      1. It’s because I spent an hour in the Sunsphere.

        1. Still got your wig?

          1. You are hearing me talk.

            1. Celebrate good times…”

              I will.

          2. That’s a myth. The Sunsphere is full of naked Orion slave girls. That’s why they kept the danged thing for the last thirty years.

    2. Don’t you mean the 1962 fair?

      1. No, I mean the 1982 World’s Fair. The one with the giant Rubik’s Cube.

        1. How old were you at the 1962 fair? 24? Don’t bullshit me, ProL. I know that you’re Orkan, and age backwards.

          NANOO NANOO

          1. I either didn’t exist at the time or was in some sort of metaphysical limbo, waiting my turn. I was going to be Robert Downey Jr., but I decided I didn’t want all the extreme ups and downs.

            1. “was in some sort of metaphysical limbo”

              Some things don’t change.

              1. My five-year-old son insists that before he was born he was “screaming on Jupiter.”
                Sound right.

                1. To be fair, Jupiter sucks.

                2. My three-year old sometimes talks about “when she was a boy” and “when she was an ant.” Reincarnation? Maybe I should pin her down on specifics about what it was like to be an ant.

                  1. What I want to know is if she can still lift seven times her own body weight.

                  2. My three-year old sometimes talks about “when she was a boy”

                    Yikes. When Beatrice Libertate becomes Burt Libertate you’ll remember that conversation vividly.

                    Of course, that would probably be better than a bunch of surgeries to turn herself into a Trans-ant.

                    1. SugarFree,

                      I asked her about that. She is clear about wanting to be a girl, but insists that she once was a boy. And an ant. And someone named Malbert Malmstein or something like that.

                    2. I’m a pretty opened-minded guy, but Transmalmsteinsexuals sicken me.

                    3. Hey, we’re talking about my little girl.

              2. It’s a fair cop.

        2. I know about the 82 world’s fair because of a Simpson’s episode – Bart makes the big tower that houses a wig shop collapse

          1. That’s some powerful deja vu. Oh, wait…

  6. I saw a movie made for the world’s fair (in the 60s, i think? maybe earlier) and it made the future seem just so damn magical. I see this film and think, “how quaint”, like its some time traveling kitsch. But these people were earnest about building tomorrow.

    I want the magic back, I’m tired of being so cynical.

  7. You really can’t bash that guy for the 1964 World’s Fair. Unless he was one of them.

  8. The future just ain’t what it used to be.

  9. The World’s Fair is cool and all, but it’s no Branson, MO featuring Andy Williams.

    1. I didn’t think he was going to do Moon River, then, Bam! Second Encore!

    2. Branson’s like Vegas, if it were run by Ned Flanders.

      1. Disneyland for old people.

        There is some nice fishing down that way.

    3. Is that an animatronic Andy Williams? He can’t still be alive.

  10. That vision did give America interstate highways and a trip to the moon.

    I thought the interstate was the vision of trigger-happy military guys who wanted to emulate the romanesque Nazi Autobahns, and that the trip to the Moon was nothing more than a dick-sizing contest with the Soviets. But I guess that profligacy and thievery are the result of a vision of the “future.”

    1. I agree.
      grandiose plans of government = divided cities, air pollution, and tang (and not the good poon-tang – just tang).
      Not that I am now for outlawing cars or suburbs – my point is that we don’t need the “best and the brightest” at the top coming up with plans.

  11. Wasn’t the Sunsphere full of wigs?

  12. Saint Louis had the world’s fair and the Olympics. After stealing the Olympics from Chicago.

    The 1904 Olympics included Roque and Tug of War!

  13. I shouted out, “Free the Expo ’67!”
    Till they stepped on my hair, and they told me I was fat
    Now I’m very big, I’m a big important man
    And the only thing that’s different is underneath my hat

    1. God, I love teh internet. Type in “Free the Expo ’67” and the obvious question is answered.

  14. Did the Flintstones fly on Global Airlines to get to the World’s Fair?

  15. Even the Flintstones had a flying car…

  16. (In Shanghai, the government displaced some 18,000 households to clear the land for the Expo site,

    Yeah, and?

  17. All the rage in the first half of the 20th century, this technocratic theory of progress became not only less popular but much less believable in the second half.

    What now?

  18. I have nothing useful to add to this discussion other than the fact that I owned a copy of this Flintstones comic at the time of the NT Worlds Fair.

    … Hobbit

  19. you can find whatever watch you want

  20. Spencer is home to one of the nations’ largest county fairs . More than 310,000 visitors attend this week long event every September. The fair showcases agricultural products as well as vendors from all around the country offering products of all kinds. There are also year round events at the fair grounds that include concerts, and car races of all kinds.

  21. The Futurama was enticing because visitors never considered what it might feel like to be someone else’s toy.

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