The image in the Twitter header, owned by Cameron Wiese, is a black and white photograph of the Unisphere, a huge spherical stainless steel image of Earth created as the centerpiece of the 1964/1965 World’s Fair at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York.
Over two six-month periods over several years, the Unisphere was seen by more than 50 million people visiting the 650 acres of World’s Fair exhibits, pavilions and public spaces, bringing citizens, cities, countries and corporations together for an alluring glimpse into the future. The Unisphere served as a symbol of humanity’s common home and perhaps our ability to bend its resources to our will. At various times during the World’s Fair, an artist dressed in a Bell Aviation rocketpack flew past the enormous globe, emphasizing humanity’s ability to rise above any problems.
The Unisphere is still in Flushing Meadows, its height equal to that of a 12-story building. In Wiese’s header photo, it is 1,500 by 500 pixels, a grainy, low-resolution slice of history that looks more like “Mad Men” than “Mad Max,” and signifies a nostalgic look backward rather than forward. In his 25 years, Wiese is too young, by about three decades, to remember the World’s Fair in Queens. But despite missing the event (or perhaps because of it), he devotes his time and energy to trying to generate interest in the next World’s Fair.
“Why don’t we want the world to be a better place?” – he asked Digital Trends. “Why don’t we want things to be incredible? Why don’t we want everybody to be happy, healthy, prosperous? We want the world to be good. There’s no reason we can’t optimize for that. We aspire to utopia. That’s what the World Fairs did for people. They gave them the opportunity to see things they hadn’t seen before, to ask questions they hadn’t asked before, to finally ask ‘what ifs,’ and to think about how they can participate in shaping the future.”
Wiese, like many others who have grown up in a world more than a quarter century away from Fukuyaman’s “end of history,” needs a mission. By his own admission, he has traveled extensively, worked a bit in software, participated in hackathons (where he was fascinated by the ability to bring groups of people together over the Internet to create physical projects), traveled, organized talks on Tedx and founded a short-lived startup that automated rental housing processes for renters. On LinkedIn, he is listed as a “builder” and head of CW Ventures, a self-described “shell organization for my event management, client growth and success consulting, business strategy and resource procurement projects.”
But to paraphrase Bane’s words from “The Dark Knight Rises,” who Wiese is doesn’t matter. What matters is his plan. And it’s a goal, which-if he manages to pique the interest of everyone from politicians to tech giants-will be significant: To create a new world fair, somewhere in America, in 2024.
A brief history of world fairs
Let’s go back. For a little over a century, world fairs have been big. Really big. At a time when the world was starting to really open up – socially, educationally, technologically, in terms of relatively easy travel – they towered over the mass consciousness as seismic events that helped shape the grand narrative of where things were headed.
The Great Exhibition in London, held in 1851, drew 14,000 exhibitors from around the world to Britain. The centerpiece was the unveiling of the Crystal Palace, a magnificent structure of cast iron and plate glass that epitomized the pinnacle of Victorian England’s industrial might and architectural prowess. The first floor and galleries alone could accommodate more than eight miles of exhibition tables.
A few decades later, the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris featured the Eiffel Tower, a 1,000-foot modernist work of engineering that, according to a contract by designer Alexander Gustave Eiffel, was to be the tallest building in the world.
Then there was the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which demonstrated America’s maturity as a nation and gave the world its first Ferris wheel, and the 1904 Exposition in St. Louis, known as the Louisiana Purchase Expo, where we witnessed the introduction of the early wireless telegraph and the world’s first ice cream cone.
For people living today, the two most famous American World’s Fairs were those of 1939/1940 and 1964/1965. The first – with its motto “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts” – gave Depression-era viewers the thrill of a “world of tomorrow” in which the urban landscape was dotted with skyscrapers and airships, physically connected by vast superhighways and connected to the world by television.
The last, the 1964/1965 World’s Fair, linked technology with utopianism in an even more conspicuous way. One of its many notable displays was a demonstration of machine translation, which performed what seemed to be a seamless, cloud-based translation from English to Russian. The implication was that politicians might be trying to end the Cold War, but smart machines could certainly help. The official slogan of the event, which today would not have been out of place on a Google masthead, was “Peace through Understanding.
Virtuality over physicality.
It’s not just fashion and technology that have changed since then. The advent of computers, which had just begun to appear at the time of the 1964/1965 fair, changed the landscape. The era of riveting has been replaced by a world of numbers, and much of the utopianism has moved into virtuality. And while there are still events held under the label of international fairs, they don’t have much of an impact. In 2021, it’s easier to view a major technology event like the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as somewhat of a successor to the technical exhibits of the World’s Fair. Then there are conferences like TED, which feature world-changing speeches in the form of excerpts.
“The notion that technology equals progress is being questioned today in a way that it has not always been in the past.
The idea of a new World’s Fair is hard to imagine today–in many cases for the same reasons it would be important. The world is no more divided now than it was in the past (the World Fairs of 1939/1940 and 1964/1965 were held at the beginning of World War II and at the height of the Cold War, respectively), but the notion that technology equals progress is now being questioned in ways it was not necessarily in the past.
The idea that connecting to the Internet, for example, will lead to a freer and less divided world seems naïve in a world of (often justified) concerns about algorithmic bias, filter bubbles, social media toxicity, etc. One of the external paradoxes of today is that as the world becomes increasingly connected–through technology, trade, travel–it simultaneously becomes increasingly fragmented. Hyperconnectivity is having an impact that few optimists believed in. Last month, the U.S. National Intelligence Council published a white paper with some projections through 2040. Commenting on the growth of Internet of Things devices, which are projected to reach 64 billion by 2025 and “possibly many trillions” by 2040, the authors wrote the following:
“This interconnectedness will help create new efficiencies, conveniences and improved living standards. But it will also create and exacerbate tensions at all levels, from societies divided over core values and goals to regimes using digital repression to control populations.”
The credibility of technological giants is now undermined by cases such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the idea that advances in technology will automatically lead humanity to a better place is more questionable than ever – both for reasons of mental well-being and for reasons of impact on the economy and the future of livelihoods. Heck, even the predictable trajectory of Moore’s Law looks more precarious than at any time in its history.
A picture of the future
The new World’s Fair would have to respond to this techno-skepticism by becoming more than just a massive series of product presentations against a backdrop of live concert performances and open-air food tastings. But with the right approach, it could showcase a lot, combining the best of technology with broader, pressing issues and changes in society.
Consider the following:
Climate change and planetary restoration
As with many large-scale tragedies, climate change is difficult to make sense of. Some informed people argue that emissions are likely to peak this decade. What will this look like environmentally, economically, and socially? Few problems are more global than the impending climate catastrophe, making it an ideal field of study for a world exhibition that truly aspires to be global in its aspirations. It is impossible to imagine a future without thinking about climate. However, lest it be just a horror story, the world’s fair can be used to showcase some of the innovative solutions offered by engineers and scientists around the world to combat the effects of climate change and promote sustainable energy.
Technology allows us to communicate and work remotely without having to go to big cities. And yet cities continue to be ever-expanding giants, whether their status as an economic engine or home to millions of people. How do we create safer, fairer cities, free of traffic jams and provided with affordable housing, all thanks to seamless ambient intelligence? Whether it’s the next generation of smart homes or smart cities, 3D printed houses and futuristic city squares, or travel solutions such as driverless cars, hyperloops and supersonic airplanes, the World Expo can paint a picture of the city of the future: Cities that, judging from past World Fairs, we may well be living in a few decades.
At the 1964/1965 World’s Fair, the United States had not yet landed on the moon. More than half a century later, space exploration has reached a level of excitement not seen in many years. A new moon landing is just around the corner, thanks to NASA’s Project Artemis. Meanwhile, space tourism is becoming more real thanks to Virgin Galactic, asteroid mining is closer than ever, SpaceX is landing rockets vertically, and Elon Musk is working on a journey to Mars – on his way to possibly colonizing it.
Capturing the public’s imagination with the possibilities of this new era of space exploration is what the World’s Fair is perfect for. Imagine a simulated spaceflight aboard the Virgin Galactic shuttle, transitioning into a tour of 3D-printed habitats on Mars or underground bases in lava caves on the Moon. It’s something more immediate than SpaceX’s live broadcast.
The future of synthetic biology
Impossible Burger’s plant-based bleeding-edge burger is a start. But only the very beginning. Synthetic biology will bring the world cellular meat in the form of everything from everyday pork and chicken to the kind of meat being developed at Y Combinator-owned startup Orbillion Bio (moose and Wagyu beef). There are also many cellular seafood products. Synthetic biology does not end there, however.
It is the one we can thank for the current mRNA vaccines against coronavirus, and in the future it may lead to new kinds of resistant materials or even seemingly sci-fi solutions such as DNA-based data storage. Explaining to someone the taste of cellular meat or fish is like showing pictures of people listening to an album instead of listening. Live demonstrations are what should be done.
Reconsidering our expectations of technology
Will any of this happen? That remains to be seen. A support group like Wisa, in an era when viral ideas can translate into reality more easily than ever before, has a chance. But this is an idea of such gigantic proportions that grassroots support is only needed to get the movement started. The 2024 World’s Fair will require support at the highest level – from politicians, from cities, from private companies, and the necessary enthusiasm from the millions of people who must be interested enough to attend.
Wiese, for his part, is a firm believer that such an event will help turn our ideas about technology and what it can bring to the world. “We need to change the culture so that people believe in the future again and believe that we can create things,” he said. “There’s a belief in the physical world that we need to revive. We’ve slowed down somewhat because it’s easier to build in the virtual world. But we don’t want to neglect the physical world at the expense of the virtual world.”
Whether or not this goal is realistic is a question few can answer. However, I would definitely buy the ticket.