A Visit To The Fair

Written by larry on September 2nd, 2013

A not-so-recent article in the New York Times archive is making the rounds. It was originally written in 1964, by the venerable Isaac Asimov, at the time of the 1964 World’s Fair. The article speculates on what a World’s Fair fifty years in the future might be like.

It’s an interesting piece. When viewing works like this (and I’ll take a look at another one next week), it’s interesting to see where the masters hit, and where they missed. But the most obvious miss here is that there won’t be a World’s Fair of 2014.

Why? Well, probably lots of reasons. There’s a saying that whenever the question ‘why’ is asked, nine times out of ten the answer is ‘money’. And that’s surely a factor here. But there’s plenty of money out there. We live in an age where there are privately-funded space programs going on! So it’s really not about the money, but rather the will to spend it. And the bottom line here is that somewhere over the last fifty years, we, as a culture, stopped celebrating the future. Or, as a friend of mine who, as a child, witnessed the construction of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge put it, “People were in favor of progress back then.”

Consider the Dystopian Future sub-genre of science fiction. Probably the only major work in that realm that was around in the sixties was The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells, already almost sixty years old. Imagine a work like Blade Runner being released back then. The Nazis had just been vanquished, the biggest problem in Detroit had was fulfilling the county’s insatiable demand, and we were on the way to the moon. To say it wouldn’t have been popular would be an understatement. Today, with the threat of international terrorism, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse, and much, much more, well, the future just isn’t what it used to be.

Or is that really the case? Where today we worry about terror attacks, in the sixties we worried about Soviet nuclear attack. And for whatever their other strengths and weaknesses might be, the Soviets were definitely better armed than your average contemporary terrorist. Back then, millions were dying of natural causes in their sixties, of diseases that are routinely treated today. Somewhere between then and now, being poor took on a whole new meaning; what once meant missing meals, now means carrying a crappy voice-only cell phone instead of an iPhone. Bottom line: whatever is wrong in the world today, and plenty is, there are more people enjoying a higher standard of living now than in any other time in human history. That’s true of the United States, and it’s true of the world. It may not be true in isolated pockets of population in various places, but that’s far more an issue of local political forces than global phenomenon.

So how and why did we become such pessimists? Part of it may be that we can see so much farther now than we could fifty years ago. If you’re living in a peaceful bucolic small town, it’s easy to be optimistic. But if you’re receiving a barrage of television and internet news, intent on informing you of every latest disaster, it’s tough not to be affected. Consider an extreme example, the Sandy Hook shooting. Without in any way discounting the magnitude of the tragedy, its important to remember that if an event like that was to happen every single day of the year, the total number of lives lost would still be less than one percent of our annual death toll. But we’re wired to react viscerally to every piece of bad news as though it happened to someone in our village. I think we need to make a conscious effort to avoid this; to take the news with a pound of salt.

We also tend to be less prudent than we were 50 years ago. As evidence, consider the epidemic of consumer debt… or the fact that stockpiling food, something anyone in the Midwest would have been doing 100 years ago, is now considered by many to be a fringe ‘survivalist’ activity. I think that prudent people tend to be more optimistic, because they’ve prepared to weather whatever comes their way… or at least they think they are.

Which of course begs the question ‘Why are people less prudent now?’ And I’ll leave that as an exercise for another day.


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