In 1964, New York City hosted a World’s Fair that drew more than 50 million visitors to the city, eager to explore more than 140 pavilions sponsored by leading American corporations expressing the gathering’s theme of “Peace Through Understanding.” In that uncynical era, few found that aspiration ironic.
My parents wrote and produced the “Official Children’s Record Album” for the World’s Fair, which consisted of two flexible plastic 33 1/3rd “Hi-FI LPS.” The catchy tunes, from “Jump to New York” and “Hop to the Fair,” featuring my mom’s soprano voice, permeated our Manhattan apartment for the duration of the fair. My kid brother and I memorized the lyrics to “The Subway Alphabet,” and “Statue of Liberty, Hello.” For the grand sum of one dollar, a child could attend the fair and marvel at the iconic Unisphere globe, with its orbiting satellite bands, which still graces the Flushing Meadows landscape.
As a co-winner of my grade school Science Fair, for which I built a rudimentary electric circuit in a cigar box, I studied the technology exhibits with a keen eye. In that pre-internet age, I scratched my head about the possible applications for a telephone modem. By contrast, the picture telephone and a demonstration of a light pen captured my imagination. My brother and I trotted to the expansive space pavilion, where we could come within a few feet of astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Mercury space capsule and also preview the futuristic Apollo capsule and lunar lander. RCA featured a color television studio, the Ford Motor Company previewed the sleek 1964 Mustang and the state of Wisconsin brought in an exhibit housing the “World’s Largest Cheese.” What more could a kid wish to see?
The World’s Fair, which stretched through 1965, solidified my faith in technology. Kids of my generation truly believed that well-meaning human beings exposed to these new inventions would all want to celebrate the mission of the Fair: “Man’s Achievement on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe.” We looked to large corporations like IBM, GE, General Motors and Bell Telephone to guide us to a better future. Schoolkids didn’t view science as the undesirable province of “nerds” but secretly dreamed of one day zipping through the sky on hovercraft or jetting around with personal rocket packs. The future was not distant. We sensed that America, with the rest of the world not far behind, would pave the way to a new and better lifestyle for all people.
Looking back on this vision, I’m struck by the shift in our collective attitude toward the dream of technological progress. We reap the amazing benefits of computers, digital communication and information instantly available at our fingertips, yet seem to harbor a deepening mistrust about the future of technology. In the 1960s, we would contemplate a development such as artificial intelligence and say “Wow, we will deploy this invention to cure so many problems!” Today, by contrast, many people look at AI and mainly focus on its potential for surveillance and discrimination.
Faith in corporate America to build a future of peace and understanding now seems hopelessly nostalgic. Since the New York World’s Fair, the federal government devoted years to breaking up Bell, IBM and Microsoft Corporation with mixed results. Recently, the Biden Administration announced antitrust moves against Amazon, Facebook and Google. Big Tech is viewed as a threat toward personal freedom and social stability. We have lost not only trust in corporate leadership, but trust that science will pave the path to a more just and equitable future. Even the spurious rants of anti-vaxxers play into the soundtrack that we can’t trust technology to improve our health and well-being.
When high-tech disrupters such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson attempt to shake up the status quo with new ventures and highly ambitious space projects, our media persistently characterize them as self-indulgent high-tech billionaires, as if that designation alone undercuts the credibility of their vision for the next phase of human achievement. Shouldn’t we respect the fact that wealthy individuals would put capital at risk in pursuit of big bets on our collective future — both on Earth and in space? Just as our culture has built a consensus around promoting everyone’s educational aspirations, we need to connect that sentiment to the idea that human progress rests on discovery, invention and investment in new enterprises that risk failure in the hope of achieving something new and better.
The writer Ray Bradbury worked with the Walt Disney Corporation to design the Epcot Center and other exhibits about the future. Bradbury had written about the dangers of new technologies, such as video walls and omnipresent surveillance, but he insisted that we could invent a future that celebrated the human spirit. Like the explorers in “The Martian Chronicles,” he looked at science as the potential salvation of the human race. Bradbury would have loved the lilting upbeat message of “Hop to the Fair.”