How Fair the World

Seattle is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Century 21 Exposition. This event is marked as a turning point in their self-appraisal of what Seattle was and where it was going. The fair imagined a bright future full of high-speed monorail transit, towering structures of steel and glass, cathedrals of commerce, and a population driven by and knowledgeable about science. The calling card of the future world of Century 21 was continuing progress.

I personally delight in the flights of imagination that World’s Fairs have brought to us. From the dizzying heights of the Eiffel Tower at Paris’1889 fair, the pristine ‘White City’ of the Chicago fair of 1893 (inspiration for countless American courthouses and “city beautiful” monuments), to the future utopia of the New York World’s Fair of 1939-people have sought out the grandeur and optimism of these events. Often they provided a panacea for the darkness that lingers around the various ages of man.

The symbol of France’s progress, the Eiffel Tower.

Once upon a time the way the average person could learn about technologies on the horizon was through the concept of the “fair.” All of the newest methods of crop maintenance, the most powerful steam engines, the latest in electrical engineering, and later the ideas of mass transit, public projects, and space travel-all fired the imagination. With hands on experience human beings were able to better comprehend the latest and greatest that was being developed for the betterment of civilization.

The administration building at the Chicago fair.

In the United States forward progress used to be the overriding goal of civic groups, corporations, and the government. The forward thrust of conceptual thinking was enrichment and fulfillment. Throughout the deepest period of the Great Depression this monumental thinking allowed the US to create jobs by literally ‘building the nation.’ Giant dams to use in hydroelectric power generation, roads, electrification of the entire southern US-very few of these things could have happened without the government becoming involved in betterment projects.

By the 1939 World’s Fair the US had finally left the harshest period of the Depression behind and was willing and able to participate in a Fair that would show the planet what America was capable of achieving in the coming years of the 20th century. The demonstrated progress in art, architecture, city planning, and most importantly high technology, secured in the American populace the idea that great times were ahead. The storm clouds of war hovering over Europe did nothing to diminish this hope.

1939 New York World’s Fair

New York Fair from the air.

Of course those war clouds encircled the planet and America was drawn in to the fight. Through our relative geophysical isolation, we were left unmolested by our enemies. Industry, more powerful and better organized than ever, was able to transmute war production into consumer goods. Companies that had been designing bombers now designed transcontinental aircraft. Electronics firms turned practical calculators into electronic brains, revolutionizing fields of human endeavor. With high abundance of wealth, soldiers returned to create large families to take advantage thereof.

With large families came the need for more schools. With more schools came a heightened sense of a responsibility to educate children in all fields. Critical thinking was something taught to students at one point in this country, civics to insure they could work together, and science to ensure understanding of the world around them. The “Sputnik moment” occurred in 1957, underscoring the need in Cold War America to keep those programs strong and funded. We were building a nation of educated citizens.

Seattle World’s Fair poster

All of this leads to the Seattle World’s Fair. On one hand it was a way for city fathers to build up the status of Seattle as a major city, revamp and revitalize the downtown area, and provide of a new and modern civic center. On the other hand, the fair was a potent symbol of what America dreamed for itself in the coming “space age.” The distances we could travel-whether from city to city via mass transit, to walking on the red sands of Mars; were addressed by the fair. The state of Washington paid for a large coliseum which inside of was placed a themed exhibit entitled the “Threshold and the Threat.” The presentation involved people entering into a rounded elevator for a trip to the future of the 21st century. Inside the exhibit the fairgoers watched a multimedia presentation involving nuclear war and a much better alternative of utopian peace secured through technological progress. At the end of the presentation, a portion of Kennedy’s inaugural address was played. I have not been able to find what the original quote was, but I hope it was this:

“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Now, here we are in the actual future that the past attempted to prognosticate. What are the cities on the moon like? How quickly does the atomic train get from Seattle to San Francisco? Questions like these only heighten the disappointment, for the future has turned out for the worse. The gleaming light of the World’s Fairs have been diminished. Popular culture has been designed to hide the facets of possible outcomes from the general population. Thinking about the future has become passé and discouraged.

Indeed, we have a world of smog and acid rains, a depleted ozone layer and systemic global warming. Where once were dreams of dominating the solar system with the colonies of man, we have a barely organized NASA struggling to get funds from out of a tight-fisted Congress;  where once peace was the agenda of our age, war has become the only industry truly turning a profit. American children grow up not being taught to think for themselves, but to follow the crowd and conform to the flow of truncated thinking.

We need a World’s Fair in the country. We need a nation of knowledge, a nation of schools to teach critical thinking and citizenship. We need to change dramatically the notion of individuals as parts of the whole. We need to revisit Century 21.

Come, ride the monorail with me.

The Space Needle and Pacific Science Center