At their finest, world’s fairs are astrange amalgam of the practical and the impossible, the feasible and the futuristic, the ridiculous and the sublime. Since the first official world’s fair in 1851, they have churned out giddy monuments to human industry and innovation, with the shining promise of technology taking center stage.
Many utopian dreams of world’s fairs past have now been absorbed into the everyday: the first commercial escalator at the 1900 world’s fair in Paris; the personal automobile in 1904; RCA’s television in 1939. The potential of such inventions seemed only for the good. Escalators and elevators would enable modern skyscrapers and cities. The car offered unfettered freedom of movement. The phone and TV would create an immediate connection to the outside world.
The downsides of modernity emerged later. All those skyscrapers in all those cities now soak up the electrical output of entire power plants. Hundreds of millions of cars have created a nightmare of traffic congestion and pollution. Lonely souls stare at their TV screens, cut off from real, human contact.
Although there’s plenty of starry-eyed techno-optimism on display at Expo 2010 Shanghai China (which opened in May and runs through October), many of the exhibits don’t share in the unbridled optimism that characterized expos of the 19th and 20th centuries. Rather than striding with abandon toward the technological marvels of the future, much of what’s on display deals with the repercussions of 150 years of production and consumption, of which pollution, stress, isolation, and climate change are only a few. Even the expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” suggests that we need to rethink just how we’re living.