A ready-made ideal city

“Since the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, world’s fairs and expositions returned continuously to the concern with creating idealized cities. The Chicago World’s Fair was especially significant in establishing what would later become integral not only to the logic of expositions, but to theme parks like Disneyland and EPCOT and urban destinations like Odaiba that would follow in their wake: in all instances, a ready-made ideal city was created, one that was technologically driven and reliant on commercial imperatives and popular culture. As James Gilbert has explained when discussing early exposition visitors, ‘the visible future they encountered was a carefully engineered vision, a prophecy […] of the coming relationship between work, leisure, and culture’. But unlike the dystopian futures often delineated in science fijiction, in the future visions of the expositions, the inclusion of technological and scientifij ic innovation within the social environment was intended to inspire the creation of utopian spaces.

“Events like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933-1934 (also called the Century of Progress International Exposition) and the New York World’s Fair of 1939 took the first important steps not only in forging a relationship between sci- ence, technology, industry, and society, but also integrating these concerns with the visions and consumer pleasures offfered by science fijiction and entertainment. Rydell explains that, in the wake of the Great Depression, ‘1930s scientists, confronted by a “revolt against science”, joined corporate backers of the fairs in trying to pin popular hopes for national recovery on the positive results expected from the fusion of science and business’. Specifically, combining the speculation familiar to science fij iction with the realities of the scientific and technological innovations of the time, these fairs specialized in presenting the public with future utopian realities made possible through technological advancement.

“A look at pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by Norman Bel Geddes for General Motors. This was designer Bel Geddes masterpiece — the “Futurama” exhibit in GM’s “Highways and Horizons” pavilion at the World’s Fair, that imagined the distant future of a faraway time 1960.”

It was the New York World’s Fair of 1939 that became one of the most famous examples to showcase a new urban landscape, one that featured the utopian possibilities of technology and science. On the opening night, after Albert Einstein switched on the lights that would bring life to the fair’s motto – ‘Designing the World of Tomorrow’ – the fair proceeded to create a vision of a world in which ‘science could become a way of life and utopia would be nigh’. The fair showcased the latest technologies offfered by corporations (such as Rotolactor, an automatic cow-milking machine). Numerous other technological inventions were presented to an eager public as well: Voder, a synthetic human-speech device by AT&T; television sets by RCA, GE, and Westinghouse; and Elektro, a walking and talking robot by Westinghouse. However, it was the representation of a ‘city of the future’ that drew crowds by the millions…”

Text: Angela Ndalianis, Disney’s Utopian Techno-Futures: Tomorrow’s World That We Shall Build Today, in Tourist Utopias: Offshore Islands, Enclave Spaces, and Mobile Imaginaries, ed. Timothy Simpson, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2017.

Adventure thru Inner Space

“It’s often been said that science fiction predicts the future. I’d argue that this isn’t generally the case. In fact, it’s the future that predicts science fiction.

“First off, we have to understand what we mean when we talk about “the future.” That definite article “the” implies that there is a single future, but of course there isn’t—despite how we talk about it, the future isn’t a fixed, tangible thing, it’s a psychological and social construct. (The past is also a psychological and social construct, but we won’t get into that here.) Each of us has one or several possible models of the future in mind at any given time—both our personal future and the future of the world—and society as a whole also has several possible agreed-upon futures under consideration.

“These models of the future are built by the human brain, extrapolating from the present situation using information gathered from past events, and they are all inherently flawed because of the limitations of the human brain. Even computer models and other calculations are built according to rules devised by human brains, and are equally subject to these flaws. Our vision of the future tells us much more about ourselves, our pasts, and our present than it does about the actual future…”

“Tomorrowland, a section of the Disneyland theme park that nominally reflects the world of the future, is a vivid example of how our views of the future have changed over time.

“In Tomorrowland’s first phase (1955-1967), the main attractions were the Moonliner, a simulated trip to the moon, sponsored by TWA; Autopia, an automobile-driving ride for children, reminiscent of the interstate highway system; the all-plastic House of the Future, sponsored by Monsanto; and the Submarine Voyage, inspired by the voyage of the Nautilus, the first atomic-powered submarine, under the north pole. You can easily see how these attractions reflected the interests and concerns of the time.

“Tomorrowland was given its first major makeover in 1968. Major new attractions added at this time included the Carousel of Progress, sponsored by GE, which touted the wonders of electricity; Adventure Thru Inner Space, sponsored by Monsanto, which took riders on a journey into the heart of the atom; and Peoplemover, sponsored by Goodyear, a scaled-down model of a clean, quiet, rubber-tired public transit system of the future. Not long thereafter, the Moonliner was remodeled into Mission to Mars and Space Mountain, Disney’s first multimedia rollercoaster, was added. These changes reflected the fact that the concerns of the immediate post-war period had been replaced with new concerns, more consumer-oriented and even more expansive.

“By 1998, Tomorrowland was becoming increasingly dated despite some cosmetic changes and was given another major makeover. Notable changes at this time included the addition of the Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, a new interactive ride in which riders could compete not only with each other but with people all over the world via the Internet, and the replacement of the Rocket Jets with the new Astro-Orbitor, an essentially identical ride except that the older ride’s black and white NASA-style design was replaced with a new “retro-futuristic” design in bronze, gold, and brown.

“The harder Disney tried to keep its future up-to-the-minute, the faster it went out of date. (There’s nothing so stale as yesterday’s headlines.) So in recent years they’ve begun reaching all the way back to Jules Verne for a more “timeless” future. Even though these designs are already obsolete, they still retain a futuristic flavor, and it won’t fade so quickly…”

Text: David Levine, How the Future Predicts Science Fiction, The Internet Review of Science Fiction, February 2010.

Image: Tomorrowland’s Carousel of Progress via A Little Slice of Life.