Friday, May 25, 2012

Our Futurama

The lines formed as soon as the gates opened. It was the premier attraction. People were willing to wait for hours in the hot summer sun to see it. Many saw it multiple times during their visits. When they finally got into the building and entered one of the moving cars, the magic began.

Exhibit Building. Note the lines.
I might be talking about the iconic ride, Spaceship Earth, the geodesic-like sphere at Epcot in Disney World.  It is the the ride that most captivates people in our modern-day version of a permanent "world's fair".  But I am writing about General Motor's Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Futurama was the single most popular attraction at the fair by a large margin. People would wait for hours in the long snaking lines that wound up a curved ramp to finally enter the building through a deep-red slit in a towering wall. Huge letters, "G" and "M", defined the edges of the opening. Once inside, visitors would seat themselves in one of moving modules called "carry-go-rounds" that formed an endless loop slowly moving past the perimeter of the exhibit. Music and narration would emanate from a speaker in the back of each module, exquisitely timed to what the passengers were viewing.

Futurama was industrial and stage designer Norman Bel Geddes vision of what the United States would look like in the future of 1960. His vision was conveyed in a massive, 36,000 square-foot model of a city and countryside of that distant time 21 years in the future. The model contained over half a million individually-fabricated structures, a million trees, and fifty thousand vehicles.  Viewers were, in essence, flying over the landscape at a low altitude and witnessing what they might look forward to in the years ahead.
Model city. The tall buildings are actually about four feet in height.

The central theme of Futurama was that a network of better roads and superhighways would provide for a transformation of the nation. The current dirty and congested cities and clogged local highways would be replaced by cities that were clean and accessible by multilane, limited-access highways.  People would be able to live in green communities outside of the city and drive to work on modern roadways with higher speeds, better safety, and a minimum of congestion.

The Last Intersection 
The last scene in this futuristic vision of 1960 was of a city intersection with multilevel roads and modernistic buildings. When the visitor left the carry-go-round and walked through the exit doors, they found themselves in a full-sized version of the same intersection they had seen in the model. The illusion must have been startling. Perhaps most startling of all was that the vision, in fact, came true. The superhighways that Norman Bel Geddes portrayed became our interstate highways and toll roads. The green spaces where people lived away from the cities became our suburbs. We might not have quite gotten there by 1960 but most of us finally did.  And has it been the utopian vision described in Futurama?  We would, of course, say no. But we are not the same people who looked at it from afar and saw it in sharp contrast to their own world of 1939.

We don't have world's fairs in this country any more. The last one was held in 1984 in New Orleans and it declared bankruptcy halfway through its six-month run. Maybe because of television and computer imagery we can no longer related to the seemingly-quaint idea of a physical model of the future.  Dioramas to portray the world to come are expensive to build and go out of date quickly. Even Spaceship Earth at Epcot requires constant updating on what its vision of the future of communications looks like.  But let's just imagine for a moment that we could hire someone like a Norman Bel Geddes of 2012 to build a Futurama of 2035. What would it look like?  Would we see a better world ahead, as Futurama did, or would we see something much more worrisome?

I think we have become more cynical about the promise of technology.  At least we no longer believe in the illusion that it can solve all our problems. More often that not, we see technology as creating as many problems as it removes.  The internet and its attendant privacy issues are just the latest example of the duality of every new technology.  It might be easy to fall into envying the untroubled vision of technology portrayed in the 1939 World's Fair but these people were not naive, either. They saw their world being torn apart by the beginnings of World War II. They didn't know yet about atomic bombs but they saw - correctly - a horrific conflict ahead. Yet most people interviewed at the fair were optimistic about the longer-term future of the country. The American Way promised a brighter future for themselves and their children.  We might be tempted to disagree with them in our own times.

They say that hope dies last. I don't think we are anywhere near the end of hope but I do think we are facing some tremendous challenges in the coming decades and we have only just begun to see them looming ahead of us.  I would suggest that we build a new Futurama that would be a marker to help us get a better fix on the future.  I, for one, would even volunteer to help pay for it. And I would certainly stand in line for a few hours to see it.

Note: General Motors produced a film about Futurama, entitled "New Horizons". You can watch it on YouTube below. It runs about 23 minutes but is worth the time.

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