World’s Fair 2.0: The mission to resurrect the greatest tech expo of all time

The Twitter header image belonging to Cameron Wiese is a black-and-white photograph of the Unisphere, an enormous, spherical, stainless steel representation of Earth created as a centerpiece for the 1964/1965 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York.

Over two six-month stints across a couple of years, the Unisphere was seen by more than 50 million people who visited the World’s Fair’s 650 acres of displays, pavilions, and public spaces, bringing together citizens, cities, nations, and corporations for a tantalizing glimpse at the future. The Unisphere served as a symbol of humanity’s shared home and, perhaps, of our ability to bend its resources to our will. At various times during the World’s Fair, a performer wearing a Bell Aviation’s Rocket Pack jetted past the massive globe, highlighting humankind’s ability to rise above any and all challenges.

Cameron Wiese

Still located in Flushing Meadows, the Unisphere is the height of a 12-story building. In Wiese’s header image, it is 1,500 by 500 pixels, a grainy, low-resolution scrap of history that’s more Mad Men than Mad Max, meaning a nostalgic gaze backward rather than forward. At 25 years old, Wiese is too young, by around three decades, to remember the World’s Fair in Queens. But, despite the fact that he missed out on this event (or perhaps because of it), he’s dedicating his time and energy to trying to drum up interest in the next World’s Fair.

“Why do we not want the world to be better?” he asked Digital Trends. “Why do we not want things to be incredible? Why do we not want everyone to be happy, healthy, prosperous? We want the world to be good. There’s no reason that we shouldn’t kind of optimize for that. We strive for utopia. That’s what the World’s Fairs did for people. It gave them the opportunity to see things that they hadn’t seen before, to ask questions they hadn’t asked before, ultimately to ask ‘what if’ and to think about how they could get involved in shaping the future.”

Wiese, like plenty who grew up in a world now more than a quarter-century removed from the Fukuyaman “end of history,” is in need of a mission. By his own account, he has bounced around, working in software for a bit, participating in hackathons (where he was excited by the ability to draw groups of people together over the internet to build physical projects), traveling, organizing Tedx talks, and founding a short-lived startup that automated rental processes for tenants. On LinkedIn, he’s listed as a “Builder” and as the head of CW Ventures, a self-described “shell organization for my projects in event organization, growth and customer success consulting, business strategy, and resource procurement.”

But to paraphrase Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, who Wiese is doesn’t matter. What matters is his plan. And it’s a goal that — if he can help whip up interest from everyone from politicians to tech giants — would be significant: To create a new world’s fair, somewhere in America, in 2024.

A brief history of world’s fairs

Let’s back up. For a little over a century, world’s fairs were big. Really big. At a time when the world was starting to truly open up — socially, educationally, technologically, in terms of comparatively easy travel — they loomed large over the popular consciousness as seismic events that helped shape a grand narrative about where things were headed.

London’s Great Exhibition, which took place in 1851, brought 14,000 exhibitors to the United Kingdom from all over the world. The centerpiece was the unveiling of the capital city’s Crystal Palace, a magnificent cast-iron and plateglass structure that represented the height of Victorian England’s industrial power and architectural prowess. The ground floor and galleries alone could house more than eight miles of display tables.

Several decades later, the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle introduced the Eiffel Tower, a 1,000-foot modernist feat of engineering, which, as stipulated in designer Alexandre Gustave Eiffel’s contract, was to be the world’s tallest building.

Then there was the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, showcasing America’s developing maturity as a nation and bringing the world its first Ferris wheel, and the 1904 St. Louis installment, known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, where we bore witness to an early wireless telegraph machine and the world’s first ice-cream cone.

For people alive today, the two most famous American world’s fairs were the 1939/1940 and the 1964/1965 editions. The former of these — with its motto of “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Adapts” — gave Depression-era audiences the thrill of a “World of Tomorrow” in which the cityscape was dotted with skyscrapers and zeppelins, connected physically with enormous superhighways, and plugged into the world courtesy of television.

The latter, the 1964/1965 World’s Fair, linked technology to utopianism in an even more notable manner. One of its many notable exhibitions was a machine translation demonstration which carried out what appeared to be frictionless, cloud-based translation between English and Russian. The implication was that politicians may have been struggling to end the Cold War, but smart machines could certainly help. The event’s official tagline, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Google masthead today, was “Peace Through Understanding.”

Virtuality over physicality

It’s not just the fashions and technology that has changed since then. The rise of computers, just starting to emerge at the time of the 1964/1965 fair, changed the landscape. The age of rivets was replaced by the world of digits, and much of the utopianism went virtual. While there continue to be events branded as international expositions, they make little impact. In 2021, it’s easier to see a major technology event like the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) as being, in some ways, the successor to the tech exhibits of the world’s fair. Then there are conferences like TED, which provide bite-sized bursts of world-changing rhetoric.

“The notion that technology equals progress is one that is now questioned in a way that it was not necessarily in the past.”

Today, the idea of a new World’s Fair seems difficult to imagine — in many cases for all the same reasons it would be important. The world is not inherently more divided now than it has been in the past (the 1939/1940 and 1964/1965 World’s Fairs were held at the start of World War II and height of the Cold War, respectively), but the notion that technology equals progress is one that is now questioned in a way that it was not necessarily in the past.

Anthony Conti

The idea of connectivity, for example, driving a freer, less divided world seems naive in a world of (often justifiable) concern about algorithmic bias, filter bubbles, social media toxicity, and more. One of today’s outward paradoxes is that, as the world has become more connected — through technology, through trade, through travel — it has simultaneously become more fragmented. Hyperconnectivity has had impacts few optimists believed that it would. Last month, the U.S. National Intelligence Council released its white paper laying out some of its projections through 2040. Commenting on the rise of Internet of Things devices, projected to reach 64 billion by 2025 and “possibly many trillions” by 2040, the authors write that:

“This connectivity will help produce new efficiencies, conveniences, and advances in living standards. However, it will also create and exacerbate tensions at all levels, from societies divided over core values and goals to regimes that employ digital repression to control populations.”

Right now, trust in tech giants is dented through instances like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while the idea that increased technology will automatically lead humanity to a better place is more open to question than ever — whether for reasons of mental well being or its reshaping effects on the economy and the future of livelihoods. Heck, even the predictable trajectory of Moore’s Law is looking shakier than at any point in its history.

Painting an image of the future

A new world’s fair would have to address this techno-skepticism by being more than just a massive series of product unveilings against a backdrop of live concert performances and open-air food tasting. But, done correctly, there’s plenty it could showcase combining the best of technology and broader, pressing societal challenges and change.

Consider the following:

Climate change and planetary recovery

Like a lot of large-scale tragedies, climate change can be tough to wrap your head around. Some informed voices have argued that peak emissions are likely to take place this decade. What will this look like, ecologically, economically, and societally? There are few issues more global than an impending climate catastrophe, making it a perfect area of exploration for a world’s fair that truly aims to be global in its aspirations. Imagining the future without thinking about the climate is impossible. To make this more than just a horror story, however, a world’s fair could be used to show off some of the innovative solutions being put forward by engineers and scientists around the world to fight the effects of climate change and promote sustainable energy.

Smart cities

Virgin Hyperloop

Technology allows us to communicate and work remotely without having to flock to big cities. And yet cities continue to be ever-expanding behemoths, whether in terms of their status as economic engines or as homes for millions of people. How do we create safer, more equitable cities free of congestion and flush with affordable housing, all made possible by seamless ambient intelligence? Whether it’s the next generation of smart home or smart city A.I., 3D-printed homes and futuristic town squares, or travel solutions like driverless cars, hyperloops, and supersonic jets, a World’s Fair could paint a picture of the city of the future: Cities that, based on past world’s fairs, we very well may be living in a few decades from now.

Space exploration

At the 1964/1965 World’s Fair, the United States had yet to land on the moon. More than half a century later, space exploration is arguably at a level of excitement that has not been seen for years. A new moon landing is in the offing, courtesy of NASA’s Artemis project. Meanwhile, space tourism is looking more feasible by way of Virgin Galactic, asteroid mining is closer than ever, SpaceX is landing rockets vertically, and Elon Musk is working toward a trip to Mars — en route to eventual colonization.

Capturing the public’s imagination about the possibilities regarding this new era of space exploration is something a world’s fair would be ideal for. Imagine a simulated ride into space, aboard a Virgin Galactic shuttle, transitioning to a tour around 3D-printed habitats on Mars or underground bases in lava caves on the moon. That’s something with more immediacy than a SpaceX livestream could ever hope to instill.

The future of synthetic biology

The bleeding, plant-based Impossible Burger is the start of this. But only the very start. Synthetic biology will bring the world cellular meat in the form of everything from your everyday pork and chicken to the kind of heritage meat (think elk and Wagyu beef) being developed by the likes of Y Combinator startup Orbillion Bio. There’s plenty of cellular seafood, too. Synthetic biology doesn’t finish there, however.

It is also what we can thank for the current mRNA coronavirus vaccines and, in the future, could result in new types of sustainable materials or even seemingly science fiction solutions like DNA-based data storage. Explaining to someone how cellular meat or fish tastes is a bit like showing a photo of people listening to an album as a substitute for listening. Live demonstrations are the name of the game.

Resetting our expectations of technology

Will any of this happen? That remains to be seen. Cheerleaders like Wiese, in an age in which ideas that go viral can manifest in reality more easily than ever before, has a shot. But this is an idea of such gargantuan scale that grassroots support is really just there to get the ball rolling. A 2024 World’s Fair would require support at the top levels — from politicians, from cities, from private companies, along with the requisite enthusiasm from the millions of people who would have to be interested enough to attend.

For his part, Wiese is staunch in his belief that such an event could help reset our expectations of technology and what it can bring to the world. “We need to shift the culture such that people believe in the future again, and believe that we can build things,” he said. “There’s a belief in the physical world that we need to reignite. We’ve kind of slowed down because it’s easier to build in the virtual world. But we don’t want to neglect our physical world in lieu of the virtual world.”

Whether that goal is realistic or not is something few people are in a position to answer. It’s certainly something I’d buy a ticket to, though.

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Luke Dormehl