Fifty years ago my parents took me to the World’s Fair in New York. The year was 1964. I was twelve years old. It was a turbulent time in American history. The prior fall John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, initiating a long period of turmoil for the United States. But it was still the era of America’s post-war technological greatness. The country was gearing up to fulfill Kennedy’s vision of a manned flight to the moon before the end of the decade. Products were still made in America, and we used the phrase “made in Japan” as a joke to mean something cheap and junky. People had savings accounts, and there were no credit cards. At the same time, racial discrimination and segregation were widespread. There was cringe-worthy sexism present, as anyone can tell by watching movies or TV shows from that era. There was no Medicare. US poverty levels were at an all time high. Lyndon Johnson and Congress went on to address some of these issues with the Civil Rights Act and the Social Security Act of 1965 which created Medicare and Medicaid. Johnson declared the War on Poverty in 1964 and poverty levels did fall. At the same time an undeclared war in southeast Asia was to cast a large shadow over his legacy and over the lives of boys turning 18 through the next decade.
Nevertheless it was a beautiful warm summer day when we visited the Fair. I remember the day well. Having devoured the Tom Swift, Jr. books and then science fiction of the 3 grandmasters, Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, I was filled with boundless optimism about the future of technology. The Fair was crowded with Americans that didn’t look much like Americans of today. Neatly dressed. Thin. I was old enough to notice the pretty teenage girls who were just a few years older than I, working summer jobs at the fair. I remember riding up the elevator in one of the saucer-like observation towers (you know them, they play a prominent role in the movie “Men in Black”) and shyly eying the cute girl seated on a stool operating the elevator controls. Yes, for you younger readers, elevators used to be manually operated. The fair made a lot of predictions, but I don’t think automatic elevators was one of them.
The General Motors pavilion was aptly named Futurama. There is a YouTube video showing what it was like. I waited expectantly in the heat in a long line that stretched around the rectangular concrete windowless building. Inside we sat on cushioned chairs that automatically moved through the exhibit. There were vistas of a technologically rich future. Spacecraft exploring the moon. Scientists controlling the weather from a station in Antarctica. And in the environmentally naive outlook of that era, large machines cutting down rain forests to build roads to deliver “goods and prosperity.”
This exhibit was a highlight of the fair. Afterwards we went to the General Electric pavilion where we witnessed a demonstration of nuclear fusion (was it real? I honestly don’t know, and the Internet is vague about it). There was a loud bang and a bright light. All very impressive, especially at my young age.
There have been a number of recent articles (e.g. here, here, and here) about the Fair and about which predictions it got right and which were wrong. Curiously there weren’t any predictions about medical science that I remember. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention. I think I wanted to be an astronaut back then. Pacemakers were brand new and digitalis and quinidine were staples for treatment of abnormal heart rhythms. The huge advances in medicine that were to come between now and then could not even be imagined.
I remember there was some stuff about computers, but at the time a single computer with less memory and processing power than that in my cell phone filled a large room. And yet it’s amazing that level of computing power was able to get us to the moon. The thought that everyone would carry their own personal computer/communicator in their pocket was pretty far-fetched. A few years later in Star Trek Captain Kirk would use something that looked like a flip-phone, but gosh, no capacitive touch screen! It did have a neat ring tone however.
The networking together of the world’s computers (aka the Internet) was certainly not predicted. Having the knowledge of the world a few mouse clicks away is probably the most significant advance of the last 20 years or so. It has altered our lives, I believe mostly for the good (except when I read YouTube comments), in a fashion unimaginable 50 years ago. I’m disappointed that the exploration of space didn’t turn out as predicted. Where are our moon colonies, or our base on Mars? But I’m happy with the way the Information Age has turned out, and I wouldn’t trade my ability to spend an evening browsing Gigliola Cinquetti videos on YouTube for anything.
The social changes that have occurred since then have been significant and generally for the good. Communism has been marginalized and the threat of nuclear war diminished. Religious fundamentalism remains a thorn in the side of humanity, as it has always been. Certainly there is still sexism and racism and we have further to go in correcting social injustice. But if I had told my dad back in the 60s that the United States would elect a black president, I’m sure he would have said something like “That’ll be the day!”