This is the full transcript for season 5, episode 1 of the Quartz Obsession podcast on the World’s Fair.
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Scott: Cassie, introduce yourself for us.
Cassie: Hi, I’m Cassie Werber. I am a senior reporter for Quartz based in London, and I write about the purpose of companies, and through that I think a lot about the purpose of technology and the purpose of progress.
Scott: This season of the Quartz Obsession is about innovation, the technologies and ideas that promise to define our lives in the next decade.
But before we look forward, we need to look back— way back to the 1800s, and to do that, we’re going to the fair. The World’s Fair.
Cassie, as a reporter, which of the many World’s Fairs would you have loved to cover in person?
Cassie: Paris is very tempting because Paris, in 1889, that’s when they built the Eiffel Tower. Sounds like it must have been pretty amazing, but I’m gonna go with the London Exhibition of 1851.
Because I’m in London now, it’s so iconic as an event. It was huge in scale. The full title of it is The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. So they built the structure, which was called the Crystal Palace, which is basically a huge greenhouse in Hyde Park, and there were lots of things like mature trees in the way, but rather than avoid those trees, they just built over them.
Scott: The London World’s Fair kicked off nearly two centuries of gathering the world’s newest technologies, breakthroughs, and ideas into one exhibition.
Cassie: There were 10 miles of exhibits within this structure. This is the age of steam, so it had things like a display of a massive hydraulic press that had been used to lift a bridge in Wales, which could be operated just by one person.
People were very fascinated by locomotives and by anything that could be powered in those newfangled ways. There were also much more whimsical things, folding pianos to be used on yachts. There was an expanding hearse. There were treasures sourced from around the British Empire. So for example, the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which ended up in the Crown Jewels as the kind of big diamond at the front of the crown. Before that was cut it was one of the biggest diamonds in the world. That was there.
There was armor from Russia. There were sort of huge malachite vases, but there also lots of foods from around the world, drinks from around the world. There was an extraordinary array of stuff and beautiful things to be seen. There were also the first public toilets because obviously if you’re bringing the masses into somewhere, you have to kind of be able to cater to their needs.
And most people would never have seen anything like that before. I think it would’ve been a fun place to visit.
Scott: That was then, but now the way that we introduce and interact with new technology is very different. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I went to see a hydraulic press in person. So what happened to the World’s Fair? What replaced it? And why don’t we talk about it anymore? I’m Scott Nover, and on this episode of the Quartz Obsession, we’ll behold all the wonders of the World’s Fair.
Cassie, you write about the purpose of companies and progress, so why are we talking to you about the World’s Fair?
What was the purpose of the World’s Fair?
Cassie: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, the World’s Fair in a way was a showcase for progress, a showcase for innovation, and a way of selling that to the masses, that industry and technology shape a better future for everyone.
And that was something that felt very hopeful, I think in the mid 1800s, and has been called increasingly into question, especially in recent times.
Scott: Was the purpose of the World’s Fair to exhibit new inventions, or was the goal something grander?
Cassie: Well, a World’s Fair was, or is, because they are still going, a huge exhibition of the achievements of the world, or at least the parts of the world that mattered to the elites of the day, because these are events that are controlled by elite people in politics, in technology, in industry, and in science. They’re not put on by the masses. They’re put on for the masses. In order to put on a World’s Fair, you had to apply, but you also had to really commit to the endeavor. So it’s gonna cost millions of dollars in today’s money and you may have to make years long plans.
You had to find workers who are gonna build infrastructure in order to get people to these places and around them and while fairs differed in size and how grand they were, they were really big commitments.
Scott: And in the early days, why would a city want to host the World’s Fair? What was in it for them?
Why would cities want to host the World’s Fair?
Cassie: There are lots of things. Perhaps maybe what kind of sets World’s Fairs apart from anything that went before or after was that they were kind of about teaching people, and it’s for the people of this country to all come together to be in one place to kind of learn and understand something. But then before you get too starry-eyed about that idea of a learning event or a teaching event, you’ve kind of got to think what was being taught and who was doing the teaching, who was designated as being, like, the ones that needed to learn, and what were they being taught.
Part of it was about setting up your city as better than other cities, or your country as better than other countries. So there was kind of a competitive element to it, and even the idea of popularizing the city as a thing. Because up till the 1800s, people hadn’t really been living in cities. They were kind of new.
And so it was a way of kind of selling that as an idea. Selling the city as a good place to live. Selling the Industrial Revolution as a good thing to happen and making everything seem very exciting and new and, um, hopeful.
Scott: And there was a cultural element too, right? Showcasing culture as well as the city and industry.
Cassie: They did try to showcase peoples of the world and things from around the world, but then increasingly as these fairs get bigger and even grander than that first one. There are a lot of people who are brought in as exhibits, and those people are often colonized people. They might be indigenous people, whole villages transported to America or to Europe to kind of be their own exhibition and, of course, like we can see now that that is massively problematic just in and of itself. They’ve been talked about as “human zoos.” They’re kind of often set up in a kind of hierarchical system. So you know, here is these indigenous people who are living in a kind of primitive way, and over here we have more progressive societies.
And also there’s a massive question about what happened to those people afterwards and whether they were repatriated. Did they ever get home? Uh, there are quite a lot of writings about that, and I think that there’s also quite a lot of grayness about what happened to those people next.
Scott: So, is it safe to say that these World’s Fairs kind of showcase the priorities and the values of the host countries and host cities?
Cassie: Yeah, I think that’s, that’s definitely safe to say. Yeah. The message was tightly controlled, I would say, as to what organizers of the World’s Fair value, what we think people should learn, and how they should move through these spaces and what they should therefore take away as the message of the fair.
Scott: I wanna dig a little bit more into the new technologies that were presented at World’s Fairs over the years.
What kind of everyday objects or inventions that we might take for granted now actually come from World’s Fairs?
What objects or inventions made their debut at World’s Fairs?
Cassie: Well, there are lots, and when we say they come from World’s Fairs, I suppose a way to describe it would be that they were first seen at World’s Fairs. They weren’t invented there, but they might have been on display there for the first time, really quite a long time before they came to be part of people’s lives. So yes, if you’d been to the World’s Fair, you’d seen this thing and then, you know, 10 or 20 years down the line, that might actually be in your home. But a really good example of that is television.
So that was on display for the first time, really at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. That fair styled itself as the “fair of the future.” It was one of the ones that was explicitly looking towards what was coming, kind of setting up the world as we were going to know it in the future. After you get television and people have television in their homes, they can travel the world, albeit virtually.
They can see places, they can see objects, they can be taught things, all of that stuff that was only really available in real life, in person, before television becomes accessible. And it took a while for something like television to come in. Like first mass market TVs were around in the 40s, but it’s not really until the 50s and 60s that you get mass television, the kind of television era. Some other technologies that were first seen at World’s Fairs, which I can think are kind of fun are video calls back in 1964.
Scott: We had video calls before we had cell phones.
Cassie: Yeah, I mean, they were on a landline. They were exhibited by Bell Labs and they worked, they were just fantastically expensive, and so they didn’t catch on. They couldn’t be marketed kind of on a big enough scale to make them worthwhile. So they kind of went back into the box for another few decades.
Cassie: And yeah, mobile phones is another one brought to the World’s Fair in 1970 in Japan, which then obviously becomes like a really important player in the mobile phone market later on. But again, not really for another 15 or 20 years till it became like really normal to have a mobile phone in your pocket.
There were also lots of foods. These stories are fun. They’re not necessarily all true, but there are lots of apocryphal stories about foods that were invented at World’s Fairs or debuted at World’s Fairs to, um, massive delight.
Scott: Okay, let’s hear them. Cuz I’m thinking of like the Minnesota State Fair and fried butter or something like that. And that’s the most American way of thinking about this, but...
Cassie: There are many very American foods that were allegedly developed at World’s fairs. So they include the ice cream cone, which the story goes, was invented in Louisiana. When a waffle maker and an ice cream seller were placed next to each other, and the ice cream seller ran out of tubs to serve the ice cream in, so the waffle maker quickly rolled up a waffle into a cone shape, and thus the ice cream cone was born.
Scott: That has to be like the most perfect fusion of like technologies, the ice cream and the waffle.
Cassie: Exactly. It is almost certainly not true. Probably the ice cream cone was invented in Italy way before this, but it’s, it’s a nice story. Cherry Coke is one that is almost certainly, definitely launched at the World’s Fair, which was in Knoxville in 1982.
They brought lots of flavors.
Scott: I love Cherry Coke.
Cassie: I do too.
Scott: What other foods?
Cassie: Yeah. So grapefruit was allegedly, bred. I didn’t know this. It’s not like a natural fruit. It was developed, um, from something like a pomelo. It was kind of made a bit more palatable. I mean, I dunno quite why you’d invent grapefruit. I think they’re quite weird, but they took off when they were launched at a World’s Fair. Kumquats is another one. But again, I feel that it’s unlikely that people in the world somewhere, were not eating kumquats. Maybe they were just launched on the American market and also why, why would anyone need a kumquat?
Scott: They’re not good. The grapefruit has a lot of redeeming qualities.
Cassie: It does. It’s a weird thing to go and invent, but now it’s here, I’m glad it’s here.
Scott: It’s very nice in the Hemingway daiquiri.
Cassie: Also invented at a World’s Fair, weirdly, by Ernest Hemingway.
Scott: I mean, I don’t think Ernest’s vibe was the World’s Fair, but...
Cassie: I don’t think he went to that kind of, uh, event.
Scott: He’s off drinking Cherry Coke.
Scott: So was there a clear moment when the World’s Fair started to become less important, less popular?
When did the World’s Fair start becoming less popular?
Cassie: Yeah, I spoke to a historian called Lisa Munro. Um, she wrote her graduate thesis in part about World’s Fairs, and she pointed out that when they were first instigated, it was kind of at this time when museums and galleries and zoos were becoming really popular, so there were lots of these public spaces being built, and part of that was about seeing the world in a new way and kind of understanding more. And then you get into some very kind of thorny and uncomfortable territory about the nature of empire and the nature of power and what it is that these World’s Fairs were setting up as admirable or as a kind of zenith of culture.
For example, in these early colonial-era fairs, that was kind of the spoils of colonialism. It was everything that had been brought from this massive empire to show to the people to say like, “Look how great our empire is. Look how much of the world we’ve colonized.” And then comes the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.
Four months after it opened, the Second World War broke out, and so the future looked very different. Most countries got kind of dragged into that. You know, when society kind of reformed after that, it just had a different character. And I think people had a different relationship with technology and perhaps with progress in some ways.
Now we had things like television and we were beginning to have more kind of communications technologies, so people didn’t need to be shown kind of great spectacles anymore. But also, I think there was much more distrust around the idea of even something as simple as a machine. You know, the atom bomb had just been dropped.
That was in some ways, the zenith of the idea of progress, it was like the newest big thing that we had and we used it to destroy hundreds of thousands of people in two cities. So I think people came back from Second World War with a changed view of the idea of progress and what we were progressing towards, perhaps much more skeptical, perhaps more wary of the kind of ideas that had been popular.
Before that war. Also, empire has really broken down. The idea of countries controlling one another has become much, much more complicated, and it’s obvious how problematic that is to everyone by this point. Another thing that was really popular at World’s Fairs in the twenties and thirties was eugenics.
So it was just like a really fun thing that you could go and do. You’d go along to a tent and you’d put in some details about yourself, and you’d get some information back about your “eugenic fitness” and whether you should be reproducing or not and how eugenically fit your family was. This was what Lisa Munro, the historian I spoke to, would describe very much as “junk science,” but that was kind of very much all mixed up in the scientific offering that was there at the World’s Fairs. So it wasn’t just like, “Oh, we’ve, we’ve made some scientific discoveries and we are gonna teach you about them, people of the world.” It was like, “This is the science of the day. These are the scientific ideas that we want to disseminate.” And so I think people are just a bit wiser to the dangers of those kind of mass forms of education after the Second World War and after everything that happened in Nazi Germany.
They never regained the status that they had back at that 1939 World’s Fair.
Scott: You’re obviously joking about, you know, the display of eugenics as a fun thing and...
Scott: But I think it goes hand in hand with like this idea that not only was this junk science perverted for evil gains, you know, in Nazi Germany, but also the promise of technology and of innovation for innovation’s sake was taken to its natural conclusion with the creation of the atom bomb.
And so it makes sense to me that there would be a distaste for everything that the World’s Fair is about, you know, in the aftermath of World War II.
Cassie: Exactly. And so they do come back. There are some kind of important World’s Fairs in the 60s, 1964 in New York, 1967 in Montreal, and they do keep going, but I just think their character has changed.
The wind has gone out of their sails in some ways.
Scott: Yeah. What changed about them? I imagine that they might be more corporate or something where there’s a lot of sponsors and you know, a lot of tents and you know, not a lot of substance.
How did World’s Fairs change after World War II?
Cassie: Yeah, I think they become more about entertainment, and I think it’s fun for people to see these new devices, new pieces of technology. Things like self-driving cars were premiered at World’s Fairs, touchscreens.
It’s enjoyable to see those things, but I don’t think that’s kind of quite got the same power as those early ones where you almost maybe felt like you were going to see a vision of the future, that you were gonna be enlightened somehow. And that you were gonna understand the world better. As a result, they’re more diversions.
Scott: Computer age technology was also, you know, something that was pioneered by the military, right?
Scott: So even in the aftermath of World War II we enter a Cold War period.
Scott: Where even a lot of the consumer tech that we eventually get was because of massive spending by the US government and other militaries around the world.
Cassie: Yeah, totally. And those 1960s fairs are really about the Cold War and the space race. There’s, there’s lots of stuff on show, but then there’s also maybe an air of secrecy and a feeling that we kind of can’t be shown everything that is actually happening. Um, there’s a sense of cooperation between countries, but also distrust between countries.
The 1970 Osaka world, the kind of premise of that one was about like peace and cooperation between nations, which is pretty poignant as one of the first Japanese World’s Fair after the, um, end of the Second World War. Um, but how much can a World’s Fair really do that, and how much is that really happening when the Cold War is still kind of fully on at that point?
So yeah, they changed in nature. They started to become just less relevant to people’s everyday lives or to their kind of emotional lives, and they never regained that kind of status.
Scott: Another struggle, I imagine, is that technology has increasingly become smaller.
Cassie: Yes, absolutely. So it’s harder to premiere that kind of thing.
It’s harder to showcase it when it is often virtual in some way. So it might not be a physical thing that you can hold in your hands and play with, or it might only be kind of incrementally different. I kind of feel like Apple launches in the 2000s might have felt a little bit like this.
Like it’s the first time people are actually seeing smartphones and holding them in their hands. Like, yes, quite exciting. But then the next smartphone coming out is not gonna have the same kind of power. And the next one and the next one and the next one. And also a lot of things we just get, as soon as they’re out, we get them on our laptops via the internet. ChatGPT is one that I was thinking about recently, like incredible, amazing. But as soon as it lands, everyone is playing with it. Everyone has it in their home. They have the ability to use it. So there doesn’t need to be a central point. And in fact, there maybe shouldn’t be a central point where these things get shown to the people who happen to be there on that day.
Like they’re kind of just out there for everyone and they don’t have even a launch in the same way. They don’t have a beginning.
Scott: Coming up. We’ll find out why the Fair faded from view. But first a quick break.
Okay, we’re back with Quartz’s Cassie Werber talking about the World’s Fair and the ways in which we used to experience new technologies. I think there’s a really interesting comparison. The idea that the World’s Fair was sort of like an Apple launch in the 2000s, or maybe like a hundred different launches all happening at once.
Scott: That tone got set super early on, right? It goes back to the London Exhibition of 1851?
Cassie: Yeah, so this fair was the brainchild of Prince Albert, who is the husband of Queen Victoria. And he did conceive of it as a, an event for the people and not just the people of London. They were kind of train packages to allow people to come up to London.
There were ways of coming from the, the provinces to see this spectacle. So I think they did conceive of it as being an event for a lot of people. The entrance price was not astronomically high. And World’s Fairs did become a kind of mass leisure event, the kind of which had not really been seen before. It was also incredibly successful, this first World’s Fair, and I think that that probably clicked in some people’s brains that, okay maybe this is a potential moneymaking venture. They’re obviously massively expensive to put on, but that World’s Fair, so we’re talking 1851 had 6 million visitors.
That’s a really big proportion of the population at the time, and it made a profit of 186,000 pounds, which is about $40 million in today’s money, incredibly profitable. And from that profit, the organizers bought a swath of London, which you will recognize if you’ve ever been to London, as the place where the Royal Albert Hall is and um, the Natural History Museum. The Science Museum is also there. The Victoria and Albert Museum is also there. So they kind of bought this chunk of London. They built all these buildings and inaugurated all these museums, which are still there today and are still free actually, mostly. And they set up a fund to fund scientists and innovators, which is still going.
So it had a massive legacy and probably inspired a lot of World’s Fairs many of which were financially ruinous.
Scott: So if it’s so expensive, why would a city want to host a World’s Fair?
What are the benefits of hosting a World’s Fair?
Cassie: There are also other reasons why you might want to bring people to a World’s Fair. Advertising is a really big part of it, and that is a little bit harder to quantify.
But corporations and the company is, is a really big part of World’s Fair as well, and increasingly so through time. So the early ones, maybe they were slightly more driven by the government, driven by municipalities, kind of showcase the achievements of a country or of a place, but increasingly they become private enterprises.
And when you get into the American World’s Fairs, they are more exclusively funded by companies, by places that want to appear at them, show off their new technology, show it to that kind of captive audience, and eventually sell things to them, find new customers. So there’s a nice example actually from the Paris World’s Fair of the Argentinian Pavilion.
Now, Argentina at the time was really seen as a very rich and luxurious country, and there’s a contemporary brochure about the fair, that kind of, it describes this pavilion that Argentina sent and it even mentions how lots of Europeans are immigrating to Argentina. And that’s a bit of a worry because, you know, we’re losing all of our people to Argentina.
It’s, it’s not something we kind of think of as being on people’s minds at the time. But the kind of thing that Argentina really wanted to showcase was this new refrigeration technology, which is pretty new back in 1889. And the reason they wanted to do that was because they’ve got a beef industry and they want to start selling that kind of throughout the world.
They don’t want to be limited by geography anymore, and so they wanted to show that even in France you can have refrigerated beef that is perfectly fresh, and they wanted to open up new markets.
Scott: Who is allowed to exhibit at the World’s Fair?
Who is allowed to exhibit at the World’s Fair?
Cassie: So you had to apply or you’d be called upon. Again, it’s really, uh, the cream of society.
So that might be from science. If you were an eminent scientist or an up and coming scientist, you might really want to be at a World’s Fair and you might well be invited. You’d certainly be kind of trying to get your foot in the door. It would also be people from industry, particularly from technology, so companies representing the Industrial Revolution. Later it’s companies like electric companies or car companies or food and drinks companies, so Coca-Cola or General Electric, they might be keen to exhibit and they might be invited and they have the money to kind of put something big together for a World’s Fair. It’s also a diplomatic mission, so there are lots of political elites, for want of a better word, or political actors who are appearing at these World’s Fairs, but certainly, to the extent that ordinary people are participating, they’re probably either going there as, as visitors or they are workers, or they are people from a village somewhere who’s, who have been persuaded or co-opted or just shipped off to, to be an exhibit as part of the, the spectacle of the whole thing.
Scott: Tell me more about the diplomacy element of a World’s Fair.
Cassie: Those early ones were kind of about a bit of a competition between nations, so in a way that first World’s Fair in London. That was a reaction to this big trade fair that’d been held in France that was showcasing how great France was. And Britain decided to go one up and they were like, “Well, we’ll do the whole world then.”
And as a reaction to that, Paris then did, in 1889, they did, “Well, we are gonna do the whole world, but even better, we are gonna build the Eiffel Tower,” which is the world’s tallest building at that time. And everybody was completely wowed by France. And then Chicago in 1893 was like, “Well, we are gonna do it better than France. We’re gonna do it bigger.” And that was much more of a, a corporate-led project.
Scott: So what has the World’s Fair become in the age of the internet when product displays and exhibition has kind of moved online? What’s remaining of the World’s Fair?
What happened to the World’s Fair in the age of the internet?
Cassie: You know, there are other things that have kind of taken its place maybe, or the place of the World’s Fair in terms of spectacle and geopolitics and maybe technology. There are kind of different things that fill different gaps.
Scott: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the spectacle and the, the geopolitics real quick. Like what has supplanted it in the bringing the world together kind of way and showing off, you know, feats of nationalism and culture.
Cassie: The obvious ones are things like the Olympics and the football World Cup. Um, those really are big, spectacular, massively well attended, massively well funded sources of national pride in many senses. I would say they don’t showcase like the colonizing nations in quite the same way as those World’s Fairs did because in a funny way, they’re less about technology and more about just the human body and like its capabilities.
Scott: So if the Olympics has replaced the kind of diplomatic every nation coming together, is there anything physical that might resemble the World’s Fairs of old that we have now for showing off our new tech?
Cassie: There are tech fairs. I will not pretend to have particularly been to many of them. There’s the Consumer Electronics Show, which is maybe the biggest, where people come together to show off new prototypes or kind of see the latest gadgets in action, the latest mobile phone technology or self-driving cars, but they just don’t have the same breach and the same power, the same mass market appeal as World’s Fairs did back when they kind of were the only place that you could see those things happening. It’s kind of like the World’s Fair is your phone or your phone is the World’s Fair. It gives us the stuff that the World’s Fair gave us in many ways, information’s freely available, and a lot of that is disinformation.
But then a lot of it was disinformation back then. It was just disinformation of a different kind.
Scott: We just called it propaganda.
Cassie: Yeah, and I think we also have a really different relationship with progress now, maybe connected to our kind of realization that we are living in a world of finite resources, that we don’t think of progress in the same way as an unequivocal good.
People are more freaked out by it, more worried about how we are going to manage the kind of progress that we see happening around us and may be more worried about what the future looks like and less desirous of kind of speeding into it.
Scott: Technology has become synonymous in some ways of keeping us in constant communication, but also physically separate from people.
Scott: And so I think it’s a little jarring now to think about the World’s Fair as an exhibition for new technologies when what technology has become is so antithetical to that in many ways.
Cassie: Yeah. And people just have a complicated relationship with it. You can’t put yourself back, I guess, into the position of somebody who has never come across one of these things before and be awed by it in the way that you might have been awed by it when it first happened. Having said that, you might not have been awed by it when it first happened. You might have been scared of it and upset by it. And we’ve talked a lot about the kind of positive aspects of being a visitor at one of these fairs, but there were also negatives, like many people didn’t want the kind of progress that was happening to happen.
They didn’t want their lives to migrate to the city. They didn’t want their jobs to move from being local and in the countryside to being somewhere else, in a factory.
Scott: So we’ve talked about great architecture and new technologies, but what are some of the big ideas that came out of the World’s Fair?
What big ideas came out of World’s Fairs?
Cassie: So, the birth of anthropology as a discipline. That really goes hand in hand with World’s Fairs as well.
Back at the birth of anthropology, it was a much more problematic subject than it is now. It was really about the study of peoples, yes, but it was also very much about the classification of peoples, kind of creating a structure that you could put them into and classify them and create a world order based on that.
And with that, we saw a lot of indigenous peoples and a lot of colonized peoples actually brought physically to these world’s fairs. So the Chicago World’s Fair in 1892 had this street in Chicago, which I mentioned before. It had villages full of indigenous Bolivians. But these fairs transplanted whole communities or whole microcommunities. And in 1904 in Louisiana, there were 47 acres devoted to what was called the “Philippine Reservation”, which involved a thousand Filipinos who had also all been brought over from the Philippines, who were kind of meant to just go through their daily lives in this fair, in what was essentially a human zoo, and be looked at and marveled at by onlookers.
And in the US fairs, there was a lot of display of the idea that kind of the expansion of the US West was inevitable and that it was already happening. And so there were quite a lot of indigenous peoples who were brought in kind of to show that they were essentially on their way out, that they were a curiosity.
And these fairs created a physical structure where you could walk through. You passed the indigenous people, and you passed the colonized people, and then you got to the pinnacle of white modern culture. And that was how you were taken through the journey. So it was very much set up to communicate certain kinds of ideas, and it used human exhibits to do that.
Scott: So one of the chief exports of these World’s Fairs were these really terrible impulses of empire and colonialism and, uh, white supremacy, for lack of a better word.
Scott: Showing off the strength of the elites that organized the World’s Fair at the expense of people that they brought over... workers, displaced people...
Cassie: Which is another reason why I think they fell out of relevance so totally, is that it became much, much more problematic to say, “This is what the world is like. We can put it all on a plate for you.”
Scott: Right, and many of these empires that we’re putting on the world’s fair, crumbled or shrunk significantly during the 20th century.
Cassie: Yeah, I’ve looked up the list of all World’s Fairs ever, and there have been hundreds, if not thousands, globally over the years. There have been about six or seven in South Africa, one in Morocco, and one in Algeria, which was in 1930 to commemorate the, uh, centenary of French rule.
And that is it for World’s Fair’s in Africa. So if we’re talking about “Do these represent the world?” Maybe they sense some pavilions or something, but no. Sub-Saharan Africa, deeply unrepresented.
Scott: So people, cultures, nations all need to get the message out about themselves and show off in different ways to the world.
How is that changing, and what’s the future of that look like?
Cassie: Yeah, so I think we touched on sport, which I think is quite a big part of that in terms of the kind of big spectacle, but I think a lot of the kind of work of storytelling and cultural export is happening in other arenas. So, I think you could look at things like Hollywood films as a, as a way that America is disseminated its culture, or Netflix as a way that people are telling stories that become kind of quite ubiquitous and quite popular in all sorts of places all at the same time.
And then there are other phenomena that kind of spring up that become very important for a while. You might look at K-Pop from Korea or TikTok videos as the way that people are right now communicating the things that they want to share, culturally. It’s kind of more pluralist and kind of maybe smaller scale in some ways, but maybe not, because you know, if you can do a TikTok video and that gets watched by several millions of people, I mean, that’s already the whole world’s fair audience from 1851 right there.
Scott: Right. There’s so much exhibiting that we almost need curators, and we almost need that curatorial... this is me as a journalist speaking, so I’m biased, but maybe what we need is a World’s Fair of just the good stuff.
What’s the status of the World’s Fair today?
What does the World’s Fair look like today?
Cassie: Well, they still happen. They happen about every five years. And still there is a bidding process. So cities will apply to be the host of the next World’s Fair one of our Quartz reporters, Anne Quito, went to the Milan World’s Fair in 2015, which was all about food. She described it as “a jubilant mess.” Um, they are kind of camp, I would say, a little bit, now. They’re kind of sideshows, although they are still extremely heavily funded, kind of corporately funded. They still suck up a lot of money with the infrastructure that needs to be built around them and their things themselves. There’s a little bit from the Bureau International des Expositions which is the, um, body in France that kind of inaugurates World’s Fairs.
It says that now expos are “a global gathering of nations dedicated to finding solutions to pressing challenges of our time is by offering a journey inside a universal theme, through engaging and immersive activities.”
Scott: That sounds like a UN summit more than a World’s Fair.
Cassie: I’m like, what is it? It sounds like it’s written by ChatGPT to me, like ...
Scott: No worse, someone in corporate marketing, don’t worry.
Cassie: Yeah, the last one was in Dubai. The next one is due to take place in Osaka again in 2025, and it’s called the Expo Designing Future Society for Our Lives, whatever that means. Um, it looks like it’s gonna be taking place on a kind of manmade island, which has not yet been made, probably under construction at vast expense.
So yes, there is still investment in them, they’re still happening. That one looks kind of interesting for lots of reasons. It’s main aim, its first stated aim is to be a place where you can feel the sea and sky. So that is just very antithetical to the idea of a conference venue or kind of manmade venue.
Feels like they’re drifting as far away as they can from that idea. There will be future technologies and social systems apparently on view. Some of the ones that they list are things like, renewable energy, including carbon capture, 5G internet, flying cars, robots, apps, machine learning, AR and VR. But it’s also very obviously a post-pandemic expo.
So they talk a lot about booking systems and avoiding overcrowding and infection control. That’s obviously an anxiety at the moment of creating a big mass event, and it is also going to be sustainable. Whatever that word means when you are constructing an island from scratch for a big exhibition.
Scott: I don’t think a World’s Fair is gonna solve climate change anytime soon. But then again, neither is an Apple product launch.
Scott: So you can’t really hold that against the fair.
Scott: And the World’s Fair seems a lot more fun.
Scott: Well, Cassie, thank you so much for joining us.
Cassie: Thanks Scott. It’s nice to chat to you. It was really fun.
Scott: Cassie Werber writes about the purpose of companies for Quartz.
The Quartz Obsession is produced by Rachel Ward with additional support from executive editor Susan Howson and platform strategist Shivank Taksali. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. This episode was recorded by Eric Wojahn at Solid Sound in Ann Arbor, Michigan in Dax Liniere at Puzzle Factory Sound Studios in London.
If you like what you heard, leave us a review. We love hearing what you think about the show. Tell your friends about us, then head to qz.com/obsession to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email and browse hundreds of stories about everything from disco to high heels to Russia’s greatest love machine, Rasputin. Quartz is a guide to the new global economy for people in business who are excited about change. We hope you’ll join us next time when we dig into smart homes.
Julia Malleck [clip from the next episode]: So in one way, it’s a Disney movie about an evil stepmother, and then in another way, it is about the anxieties of having technology encroaching on our, our family lives and our lives at home, and the potential dangers and pitfalls of that.
Scott: I’m Scott Nover. Thanks for listening.
Cassie: Yeah, I mean, I hope you’re not too tired after doing a whole one of these.
Scott: I’m just tired cuz I didn’t sleep last night.
Cassie: Did your smart home keep turning the lights on?
Scott: Yeah, it threw me outta bed. The bed launched me.