50 years ago, the World's Fair promised a life of leisure. We're still waiting

Nothing captured the spirit of 1964-era optimism better than General Electric’s Carousel of Progress, perhaps the World Fair’s most popular exhibit. But the life of leisure it promised was a big con, says Bob Sullivan

If I said to you, “It’s a Small World After All,” you would inevitably start humming the tune. But if I tried to clear the musical part of your brain by suggesting another catchy tune, called “There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” that would almost certainly be no help at all. Both songs debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair, now 50 years old and being marked by a series of humble events in Queens, N.Y.  The disparity shows the fair got it half right -- the world is indeed smaller, but perhaps not quite so beautiful, as the optimists who designed the show hoped.

Nothing captured the spirit of those optimists better than General Electric’s progress ride, perhaps the fair’s most popular exhibit. Walt Disney was hired to create GE’s central attraction, and for east coasters who couldn’t travel to California, it was the closest they could possibly get to Disneyland. Roughly 15 million fairgoers took the ride during the fair’s two summers, and even for Disney, it was state of the art. The ride introduced the world to Audio Animatronics, the robot-like creatures that would come to dominate Disney displays (and relieve actors of their duties) for decades. Theatregoers were astonished when – instead of stage-hands moving sets in and out – the audience moved!  Seats revolved around four central stages, carousel-style, giving rise to the ride’s eventual name, Carousel of Progress. It also brilliantly allowed Disney to churn audiences through the show at breakneck pace. At its height, 240 people could enjoy the charming carousel ride every four minutes.  The ride is still open, having been moved to Florida via California, and now enjoys the title of longest-running theatre show in U.S. history.

Fifty years ago, visitors were enchanted by the ride’s message of a great, big, beautiful tomorrow.

On stage 1, theater-goers met an extended family in their home at the dawn of the 20th century, (unknowlingly) struggling with a hand-cranked washing machine, a gas lamp, and other primitive household technologies of the day.  In stage 2, during the 1920s, life had improved a bit, with electric lighting, a sewing machine, and a radio making an appearance. When stage 3 rolled around, in the 1940s, a television and a washing machine have made life considerably easier. But the final stage offered a glimpse of digital utopia.

“I’m thrilled with my new dishwasher,” proclaims Sarah, the mother of the family.  Freed of yet another household chore by automation, she now has more time to join “garden club, a literary society, a ladies bowling league.” Husband John enjoys a similar boon of free time, thanks to modernity. All the while, the animatrons urge members of the audience to join them as they break into song, belting out the ride’s theme, “It’s a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow” – the melody sounds a bit like It’s a Small World. Millions left the ride humming the catchy tune, convinced that innovation and ambitious corporations were going to fill our lives with leisure time and pleasure.

Where did it all go so wrong?

It took labor unions hundreds of years to get workers nights and weekends off; smartphones have taken them away in less than a decade.

There are hundreds of studies describing America’s epidemic of overwork, the end of free nights and weekends, the constant stress brought on by digital umbilical cords, the constant interruptions from email, voicemail, instant messages, tweets, Snapchats.   Smartphone users check their e-mail 150 times every day, according to industry research. Workers recently told researchers that 50 percent are expected to check their e-mail on weekends, and 34 percent while on vacation. No matter on that last point: Most Americans fail to take their meager allotment of vacation anyway.

Meanwhile, Americans seem to think they like this. A Gallup poll released this month found that employees who check email outside of work are 25 percent more likely to say they experienced a lot of stress yesterday, yet by about the same margin, they are likely to describe themselves as “thriving.” Yep – many Americans seem to think stress is good for them.

While the vacation problem is distinctly Americans – EU residents are entitled to at least four paid weeks annually – concerns about the always-on life have spread around the globe. Quietly, an epidemic sometimes called “binge working” has caused young employees to drop dead on the job after working more than 30 hours at a time, and caused so much concern that European nations are passing laws trying to outlaw after-hours email. Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch publicly mandated young workers take at least four days off per month after a British banker died from binge working.

See, it is a small world after all.

Even if overwork isn’t killing you, it’s almost certainly hurting you. The American Journal of Epidemiology summarized work and health risk research recently and published this list of horribles: “Long working hours have been found to be associated with cardiovascular and immunologic reactions, reduced sleep duration, unhealthy lifestyle, and adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, subjective health complaints, fatigue, and depression.”

Technology encourages overwork, but it also adds to the stress. It’s a joke, but it’s not – your computer knows precisely when you have an important meeting, and will crash precisely when you can least afford the time it takes to reboot. The cell phone battery, the word processing software, the TV remote – they are all out to get us. Perhaps in a scientific poll, users wouldn’t readily admit to such anthropomorphism, but their actions say otherwise.

Inspired by a viral set of videos posted online showing half-crazed users smashing, crashing, throwing, slamming, or otherwise inflicting pain on their computers, Professor Kent Norman of the University of Maryland coined the term “computer rage.” In a survey, he got those half-crazed people to fess up to their acts of techno-violence. Here’s some of what they told him. Don’t judge. Only those who’ve never thrown a gadget should cast a stone.

“I ruin computer desks and chairs venting outrage. Throwing computer mice around also helps... Sometimes I headbutt the monitor screen.”

“Run the ******* over with my truck!”

“Poured gasoline on a computer and set fire to it.”

“One time I took a linksys router out to my driveway, smashed it open with a hammer, covered (soaked) the inside with WD-40, and lit the sucker on fire. It burned for quite a while. I took pictures and sent them to linksys and told them how angry I was that their tech support wouldn't give me answers.”

“I name my computers, and I use their names pretty much only when I'm mad at them. When my old computer, Charles, use to be bad..I'd yell, but then I tried giving him hugs instead.”

And finally:

“I scream at my computer because I know that it hears me and is laughing at me.”

When gadgets let us down, you see, the anger is primal. Perhaps it’s because Walt Disney promised us all those years ago how much better tech would make the world.  Or perhaps we are overly optimistic ourselves – after all, whose fault is it that you only had 30 seconds to print a copy of that meeting agenda that won’t print? Not long ago, you would have left 20 minutes to use carbon paper in a typewriter to make a copy.  Setting aside the blame game for now, witty web commenters use a catchy name, a meme, for these technoflubs: EPIC FAIL. The term needs little explanation, but it’s sort of the slapstick humor of the digital age. The way audiences guffawed at Mo, Larry, and Curly running into each other during the black and white era, email users now belly laugh when there’s YouTube evidence of a virtual Lucy pulling the ball away from an innocent Charlie Brown at just the right (wrong) moment.  It’s only funny because we have all been Charlie Brown.

The biggest EPIC FAIL of all is the invention that might some day be dubbed humanity’s crowning achievement by historians: The Internet.

At the height of the housing-fueled gold rush, and not long after the dot-com boom and bust, Macleans magazine writer Steve Maich wrote an anti-technology screed that wasn’t a direct attack on Walt Disney and the 1964 World’s Fair, but it might well have been.

“The idealists who conceived and pioneered the Web described a kind of enlightened utopia built on mutual understanding, a world in which knowledge is limited only by one's curiosity,” he wrote. “Instead, we have constructed a virtual Wild West, where the masses indulge their darkest vices, pirates of all kinds troll for victims, and the rest of us have come to accept that cyberspace isn't the kind of place you'd want to raise your kids. The great multinational exchange of ideas and goodwill has devolved into a food fight. And the virtual marketplace is a great place to get robbed. The answers to the great questions of our world may be out there somewhere, but finding them will require you to first wade through an ocean of misinformation, trivia and sludge. We have been sold a bill of goods. We're paying for it through automatic monthly withdrawals from our PayPal accounts. Let's put this in terms crude enough for all cyber-dwellers to grasp. The Internet sucks.”

Pedophilia. Viruses and Trojan horses. Stolen credit card numbers. Harassment. “Bill shock” from surprise bandwidth charges. The echo chamber of politics. Lies, lies, and more lies. The death of privacy, and that permanence of that embarrassing college party photo.  The list of horribles from the web can be as long as you want to make it, as are the list of stories chronicling victims’ lives ruined.  Here’s one: Teen-ager Rehtaeh Parsons was a gang rape victim who committed suicide when she couldn’t beat back pictures of the incident that kept surfacing online. And she continued to be attacked, even from the grave. Her face was ultimately used by a singles’ service in an online dating advertisement.  Yes, sometimes, the Internet really sucks.

But these are extreme examples. They don’t really show how technology has fundamentally altered the way we live, or robbed us of precious time to rest and reflect. For this more primary menace, we need to dig deeper – deep inside our brains.  We’ll start in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that encodes special memories.

There is no logical reason to get lost anymore.  As an avowed technology skeptic, I stand in awe of Global Positioning System gadgets. The proliferation of affordable GPS devices, and their incredible accuracy, is to me the most impressive consumer electronics invention since the personal computer. Perhaps, since the watch. GPS holds out the promise to end one entire genre of husband-and-wife arguments (“Why don’t we stop and ask for directions?”). But even this magical, wonderful gadget comes with a cost. A really big cost.

GPS is systematically exterminating our sense of direction.

Numerous studies have confirmed this phenomenon. As a passenger often doesn’t learn the route because he or she isn’t paying attention to the turns, GPS users don’t pay attention, either.  The visual cues which were once standard in making mental maps of our journeys – left at the flower shop, right after my piano teacher’s house – are now replaced by simply obeying orders.  GPS has made us passengers in our own cars, and lives.

Perhaps you’ve already had this experience – you find yourself driving someone else’s car, without your precious GPS sidekick, heading somewhere that is supposedly familiar, and yet you get hopelessly lost along the way.  Without that calm “In 500 feet, turn left” voice prompting you, you are a tourist in your own hometown.

Gary Burnett, an associate professor in the engineering department at the University of Nottingham in England, showed that drivers who simply followed GPS-like directions didn’t even notice when they were led down the same roads twice.  Stefan Münzer of the University of Mannheim in Germany showed that those following instructions arrived at destinations more quickly but didn’t remember the landmarks they passed along the way.  Veronique Bohbot, a neuroscientist affiliated with McGill University, used fMRI scanners to look inside travelers’ brains and found those who simply follow directions have less gray matter in their hippocampus than those who conjure up mental maps.

In other words, GPS isn’t just making us directionally helpless. It’s eating away at our brains!  And, perhaps more important, it’s making us miss the world as it goes by.  Sure, we are on a carousel, but the ride is simply speeding up every year, taking us somewhere many don’t really want to go, with thoughts of leisure a thousand miles, and at least 50 years away.

That 1964 World’s Fair was unique for many reasons, but here’s a piece of trivia – it was an illicit show. The world governing body that sanctioned World’s Fairs didn’t approve of the 64 Show – it had awarded a 1962 Fair to Seattle, and ’64 was too close for another American event. The ambitious organizers went forward anyway. Maybe that put some kind of cosmic curse on the iconic Unisphere that hovered over the show. It now sits surrounded as much by weeds, vandalism, and a mediocre baseball team as it does modernity. Maybe it cursed our ideas of progress, too. While virtually anyone reading this story can hum "It’s A Small World After All" (you are probably doing so right now. Sorry.), virtually no one knows “There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” The whole small world thing caught on. Leisure?  We’re still waiting.

Published 2:00 am Thu, Jun 5, 2014

About the Author

Bob Sullivan in the author of four books, including the NY Times best seller, Gotcha Capitalism.  He was a technology and business reporter for MSNBC.com for 20 years, where he wrote the Red Tape Chronicles blog, and is now a contributor for NBC News and Credit.com.

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