Never Mind Jetpack -- Where's My Power Plant?

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CNN Online wonders, with the writer Daniel Wilson, what has happened to the Jetpack and other futurist devices of the 1964 World Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens. One answer is that the future not only isn't what it used to be; it never was. Or at least it had already ceased to be so in 1964. The best known review of the aged Robert Moses' discordant swan song remains the headline of the writer Martin Mayer's assessment: "Ho Hum, Come to the Fair." Even the New York pavilion was recycled from its 1939 predecessor on the same site. Now that was a Fair to remember, a late-Deco extravaganza where American Depression-era superhighway fantasies melded with the one-up grandiosity of Nazis and Communists at the brink of war. The 1964 event was never even sanctioned internationally as a genuine World's Fair. In 1968 the New York Times deplored the Fair's financial report announcing that bondholders had been left with 38 cents on the dollar of their investment, while past and future payments to Robert Moses himself would amount to $1.1 million by 1975. As for the content:

Had the New York World's Fair of 1964-65 left lasting educational, diplomatic or even entertainment memories, the disastrous financial report issued by the City Controller might have been chalked off as a Robert Moses Happening.

The management of the 1964 Fair was all too futurist, foreshadowing not only the city's financial debacle of the 1970s but more recent outrages against investors and taxpayers.

The CNN article coincides with a Times report on the problems of a once-promising new reactor design a French company is trying to implement in Finland, and the technological and financial snafus that are giving US utilities and authorities second thoughts about nuclear power from highly standardized, safe new designs as a partial solution to oil shortages and carbon emissions.

What's the lesson? That we persisted too long with an inherently unsafe technology? Or that we drew the wrong lessons from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and now are trying to make up for neglect of research on a partial but significant answer to climate change and energy security? I have to say I'm not sure. But the problems of nuclear power are only part of a broader challenge. Despite (and partly because of) all the marvels of information technology, the rest of the future does indeed appear to be behind schedule. We actually may need more hype rather than less.




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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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