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

by Bob Sullivan on June 19, 2014

BoingBoingcoverIf 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.

This is the top of my debut story on BoingBoing.com.  You can read the whole piece here. 

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.

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