New York Prophecies

By Richard Barbrook, 10 September 2004

At the peak of the Cold War, in 1964, the USA mounted a World’s Fair in New York. Exhibitors had the challenging role of flaunting the superpower’s technological, economic and military prowess, while betraying no hint of the actual application of the technologies on display. Fantasy futurecasting – artificial intelligence, holidays to the moon and free energy – provided the euphemism required for mass entertainment. Richard Barbrook takes us back to the future

The Future Is What It Used To BeAt the beginning of the 21st century, the dream of artificial intelligence is deeply embedded within the modern imagination. We have grown up with images of loyal robot buddies like Data in Star Trek TNG and of pitiless machine monsters like the cyborg in The Terminator. These science fiction fantasies are encouraged by confident predictions from prominent computer scientists. Continual improvements in hardware and software must eventually lead to the Singularity: the creation of artificial intelligences more powerful than the human mind. Despite its cultural prominence, the meme of sentient machines is vulnerable to theoretical exorcism. Far from being a free-floating signifier, the dream of artificial intelligence is deeply rooted in time and space. Analysing the history of this prophecy is the precondition for understanding its contemporary manifestations. With this motivation in mind, let’s go back to the second decade of the Cold War when the world’s biggest computer company put on a show about the wonders of thinking machines in the financial capital of the most powerful and wealthiest country on the planet…A Millennium Of ProgressOn the 22nd April 1964, the New York World’s Fair was opened to the general public. This exposition was held to demonstrate that the USA was the leader in everything: consumer goods, democratic politics, show business, modernist architecture, fine art, religious tolerance, domestic living and, above all else, new technology. Writers and filmmakers had long fantasised about travelling to other worlds. Now, in NASA’s Space Park, visitors could admire the huge rockets which had taken the first Americans into earth orbit. General Motors’ Futurama looked forward to a future where space ships would take tourists to the moon. At its Progressland pavilion, General Electric predicted that nuclear fusion would soon make electricity ‘too cheap to meter’. For many exhibitors, there was only one technology which could prove their modernity: the computer.

Almost all the mainframes at the World’s Fair were used as advertising gimmicks. In contrast, IBM’s pavilion celebrated computing as a distinct technology. For over a decade, this corporation had been America’s leading mainframe manufacturer. Seizing the opportunity for self-promotion offered by the exposition, IBM commissioned a pavilion which would eclipse all others. Eero Saarinen – the renowned Finnish architect – constructed a white, corporate-logo-embossed, egg-shaped theatre suspended in the air by 45 metal trees. Underneath this striking feature, interactive exhibits celebrated IBM’s contribution to the computer industry. For the theatre itself, Charles and Ray Eames – the couple who epitomised American modernist design – created ‘The Information Machine’: a multi-media show which explained that IBM’s mainframes were prototypes of the artificial intelligences of the future.

For over a decade, prominent computer scientists in USA had been convinced that machines would sooner or later become indistinguishable from humans. Language was a set of rules which could be codified as software. Learning from new experiences could be programmed into computers. At the 1964 World’s Fair, IBM proudly announced that the dream of artificial intelligence was about to be realised. In the near future, every American would own a devoted mechanical servant just like Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet:

‘Duplicating the problem-solving and information-handling capabilities of the [human] brain is not far off [in 1960]; it would be surprising if it were not accomplished within the next decade.’1

Within at the IBM pavilion, computers existed in two time frames at once. On the one hand, the current models on display were prototypes of the sentient machines of the future. On the other hand, the dream of artificial intelligence showed the true potential of the mainframes exhibited in the IBM pavilion. At the New York World’s Fair, new technology was displayed as the fulfilment of science fiction fantasy: the imaginary future.

Exhibiting New TechnologyAt the New York World’s Fair, the rulers of America wanted to demonstrate that the USA not only owned the future, but also the past. For over a century, cities across the world had been holding international expositions. What united all of them was their common inspiration: the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. Flush with the wealth and power which flowed from owning the ‘workshop of the world’, the British elite had decided to celebrate the wonders of economic progress. The Crystal Palace – a futuristic iron and glass building – was erected in a central London park. Once inside, visitors were treated to a dazzling display of new products from the factories and exotic imports from the colonies. For most visitors, the stars of the show were the machines which were powering the world’s first industrial revolution: cotton looms, telegraphy systems, printing presses and, best of all, steam engines. The message of these exhibits was clear. Britain was the richest and most powerful nation on the planet because the British invented the best machines.

When wandering around the Crystal Palace, visitors were supposed to learn about the achievements of British industry. Yet, despite this pedagogical intent, the displays at the Great Exhibition systematically ignored the lives of the people who had created the products on show. For instance, the silk dresses betrayed no traces of the horrors of the sweatshops where they were made. With their labour hidden and their price irrelevant, their symbolic role of industrial products took centre stage. The commodity was transformed into an artwork. Use value and exchange value had been temporarily superseded by a more esoteric social phenomenon: exhibition value. Public display was – paradoxically – the most effective method of social concealment: ‘World exhibitions were places of pilgrimage to the fetish Commodity’.2

Within the space of the Crystal Palace, new technologies easily won the competition for public attention. Yet, the organisers of the Great Exhibition had originally envisaged a very different focus for their event: the promotion of high-quality British design. The prime location in the middle of the main hall was allocated to an exhibit of Gothic Revival furniture and religious items. This faux-medieval style was already shaping the politics of Victorian England. The ruling elite took delight in disguising their hi-tech commercial republic as a romantic medieval monarchy. In the most modern nation in the world, the latest industrial innovation masqueraded as an archaic feudal custom: the invented tradition.

Like the railway stations of Victorian England, new products in the Crystal Palace were supposed to be disguised as ancient artefacts. Yet, despite the best efforts of the organisers, it was the machinery hall which became the most popular section of the Crystal Palace. Gothic Revival furniture couldn’t match the emotional impact of the noise and energy of working steam engines. More importantly, the machinery hall proudly celebrated the new technologies which had turned England into an economic and military superpower. Invented tradition had lost out to the imaginary future.

Inside the Crystal Palace, new technology became the icon of modernity. Separated twice from its origins in human labour first through the market and then through the exposition, machinery was materialised ideology. Both bourgeois liberals and working class socialists found confirmation of their political beliefs in the steam engines of the Great Exhibition. Despite their deep differences about the ideological meaning of new technologies, the two sides agreed on one thing: defining the symbolism of machinery meant owning the imaginary future.

This political imperative also provided the impetus behind the world exposition movement. After the triumph of the Great Exhibition, other countries quickly organised their own industrial festivals to break the British ideological monopoly over the future. As in the Crystal Palace, demonstrations of new technologies were a big draw. The 1889 Paris Universal Exposition was immortalised by the superb engineering achievement of the Eiffel Tower. However, by the time that this exhibition opened, the European powers were already falling behind the rapid pace of innovation taking place in the USA. Only a few years after the Eiffel Tower was built, the Palace of Electricity at the Chicago Columbian Exposition provided spectacular proof of the technological superiority of US industry over its European rivals. America was taking ownership of the future.

During the first half of the 20th century, the disparity between the two continents became ever more obvious. Visitors to the 1937 Paris International Exhibition were confronted with a sombre image of the world: the two massive pavilions of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. The political and ideological divisions driving Europe towards catastrophe were starkly symbolised in brick and concrete. In complete contrast, the icons of the 1939 New York World’s Fair were Democracity – the main attraction of the organisers’ Perisphere building – and Futurama – a diorama inside the General Motors pavilion. Both exhibits promoted a utopian vision of an affluent and hi-tech America of the 1960s. In this imaginary future, the majority of the population lived in family homes in the suburbs and commuted to work in their own motor cars.

Facing such strong competition for the attention of visitors, other corporations resorted to displaying sci-fi fantasy machines. The star exhibit of the Westinghouse pavilion was Electro: a robot which could walk, talk, and puff a cigarette. This gimmick provided the inspiration for the imaginary future of artificial intelligence. Until the 1939 World’s Fair, robots in science fiction stories were usually portrayed as emotionless monsters intent on destroying their human masters. But, in 1941, Isaac Asimov changed this negative image. Just like Electro in the Westinghouse pavilion, his fictional robots were the safe and friendly products of a large corporation. During the 1950s, this change of image led to artificial intelligence becoming one of the USA’s most popular imaginary futures.

Cold War ComputingFor most visitors to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, its imaginary future of consumer prosperity must have seemed like a utopian dream. The American economy was still recovering from the worst recession in the nation’s history and Europe was on the brink of another devastating war. Yet, by the time that the 1964 World’s Fair opened, the most famous prediction of the Democracity and Futurama dioramas had been realised. America was now a suburban-dwelling, car-owning consumer society. Exhibition value had become everyday reality.

Since the most famous prophecy of the 1939 exposition had largely come true, visitors to the 1964 New York World’s Fair could have confidence that its three main imaginary futures would also be realised. Who could doubt that – by 1989 at the latest – the majority of Americans would be enjoying the delights of space tourism and unmetered electricity? Best of all, they would be living in a world where sentient machines were their devoted servants. The American public’s confidence in these imaginary futures was founded upon a mistaken sense of continuity. At the 1939 World’s Fair, the public display of new products had intensified the effects of commodity fetishism. Exhibition value added another degree of separation between creation and consumption. Inside its 1939 pavilion, General Motors’ latest products played a supporting role to the Futurama diorama which portrayed the corporation’s ambition to turn the majority of the US population into suburban-dwelling, car-owning consumers. But, despite its prioritisation of exhibition value, this exposition couldn’t totally ignore the use value of new technology. Almost everyone had at some point travelled in a motor car. Although it might obscure the social origins of products, the imaginary future expressed the potential of a really-existing present.

The 1964 New York World’s Fair needed a much higher level of fetishisation. For the first time, exhibition value had to deny the principle use value of new technologies. Whatever their drawbacks, motor cars provided many benefits for the general public. In contrast, the primary motivation for developing space rockets, atomic reactors and mainframe computers was to create weapons which were powerful enough to destroy entire cities. Although the superpowers’ imperial hegemony depended upon nuclear weapons, the threat of global annihilation made their possession increasingly problematic. Two years earlier, the USA and Russia had almost blundered into a catastrophic war over Cuba. In the bizarre logic of the Cold War, the prevention of an all-out confrontation between the two blocs depended upon continual growth in the number of nuclear weapons held by both sides. In a rare moment of lucidity, American analysts invented an ironic acronym for this high-risk strategy of ‘mutually assured destruction’: MAD.

Not surprisingly, the propagandists of both sides justified the enormous waste of resources on the arms race by promoting the peaceful applications of the leading Cold War technologies. By the time that the 1964 New York World’s Fair opened, the weaponry of genocide had been successfully repackaged into people-friendly products. Nuclear power would soon be providing unmetered energy for everyone. Space rockets would shortly be taking tourists for holidays on the moon. Almost all traces of the military origins of these technologies had disappeared. Exhibition value completely covered up use value.

Like nuclear reactors and space rockets, computers had also been developed as Cold War weaponry. Using IBM mainframes, the US military prepared for nuclear war, organised invasions of ‘unfriendly’ countries, directed the bombing of enemy targets, paid the wages of its troops, ran complex war games and managed its supply chain. Thanks to American taxpayers, IBM became the technological leader of the computer industry. Despite the corporation’s dependence upon military contracts, its pavilion was dedicated to promoting the sci-fi fantasy of thinking machines. Like the predictions of unmetered energy and space tourism, the imaginary future of artificial intelligence distracted visitors at the World’s Fair from discovering the original motivation for developing IBM’s mainframes: killing millions of people. The horrors of the Cold War present had to be hidden by the marvels of the imaginary futures.Cybernetic SupremacyAt the 1964 World’s Fair, imaginary futures temporarily succeeded in concealing the primary purpose of its three iconic technologies from the American public. But, as the decades passed, none of these predictions were realised. Energy remained metered, tourists didn’t visit the moon and computers never became intelligent. Unlike the prescient vision of motoring for the masses at the 1939 World’s Fair, the prophecies about the star technologies of the 1964 exposition seemed almost absurd 25 years later. Hyper-reality had collided with reality – and lost.

Like the displays of nuclear reactors and space rockets, the computer exhibits at the 1964 World’s Fair also misread the direction of technological progress. Yet, there was one crucial difference between the collapse of the first two prophecies and that of the last one. What eventually discredited the predictions of unmetered electricity and holidays on the moon was their failure to appear over time. In contrast, scepticism about the imaginary future of artificial intelligence was encouraged by exactly the opposite phenomenon: the increased likelihood of people having personal experience of computers. After using these imperfect tools for manipulating information, it was much more difficult for them to believe that calculating machines could evolve into sentient superbeings.

Despite the failure of its prophecy, IBM suffered no damage. In stark contrast with nuclear power and space travel, computing was the Cold War technology which successfully escaped from the Cold War. Right from the beginning, machines made for the US military were also sold to commercial clients. By the time that IBM built its pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, the imaginary future of artificial intelligence had to hide more than the unsavoury military applications of computing. Exhibition value also performed its classic function of concealing the role of human labour within production. The invention of computers came at an opportune moment for big business. During the first half of the 20th century, large corporations had become the dominant institutions of the American economy. Henry Ford’s giant car factory became the eponymous symbol of the new social paradigm: Fordism.

Long before the invention of the computer, corporations were running an information economy with tabulators, typewriters and other types of office equipment. However, by the beginning of the 1950s, the mechanisation of clerical labour had stalled. Increases in productivity in the office were lagging well behind those in the factory. When the first computers appeared on the market, corporate managers quickly realised that the new technology offered a solution to this pressing problem. The work of large numbers of tabulator operators could now be done by a much smaller group of people using a mainframe. Even better, much more information about many more topics could now be collected and processed in increasingly complex ways. Managers were masters of all that they surveyed.

In Asimov’s sci-fi stories, Mr and Mrs Average were the owners of robot servants. Yet, when the first computers arrived in America’s factories and offices, this new technology was controlled by the bosses not the workers. In 1952, Kurt Vonnegut published Player Piano, a sci-fi novel which satirised the authoritarian ambitions of corporate computing. In his dystopian future, the ruling elite had delegated the management of society to an omniscient artificial intelligence.

For business executives, this nightmare was their daydream. According to the prophets of artificial intelligence, the computerisation of clerical work was only the first step. When thinking machines were developed, mainframes would completely replace most forms of administrative and technical labour within manufacturing. The ultimate goal was the creation of the fully-automated workplace. In the imaginary future of artificial intelligence, the corporation and the computer would be one and the same thing. As the US military had already fortuitously discovered, machinery could operate much more efficiently without any human intervention. By building predetermined responses into the design, an inanimate weapon acted according to ‘feed-back’ from its environment. According to Norbert Wiener, the advent of mainframe heralded the remoulding of the whole of society in the image of a new technological paradigm: cybernetics.

The corporate vision of cybernetic Fordism meant forgetting the history of Fordism itself. Ironically, since their exhibition value was more closely connected to social reality, Democracity and Futurama in 1939 provided a much more accurate prediction of the development path of computing than the IBM pavilion did in 1964. Just like motor cars 25 years earlier, this new technology was also slowly being transformed from a rare, hand-made machine into a ubiquitous, factory-produced commodity. Like Ford’s motor cars before them, IBM’s mainframes were manufactured on assembly-lines. These opening moves towards the mass production of computers anticipated what would be most important advance in this sector 25 years later: the mass consumption of computers. The imaginary future of artificial intelligence was a way of avoiding thinking about the likely social consequences of this development. As Norbert Wiener himself had pointed out, increasing ownership of computers was likely to disrupt the existing social order. The ‘feedback’ of information within human institutions was most effective when it was two-way:

...the simple coexistence of two items of information is of relatively small value, unless these two items can be effectively combined in some mind...which is able to fertilise one by means of the other. This is the very opposite of the organisation in which every member travels a preassigned path...3

At the 1964 World’s Fair, this possibility was definitely not part of IBM’s imaginary future. Rather than aiming to produce large numbers of ever smaller and cheaper machines, the corporation was convinced that computers would always be large and expensive mainframes. If this path of technological progress was extrapolated, artificial intelligence must surely result. This conservative recuperation of cybernetics implied that sentient machines would inevitably evolve into lifeforms which were more advanced than mere humans. IBM would eventually produce the AI which would manage workers on behalf of the ruling elite. The Fordist separation between conception and execution would have achieved its technological apotheosis.

Not surprisingly though, IBM was determined to veil this unsettling interpretation of its own futurist propaganda. At the 1964 World’s Fair, the corporation’s pavilion emphasised the utopian possibilities of computing. Above all, IBM promoted a single vision of the imaginary future which combined two incompatible interpretations of artificial intelligence. If only at the level of ideology, the corporations had reconciled the class divisions of 1960s America. In the imaginary future, workers would no longer need to work and employers would no longer need employees. The sci-fi fantasy of artificial intelligence had successfully distracted people from questioning the impact of computing within the workplace. After visiting IBM’s pavilion at the 1964 World’s Far, it was all too easy to believe that everyone would win when the machines acquired consciousness.Inventing New FuturesForty years later, we’re still waiting for the imaginary future of artificial intelligence. Despite continual advances in hardware and software, machines are still incapable of ‘thinking’. Instead of evolving into thinking machines, computers have become consumer goods. Room-sized mainframes have shrunk into desktops, laptops and mobile phones. Computers are everywhere in the modern world – and their users are all too aware that they’re dumb.

Repeated failure should have discredited the imaginary future of artificial intelligence for good. The persistence of this fantasy demonstrates the continuing importance of exhibition value within the computer industry. As in the early 1960s, artificial intelligence still provides a great cover story for the development of new military technologies. Bringing on the Singularity seems much more friendly than collaborating with American imperialism. Even more importantly, this imaginary future continues to disguise the impact of computing within the workplace. Both managers and workers are still being promised technological fixes for socio-economic problems. The dream of sentient machines makes better media copy than the reality of the cybernetic Fordism of the 1960s.

Looking back at how earlier versions of the prophecy were repeatedly discredited should encourage deep scepticism about its contemporary iterations. Forty years after the New York World’s Fair, artificial intelligence has become an imaginary future from the distant past. What is needed instead is a much more sophisticated analysis of the potential of computing. The study of history should inform the reinvention of the future. Above all, this new image of the future should celebrate computers as tools for augmenting human intelligence and creativity. Exhibition value must give way to use value. Praise for top-down hierarchies of control must be superseded by the advocacy of two-way sharing of information. Let’s be inspired and passionate about imagining new visions of the better times to come.

Richard Barbrook <richard AT>  works for the Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster