In the mid-20th century, there was nary a utopian vision of the future that did not include magnetically-levitating monorails and anthropomorphic robots. When the clock struck 12:00 on January 1st, 2001, who didn’t feel deep disappointment upon realizing that we still didn’t have mechanical men around the house washing our dishes, waxing our (flying) Ford Mustangs, and making malted milkshakes? Finally in 2005, the Aichi Expo proudly fulfills the promises of the past with its Linimo maglev transport and trumpet-playing robots, but these feats all ultimately ask the question: Is this the future we’ve been waiting for?
The expansive Aichi Expo grounds sit an hour outside of Nagoya, and to “beat the crowds,” we decided to leave Kyoto as early as possible. After two train changes and a super smooth ride on the Linimo line (no wheels, no friction), we picked up our tickets, passed security (no water bottles allowed!), and found ourselves inside by 10:30 — nice! — at which point, of course, all the “reservation tickets” to the main attractions were long gone. The next ticket distribution would be at 15:00, so we had no choice but to visit the international pavilions for the next five hours.
Back in olden days, a Columbian Exposition or World’s Fair could bring the common people access to a world into which they could never venture, but now with the advent of global media and cheap international airfare, each country’s pavilion is no more than a tourist office, or at best, a experiential simulacrum for those too lazy to get a passport. (Note that for the price of going to the Expo from Tokyo, you could probably fly to Thailand.) The big countries seemed to have figured out this redundancy, and built their exhibits to be marketing masking as “edu-tainment.” The U.S.A.’s lackluster pavilion featured a film about Benjamin Franklin marveling at our modern world — complete with an iPod reference (eat that, Sony!), MC Benny F getting down to hip hop, and an exploitative nod to Native Americans’ respect of the natural environment (keep drilling that Alaskan oil, boys!). The American building was the only one with additional security — odd seeing that Ben Franklin’s a pretty neutral choice. Who hates that guy besides French Monarchists?
Most of the visitors lined up for the “major countries,” so the better strategy was to hit all the more obscure locales — the Central Asian “stans,” the Axis of Evil, and anything else post-Communist. Seeing that our everyday life is unbelievably international to start with, the Expo’s one charm is to provide exposure to the countries whose culture cannot exist on the free market. I very much enjoyed learning about Kazakhstani tents, Kyrgyzstani stuffed-animals, Uzebekstani architecture, and Tajikstani… miscellaneous. Yemen hastily put together a desert castle inside their space, so that they could open a cheap jewelry market underneath. Other countries exploited their prized commodities: Cuba sold Che paraphernalia and mojitos, while Sri Lanka went with curry and precious stones. The rich little countries — Qatar and Singapore — went crazy with super-sleek travel desks. Poorer places like Laos constructed their displays with color-matted computer print-outs.
No matter where you went, however, there was one common bond between these diverse cultural traditions: curry. Of course, Indian and Malaysian restaurants sold authentic curry dishes to the hungry masses, but when countries had a hard time finding a unique cuisine to fit the Japanese palate, Japanese companies moved in and opened up a curry stand. In Egypt, an eatery sold “Old Egyptian Curry,” which looked and tasted no different than Vermont Curry from my supermarket. In Central America, the dark-brown spicy stew showed up again on the menus as a “native” dish. Sure, curry is a pretty international food, but apparently there’s nothing in the Japanese mind that sums up the whole of the “pre-modern” world better than spicy stew over white rice (neatly divided in the dish, thank you).
At 14:30, we lined up in the hot sun behind 1,000 people, waiting for tickets to see the mammoth exhibit. With 16:00 tickets in hand and another hour to kill, we walked along the legitimately interesting Bio-Lung organic wall and then ducked into a display about Japanese water management. They spiced up the content with a gimmicky 3-D movie (watch out for the dragons coming at you!!!), which is about all you can do to make water management interesting for 8 year-olds. Before getting to ride a moving sidewalk slowly gliding past the mammoth exhibit (a Fordist approach to the spectacle), we were treated to Sony’s Laser Dream Show — a crystal-clear digital film projected onto a massively wide screen. Unfortunately, waiting in line for this event limited our ability to see any of the other main attractions — Toyota’s crazy car and robot band, the world’s biggest kaleidoscope, and the house from Totoro (only 800 visitors allowed a day!?).
Expo’s in the past — especially Montreal ’67 and Osaka ’70 — were essentially architectural showcases. We could always expect the Soviets to throw up some huge modernist monument to scientific socialism. Aichi’s pavilions are all big warehouses with minimal exterior adornment — only Spain’s hexagonal beehive facade went the extra mile. In the past, the old Expos could often veer towards a mass hedonic exploration of elitist cultural forms: contemporary composers like Stockhausen were the musical entertainment. The Aichi Expo’s theme-park internationalism proves how much the consumer market has crushed the old system of intellectuals controlling the cultural space. The world is apparently a gigantic shopping mall.
Overall, the fundamental problem plaguing this Expo was that it completely lacked imagination. As an eight-year old in the mid-’80s, I loved visiting Disneyworld’s EPCOT Center with all the space-colonization fantasies, modernist aesthetics, and hi-tech computer games. Aichi ultimately provides no visions of the future, only rational solutions to current problems. Sony’s huge digital projection is about 5% neater than what’s actually the commonplace standard, and today’s 3-D technology is no better than the days of Captain Eo. The Linimo is super smooth, but only a fraction better than the Shinkansen that got me to Nagoya. And what’s more, exploration of hydrogen fuel-cell technology, environmentally-friendly industry, and greater internationalism would be basically possible right now if it weren’t for political barriers. In the past, we were waiting on the scientists to realize our crazy ideas, but now we’re just waiting on the politicians and the big businessmen to overcome their petty personal greed and start patching up the holes.
The Expo loves to talk about solar and wind power as renewable resources, but no one takes these seriously in real life. I saw Howard Dean talk about the possibilities of reducing foreign old dependency through wind power, and my conservative friends says, “Talking about wind power just shows how far he is from the mainstream.” The Expo refuses to take any political message on the world’s (well, the U.S.’s) current environmental policies, but without political support, these environmental technologies just become sources of entertainment and not practical ways to save the earth.
Now to the robots: All this robot technology seems at first to be exciting, but you know who plays trumpet better than a robot? A human. And they’re a lot cheaper an investment too. No one needs anthropomorphic robots; we need robots to do things that humans cannot do. Japan’s robot R&D ballyhoo is just hi-tech human hyper-narcissism rather than real scientific progress. How many millions were spent to make ASIMO walk when there are infinitely better means of transportation than human-like bipedal movement? Why not build a robot that helps the elderly and rolls around the house? Instead, they’re investing massive amounts of time and money into machines who will, at worst, do low level human tasks adequately, or at best, put humans out of their jobs.
All in all, the Aichi Expo 2005 is a tiny recalculation of 1985’s vision of the future, but nothing close to a broad rethinking of human progression. No one even mentions the Internet, which is more revolutionary than all of the exhibits put together. Every day, time and space are continuing to implode, and the natural advancement of information technology may finally deliver us closer to utopia than any intentional modernist project.
They say that science-fiction is always just a comment on contemporary society, but the Aichi Expo fails to even shroud its vision in a futuristic, alien language. The world of international commerce, multicultural commodities, intercontinental travel, and environmental protection is already here for our taking. What’s in store for us after that?