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San Francisco Needs A 21st-Century International Exposition

Tonight I attended a panel discussion at the Commonwealth Club commemorating the 100th year after the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  All that I have read about that particular World's Fair makes me wish I had been alive in 1915 to attend it.  San Franciscans hunger for a recreation of their glorious past.  The obvious answer is to stage a new World's Fair that takes the PPIE spirit to a whole new level for the 21st Century.

The commemorations of this event began last Saturday with our Mayor and some historical reenactors at the Palace of Fine Arts.  I missed the fun and I'm pretty sure only a few thousand people could have attended.  Contrast that with the multitudes who came from around the United States to attend the PPIE in 1915.  The Commonwealth Club's panel of historians noted that the PPIE sponsors planned ahead to build hotels and railroad connections that facilitated the transit of tourists with money to spend.  The natural economic stimulus multiplied San Francisco's post-earthquake rebuilding effort.

One of the panel's final observations was to consider whether convening another fair like the PPIE would be feasible today.  The attraction of commercial conventions like CES in Las Vegas is obvious.  People today still like to travel to conclaves where they can personally witness technology exhibits, just as they did when the PPIE displayed that era's mechanical and electrical marvels.  The difference today is the prevalence of virtualization as a substitute for a physical presence.  Virtual reality interfaces like Oculus Rift promise to make the remote manipulation of physical objects an everyday activity.  Convening a future World's Fair here in the Bay Area must take this into account.

Here's my modest proposal for a Virtual San Francisco World's Fair.  The "virtual" part needs enough online activities to entice a Web audience to participate.  Publishing some addictive freemium games online, with instant machine language translation for non-English speakers, solves the problem of generating interest in developing countries whose people cannot come to a physical World's Fair.  Linking the virtual stuff to geolocated events in San Francisco closes the circle for tourists with the money and means to travel here.

The panelists mentioned that World's Fairs and other mass events tend to be tied to a local redevelopment effort.  The most obvious candidate neighborhood for redevelopment in San Francisco is the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard.  It has plenty of space for the local component of a virtual World's Fair.  A few tens of millions to clean up some industrial waste is all it takes to make a pristine fairground.

World's Fairs continue today with little attention in mass media.  They lack attention because they have become sterile corporate blah-fests that do not capture the spirit of the times.  Notable World's Fairs like the PPIE, the 1939 New York World's Fair, and the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition succeeded because they captured the zeitgeist of their respective eras.  The PPIE heralded the end of the Belle Epoque, the Victorian Era, and the Gilded Age.  World War One brought the modern era into being and the PPIE's organizers were wise not to postpone their fair as war clouds gathered.

When San Francisco decides to hold its next International Exposition, it must be timed to match the Fourth Turning general dynamics that drive history.  The Strauss-Howe generational saeculum has entered a crisis period in most of the Anglo-West.  The crisis will not be resolved without a world-shattering cataclysm, with Indian and Chinese demographic confrontations over the food-water-energy security nexus as the most likely trigger.  San Francisco should plan its Expo for a date when that future crisis has passed.  Hunter's Point will be derelict for years to come.  It will be vacant and ready for the world's technology exhibits in a post-crisis cultural high.  San Francisco will then reclaim its role as America's Pacific Rim gateway, and a postwar Pacific Rim will look to America for ways to rebuild.