Observations from the new millennium's first gee-whiz fair.

WORLD'S FAIRS AIN'T what they used to be. Once upon a time, they were wonder cabinets, collections of exotic curiosities from around the globe gathered under the roof of a crystal palace for the edification of all. In the late 19th century and through much of the 20th, they morphed into technological showcases featuring rocket ships, freeways, and robots. They promised fairgoers an irresistible sneak preview of the world of tomorrow.

Now consider Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, either the last fair of the old century or the first of the new millennium, depending on how you count. It offers little exotica, few grand designs, and no legacy structures like the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle. It doesn't even offer any wild rides. Its theme, "Humankind, Nature, and Technology: A New World Arising," lacks, as they say in the amusement park business, the squeal factor. The main focus of the fair is sustainable development, or rather doing more with less. One could argue that it's the first "think small" Expo.

The fair is not doing particularly well. Attendance estimates of 40 million visitors are being slashed to 25 million. And the fair is not on many people's radar screens: Already critics are saying the fair's advertising budget was too small or misspent.

The fair did make headlines a few weeks ago when Prince Ernst August of Hanover—otherwise known as Princess Caroline of Monaco's drunken lout of a husband (and a cousin of England's Queen Elizabeth)— decided to relieve himself during an official visit to the exposition. With an aide blocking the view, the prince unzipped and urinated in the vicinity of the Turkish pavilion. Photographic proof of the deed was provided by a schoolgirl who happened to get a snapshot, which went on to Internet glory courtesy of the German newspaper Bild. The German government apologized to the Turks; the Prince, nicknamed "the Punching Prince" after a dust-up with a disco owner, at first denied everything. Finally, when blow-ups of the photographic evidence proved that he was either lying or at the very least had been taking his bratwurst out for some air, he took out a full-page ad in Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung and in Clintonian style declared that he had neither relieved himself "on the wall of the pavilion nor on the property of the Turkish nation." Guess he missed.

Needless to say, the infamous spot near the Turkish pavilion has become one of Expo's greatest attractions, as school groups stop and pose for pictures.

IS THIS THE IGNOMINIOUS end of world's fairs? Will they peter out, as it were, not with a bang, but a whiz? Part of what is wrong about Expo 2000 is that it's caught in a transition. Big technology is no longer seen as a panacea. The farthest reaches of the globe are available every day via TV or the Internet. The world is studded with year-round thrill rides and amusement parks, from Euro Disney to Las Vegas. And the kinds of corporate gigantism that used to fund these fairs have gone underground. Expo 2000 has the participation of over 180 countries, a record number, but the United States is not one of them, in part because the big corporate backers who might fund a US pavilion would rather do their work as local subsidiaries: There's no particular advantage in being known as a strictly American company in this age of globalization.

On the other hand, Expo 2000 has a lot to offer. While a think-small world's fair may seem like a contradiction in terms, many countries are using the theme to demonstrate that development and technological progress need no longer be defined by how many resources you can chew up. The Japanese built a massive, airplane hangar-style pavilion out of paper and recycled cardboard tubing. The Dutch built a multilayered structure that stacks a forest and wetlands on top of a flower nursery as a creative way to respond to higher population densities: Develop vertically. Venezuela has a pavilion whose top opens and closes in response to the weather like a gigantic tropical flower, and fresh water from aquariums inside overflows to feed terraced gardens outside. The Germans take you inside a high-tech recycling plant, and the French proudly display some of their greatest technological innovations of the past, including the first electric car to go over 100 kilometers per hour.

The message is that the old world has some ideas and approaches that are ripe for the new millennium: mass transit, alternative energy, high-density development. And some of these ideas have been around a while. That French electric car? It was built in 1899! And the Germans are attempting to revive zeppelins as a means of lifting heavy cargo for things like African famine relief efforts.

Only the Chinese seem stuck entirely in the big-is-better mindset. Their pavilion contains a display promising that they'll soon be conquering the moon ࠬa 1969 and a working model of the Yangtze gorge dam project that sits in a landscape where any natural or human dimension has been smoothed away into a featureless landscape. If this massive project has any negative cultural or environmental consequences, you wouldn't know it. The Chinese, by the way, hope to host an Expo in Shanghai in 2010.

The role of high tech at the fair, specifically computers, is unsensational. Kiosks and terminals are de rigueur as information sources everywhere, and visitors use them. Luxembourg's entire pavilion is devoted to dozens of terminals where visitors can send free e-mail to anyone in the world, and the wait for a terminal is a long one. Computers and the Net seem integrated into everyone's thinking.

The fair's strong point is its vision of the future. It says that we'll have to think harder and more creatively if we're to survive on this planet, let alone survive with our creature comforts (or if those without those comforts are ever to have them). Whether we're driving electric cars or stacking ecosystems, business-as-usual is a thing of the past: It's survival of the problem-solvers, not the resource-eaters.

Expos may be an anachronistic medium for getting this message across, but it's the right message.

 
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