In 1965, if you wanted to see what the future was going to look like, you could go to the New York World’s Fair. Under the giant green Moon Dome of the Transportation & Travel Pavilion, you could see the future of space travel; at the DuPont exhibit, you could see futuristic fabrics featured in a musical comedy about chemistry; at the Hall of Science, kids could play radioactive waste disposal in Atomsville, USA; and at the General Motors Futurama II exhibit, you could watch vacationers lounging in underwater cities, and see how in the future trees will be felled with laser beams.
One of the more spectacular exhibits was IBM’s People Wall, a giant grandstand that lifted the visitors into a spectacular “gunite-spayed steel egg, about the size of a Navy blimp,” where they would be bombarded with futuristic images on 14 different screens in what was supposed to be a visual display of state-of-the-art computer data processing. (I have no idea what gunite is, but it sounds futuristic.)
The Utah-born poet May Swenson (1913-1989) visited the People Wall in 1965, where she noted the irony of our bright, problem-solving, high-tech future presented in the impersonal form of an amusement park ride.
Swenson had an eye for images of the space age. The subjects of her poems include the 1964 flight of the first U.S.-built Lunar probe Ranger 7, the letdown of the astronauts aboard Gemini 5 when its 1965 launch was delayed by weather, and the Apollo moon landings. She wrote about planetary orbits, the Big Bang theory, the solar corona, watching Jupiter and its moons, and she wrote a poem comparing DNA to Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”.
In this imagery, Swenson saw the mixed and sometimes comic human motivations driving us to use technology to escape our limits. Her portraits of people using technology are not always ironic, but “The People Wall” is an acid image of the dehumanizing potential of our computerized future. Visitors to the IBM exhibit are filed away by clerks into the “12 varicolored shelves” of a giant grandstand bedecked in patriotic bunting, at a rate of “500 every 20 minutes.” The poem highlights the careful measurements taken as people move onto the ride. “All but their names are known,” not because the IBM clerks know everything about the visitors, but because all they need to know is how many females, males, and juveniles they have aboard.
Once the visitors are filed away on the shelves, they can sit back, relax (no smoking, please), and leave their heads behind as they are fed into the giant computer egg which will demonstrate how their minds work – not so much by what IBM puts up on its 14 screens, but by the visitors’ willingness to be filed and processed for a glimpse of a Disneyfied future.
In the last part of the poem, the People Wall is juxtaposed with a giant Plinko board, a contraption first devised by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton to demonstrate the Theory of the Frequency of Errors, what scientists call the Central Limit Theorem, and what Francis Galton most appropriately named The Supreme Law of Unreason. Put enough people in one place, and they will fall into patterns as predictable as mindless plastic balls, “bouncing once before they/ settle into the common heap.”
The idea of technology stripping away our humanity is a common theme, but why? Sometimes the critique has to do with technologically enabled consumersim, political and economic control systems, war, or our tendency to be drugged into a stupor by mindless amusements.
That doesn’t seem to what Swenson is doing here. Her concern is more fundamental: the challenge of maintaining an identity in the face of the fact that when you consider enough of us at once, human behavior, like most anything else, often falls into patterns that, given enough data and computing power, can be predicted.
The People Wall* Prodded by the smiles of handsome clerks, they file into the narrow slits, and are filed, 500 every 20 minutes on 12 varicolored shelves. All are carefully counted; all but their names are known. It's been shown that 50 hips from the Midwest, mainly female, with a random sprinkling of male and juvenile, can fit into any given row, elbow to elbow along the rail, heels hooked under the padded 8-inch-wide seat bar. Now the steep drawer is filled, all the heads are filed, the racks closed by the clerks at the ends of each aisle. "Hello there!" calls the sartorically perfect head clerk, let down on a circular podium to stand as if in the air. He's propped like a stopped pendulum in front of the wall of people all filed and smiling. It's a colorful assortment of United States faces, good- looking for the most part, fun-ready, circus- expectant, and bright as a box of glazed marzipan. "Hello there, all you people!" Twirling his microphone cable like a lariat: "Do you know where you're going on this Fair day? You're going to be lifted…by mighty hydraulic arms… straight up…90 feet…up into The Egg! In there you're going to learn how your mind works… in color…on 15 separate screens…a show that will show you how you all think! What do you think of that? Now just relax. Lean back. And no smoking, please. Everybody comfortable? No need to hold on to anything. Don't hold on to your hats, or even your heads. Just lean back and get ready for a pleasant ride backwards…There you go! Up…up…up into the World of the Computers!" Down on the ground, thousands of identical plastic balls cascade through the maze of the Probability Machine, repeatedly testing the Theory of the Frequency of Errors. Clicking musically, they choose their individual ways down, bouncing once before they settle into the common heap. Each ball might land in any one of the 21 chutes, yet each chute fills to about the same height each time the balls descend. The magic curve completes itself. All balls have fallen, and form a more or less symmetrical black hill. A cheerful bell trills. The People Wall rises. All heads, filed and smiling, are fed into The Egg. *At the IBM pavillion, New York World's Fair, 1965.
From May Swenson’s New & Selected Things Taking Place (Boston: Atlantic/Little Brown, 1978), originally published in Half Sun, Half Sleep: New Poems (New York: Scribner’s, 1967). Reprinted in accordance with the Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry