The “selfie” makes a perfect metaphor for a world’s fair: an event where the nations of Earth gather to show off what they know, and who they’re with — all with the idea of promoting a new self-image.
It’s more than a metaphor in Milan at Expo 2015. Here, world’s fair visitors take selfies with pavilion staffers in exotic Arab robes or next to mascots in the shape of giant tomatoes, all understandable. A bronze sculpture of a man sitting on a bench on the Expo’s main concourse is specifically designed with an open seat where visitors are encouraged to plop down and snap a “foto o selfie.” A fast-food vendor, James Bint Belgian Fries — a tasty successor to the famed Belgian waffles of the 1960s — encourages customers to take selfies with the company’s posters. Even Milan’s daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, advertises itself at the fair on a large flat screen with images of Italians taking pictures of themselves.
Selfies aren’t just self-promotion, they are content.
It works because fairs have become more digital, not simply as showcases for high-tech 4D multimedia experiences, but because fully experiencing a fair nowadays involves having a digital relationship to it. Everyone carries a smartphone now — a far cry from fairs in the ‘90s where cutting-edge exhibitors offered Internet cafes where guests could send an email — an actual email! — home. Young schoolchildren, who are legion in groups at the Milan fair, have smartphones and often rush up to an exhibit of, say, ancient cultural artifacts, snap innumerable pictures and move off without having looked at the actual objects. The digital, wireless revolution that puts such powerful devices as an iPhone in our hands has become the way fairs are seen, processed and remembered by millions.
A symptom of the transition to digital: Milan’s is the first Expo in my memory that does not have a post office on-site. Postcards are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, and Expo stamps for collectors only.
Still, the fair itself exists in the analog world — imaginative architecture, beautiful landscaping, vast and crowded spaces. The Milan fair is located on nearly 250 acres of land in the transition zone of industrial to agriculture on the edge of the city. It would be a bit like if Seattle built a world’s fair in Tukwila. At one end is urban Milan, on the other the fertile Po Valley, source of much of Italy’s agricultural production. A Metro subway line speeds visitors there in 20 minutes from the city center. The fair runs through October.