Source of the Tech Cornucopia

Lots of people are carping about capitalism nowadays. For example, Oliver James at the Guardian complains of a “Blatcherism” that is “extremely bad for your mental health.”

Perhaps he would be cheered up by an “ephemeral film” about the “world of tomorrow” exhibition sponsored by Westinghouse at the 1939 World’s Fair. As the Prelinger Archive explains,

This drama illustrates the contribution of free enterprise, technology, and Westinghouse products to the American way of life. The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair pits an anti-capitalist bohemian artist boyfriend against an all-American electrical engineer who believes in improving society by working through corporations. The Middletons experience Westinghouse’s technological marvels at the Fair and win back their daughter from her leftist boyfriend.

Definitely worth it for the camp speaking styles, and the whiny kid complaining that “all the good jobs are taken–all we have to look forward to is WPA-University!” The boho dude’s dismissal of the “temple of capitalism” at minute 19 is also priceless.

The 1939 film reminded me of how fast technology that once seemed frivolous or excessive can become a near-given. It shouldn’t take a dishwashing competition between “Mrs. Modern” and “Mrs. Drudge” to teach this, but it helps.

But I was left thinking: was it just “capitalism” that produced all these technical marvels? Brett has consistently reminded us of the slippery distinctions between market interventions into government and government interventions into markets. When I think of the biggest innovations I’d like to see at a World’s Fair of 2020 (say, better solar energy, better desalination, bird flu vaccines), it’s very hard for me to imagine how a pure market is going to lead to them. Some efforts to internalize externalities (like the tax on oil companies just filibustered to death in the Senate) are necessary. The internet’s development provides one model:

Nathan Newman[‘s Net Loss] . . . chronicles the federal government’s leading role in creating, and then privatizing, the Internet. Net Loss . . . dispels the myth that the Internet emerged full-blown as a result of entrepreneurial risk in a competitive marketplace[.]

P.S.: The “Mad Men” style sexism of the film definitely undermines the “narrative of progress” it’s trying to convey…and I’m sure Paul Butler’s take on the Speluncean explorers debate (112 Harv. L. Rev. 1917 (1999)) could be the basis of a good comment on the maid in the drama.