Last October I went to visit the Expo 2015 in Milan, a week or two before its closure. World Fairs or Expos are that rare occasion when countries around the world mobilise an important amount of resources to take part in an event the idea of which started in 1851, as an exhibition of the works of art and industry of all nations in Hyde Park, London. Before Milan, the Expo has been to over 30 cities worldwide; Yeosu (South Korea) and Shanghai are the most recent; the next two will be in Astana (Kazakhstan) and Dubai (UAE), in 2017 and 2020, respectively. I’ve read a good deal about these exhibitions, especially those that took place in London and Paris during the nineteenth century. And so, in a way, going to Milan was revisiting what I’ve read; comparing my notes –mostly from historical sources – with the actual venue of an Expo filled as it was with thousands of visitors walking up and down the decumano (the nearly one-mile-long main promenade); queuing patiently to enter one of the 115+ pavilions; or sitting in the sun by the landscaped edges that bordered this incredibly vast site.
Fig. 1, View of the decumano from the entrance side.
Fig. 2, Signage showing different ‘countries’. Fig. 3, Queue to get in the Polish pavilion.
Fig. 4, Outside area, with food kiosks and bars, at the Future of Food quarter.
World fairs are makers of myths of futurity. By myths of futurity I mean the projection of idealized futures, often distorted, and celebrating technology, nature, the customs, products and habits of a country. Country pavilions tell you the future in their own terms, making sure that these resonate with words which are now familiar to us: sustainability, diversity, conscious consumption, fair trade and more. Of the nine thematic clusters spread across the Expo site, I decided to visit the Future of Food quarter. The centerpiece was a large hangar-like structure that housed the supermarket of the future, sponsored and conceived of by the Coop, Italy’s largest consumers’ cooperative, founded in 1967, and one of the Expo’s main partners. As we entered the building (see Fig. 5), having queued for a good 30-45 minutes, I wasn’t sure where I was. It looked familiar, in the sense that the newer airport shops or high-end supermarkets do, that is, alienating at the best of times. It took me sometime to recognize that what I saw in front of me were aisles with packed and fresh products, much in the way as in supermarket displays. The difference was that screens fitted on top of each aisle (or next to refrigerators) were activated once you pointed at a product, an apple, say, or, an organic orange juice. A lady lecturing a group of visitors explained to me that there was no need to hold the products in your hands as I did. Pointing was enough, she said. I replied, in my poor Italian, that I understood that, but preferred to take a close look at whatever product I’d buy. She smiled kindly, said nothing and left. The best, that is the oddest, was yet to come. The centerpiece within the centerpiece: a ‘print your meal’ display, explaining how you could select, order and, in their own words, print your own food. I’m yet to find out what exactly ‘printing’ means in this context. As far as I can tell, it is about creating your ‘highly personalized meal’, whereby you choose the ingredients, including their type and shape; ‘print it in real time’, which allows you to decide whether you want your tomatoes sliced, julienne or in cubes; add any nutrients and vitamins you wish; and pack it with an ‘edible spray’.
Now, the motto of Expo Milan is ‘Feeding the planet. Energy for life’.
Fig. 5, Coop’s supermarket of the future. Note the proliferation of screens, some dressing walls.
A number of very interesting events, talks, roundtable discussions did address this in a manner that was intelligent, promising and, to some extent, critical. But I really failed to see how this supermarket of the future is going to feed the planet or contribute to saving any energy, let alone do so for life. There will be an overload of information, for sure, telling customers about each product, its origin, nutritional values, carbon footprint, recommended recipes, which means that techno-foodies and those who feel comfortable around touch screens will benefit from the revamped supermarket. Call me old fashioned, or worse a Luddite, but I much rather have a butcher telling me how his last holiday was while reaching for my weekly portion of Bethnal Green sausages. The supermarket of the future is an environment that is neither revolutionary, which the Coop claims it is, nor something that suggests any new ways of feeding the planet. It is a sanitised environment, of the kind that The Jetsons, Blade Runner and many other sci-fi films and literature have foretold decades ago. It draws on the cliché and well-defined trope of the laboratory. What I found most disturbing about walking into this version of the future is that it recreates the experience of shopping at a supermarket as the performance of a lab experiment, without the white aprons, but carrying sealed bar-coded material all the same. Luhmann’s dictum at its best: it is communication not humans that communicates. Think about the 9-yr old girl who walks miles to get water from the nearest well in Africa, India, Pakistan or China. Would she care to know what the footprint of getting her water is, what the nutritional values are, the region that it comes from, the most recent recipes that she can devise in the unlikely case that she’s got more than potatoes, rice or a few vegetables to go by. The supermarket of the future is an experience for the privileged customer, something that might also be true of the future in general. The Coop supermarket is the expression of a future for the privileged: those who travelled from afar to buy 32-month aged Parmesan cheese, eat Qatari food, drink Russian vodka, take pictures of the tree of life, having paid 38 euros to get in. I am one of them, of course. My life is full of privileges. But we would do well to remind ourselves that where there is privilege there are also constraints, however distant and seemingly unrelated. Expo Milan is a fair, ‘world’ fair and all, but fair nonetheless. It is a place to have fun, be entertained and shop; a fun day out, with the family and kids, enjoy the weather should the sun shine, which it did, precisely at the very moment when I wrote this. Like any fair, there will be some memories; the more engaged visitors will have collected facts from the UN exhibits or those of country pavilions which they found most striking; the majority will have eaten and drunk something they never tried before; bought a bamboo hat or one of the colourful bowls made of jute by Colombian canasteras; perhaps fewer will have taken notice of the beautiful masked costumed figure standing halfway the decumano, dressed in luxurious fabrics and accessories, crowned by a wooden mask that brings back ancestors as is the belief in Yoruba and related Nago ethnic groups from Togo and Benin (see Fig. 6).
Fig. 6, Egungun, consisting of mask, fabrics and amulets.
Does it matter what thoughts about the future visitors took with them after their visit? Yes and no. It matters because having been to the Expo feels like a missed opportunity: did I learn, for example, how best to feed the planet in 2015? At the same time, the very nature of the event diffuses, perhaps rightly, the kind of concerns that I probably had in mind when I went. This is a fair and a place for exhibits. To most what this means is getting a chance to see in one place and for a fee what other cultures and other countries make and do, their food, their artifacts, their elaborate wares, and, as a norm, a film commissioned to tell you in anything between 3 to 12 minutes all there is to know about that country whose pavilion you visited. Fairs attract customers and sightseers. Citizens might visit and interact with the theme of the Expo in other ways. Back in the Coop supermarket a few minutes before I left, it was rewarding to see the chaotic queues at the tills –automated, of course, don’t think that there will be a cashier in the future supermarket. As long as people use them, there will be life in supermarkets, even if they resemble laboratories rather than market stalls.
Fig. 7, Customers at the tills.
Photographs Dr Carlos López Galviz
Carlos is a Lecturer in the Theories and Methods of Social Futures. His work interrogates futures thinking through the lens of ruins, cities and infrastructure. His forthcoming book will be Global Undergrounds:
Exploring Cities Within (2016).