Soft Power and the Shanghai World Expo

This collaborative research effort investigates the relationship between the design of new media forms (public interactives) and the cultural work of global and nationalistic events.  Cara Wallis and I documented public interactives installed as part of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo.  In keeping with the nature of World Expos more generally, the Shanghai event was truly a spectacle of a digital age; the public interactives built into many pavilions were designed to announce the arrival of the future by making new interactive technological experiences available to more than 75 million visitors.

Presentation media such as films and dioramas present stories; interactive media provide the occasion for views to insert themselves into a story.  In this way, public interactives—as a particular type of media experience—provide opportunities for participants to inhabit a narrative.  The levels of narrative on offer are nuanced and complexly interwoven.  At one level there is the narrative of the content of the interactive experience.  At the Shanghai World Expo the content of many of the interactive experiences explored aspects of the Expo theme: “Better Living Future Cities.”  At another level is the narrative that performs the identity of the Pavilion sponsor.  This level of narrative was probably most evident in the national pavilions, where the interactives were also used to tell the story about the technological character of a particular nation.  At yet another level, we can read the narratives about the relationship between humans and the technological future.  For whatever else they do, public interactives also announce the technological contours of human life in the future.  They do this by staging new forms of technological encounters, by evoking new technological behaviors, and by projecting a vision of the future populated with new technological devices, services, and affordances.   We note that the public interactives built into the pavilions at the Shanghai World Expo functioned both as cultural reproductive technologies and “technologies of persuasion.”  We are working on case studies of three pavilions that enable us to elaborate the relationship between interactive experiences and the multiple narratives on display:  the China Pavilion, the U.S. Pavilion, and the Saudi Arabia Pavilion.

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