Temples of the Modern World

India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the 'temples of modern India'. India had just gained independence from the British and the government was heavily focused on building infrastructure for this young country. But Nehru's statement was more of a hope and a vision than a statement of fact because dams (or anything else) never really became the temples of modern India. (Temples remain the temples of modern India.)

Modern USA, on the other hands has many such temples dedicated to the gods of science and technology. Last weekend, I visited Chicago with family. Traveling the US with my mother is a unique experience because I get to see this country with truly foreign eyes. As my mother marveled at the unthinkably tall skyscrapers of the city, I mused at how religious the entire experience of visiting a tourist city is, even for Americans.

Consider the similarities. Temples are often imposing structures, build to intimidate the visitor. People flock to temples in hordes, often traveling long distances and spending a significant amount of time and resources to visit them. They later revel in the memories of the visit and urge others to visit. Temples are created to evoke a sense of awe in the devout. But most importantly, temples are places that help you make sense of the world outside.

This is exactly what Chicago's - or any other big American city's, for that matter - tourist industry is set up to do. As tourists shuffles from on attraction to another, they are bombarded with imagery and statistics intended to evoke a sense of awe - look at how tall this building is, how incredible the forces that are holding it up against gravity! Look at all these marvels of science and technology, see these many wonders that the natural world has to offer! In the end, they come away better equipped to make sense of this world fueled with science and technology.

Sarah Perry in her excellent essay over at Ribbonfarm talks about two distinct kind of American tourist attractions - Theme Parks and Amusement Parks. Spaces such as Chicago downtown look like Theme Parks in many respects. However, as Perry points out, Theme Parks make no claims of authenticity. However, Chicago downtown does. Temples are theme parks that claim to be authentic, real explanations of what is out there.


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