CES: The Festival of Frivolity

Olivia Solon just wrote a brilliant piece in The Guardian about the inanity of the Consumer Electronics Show. I worry the situation may even be more dire than she suggests.

Solon notes that the show’s theme — “whoa” features prominently on its website and in various speech intros — evidences less true innovation to meet real needs, and more about “…incrementally improved nice-to-haves for the 1%.”

She goes on to recap various product demos gone wrong, while questioning the utility of, say, robotic suitcases or voice-activated ovens. I couldn’t help but think the same thing as I saw promos for apps that let beautiful people order home delivery of chocolate and strawberries while traveling, or listened to panel discussions about the inevitability of VR as a thing that’ll make all other things somehow better.

What paucity of vision.

There was a time when new consumer electronics products did things that might not be wholly necessary, but certainly evidenced drastic improvements in experience and benefits. I remember the first VTRs and what they meant for capturing and sharing what had until then been fleeting video experience. My brain nearly exploded the first time I heard a CD (Mussorsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition), and vowed on the spot to replace my entire record collection.

Go back further in history, and home refrigeration drastically improved nutrition and health (while disrupting the ice business), and telephones brought families and businesses closer together than ever before possible. Those innovation were necessary.

The vast majority of devices showcased at this year’s CES evidence no such step changes; as Solon says, they’re mostly “incremental,” to which I’d add that the basic benefit they deliver to consumers is to make it easier to consume.

There’s a bigger trend afoot: Northwestern’s Robert Gordon believes that American productivity improvements were a one-time deal, and that the latest tech innovations will do little to improve the economy (or, by association, our living standards).

Life may not get any better, but it’ll be easier to share its shortcomings via social media.

Also, while those earlier technology innovations came without overt implications for public policy, we are now becoming increasingly aware of the impact using the latest tech tools can have on privacy, social justice, or the environment.

Or not. And there’s the rub.

There’s so much crap in our world that needs fixing, and many of us still harbor hope that technology may help us solve them (assuming we’re allowed to explore openly the potential trade-offs without getting called Luddites).

So where are the smartphones that eat carbon dioxide from the air, and use it for fuel? What about 3D printers that run on organic gunk and yield steaks or ice cream? Where are the communications devices that let us feel one another’s emotions, so we can swap empathy instead of dumb photos?

It doesn’t have to be about breakthroughs alone, though.

Autonomous driving is about safety more than entertainment. VR could replace fuel-consuming travel with digital presence, and smart homes might be more sustainable.

It’s no big secret that millennials supposedly care about about purpose, and want meaning from the products they use or consume. You’d think these themes would be front and center in how tech marketers position their products.

Nope. Instead, it’s all about ordering those strawberries on the way home from work, along with lots of other things that nobody necessarily wants.

You couldn’t come up with a better example of an elite disconnected from the rank-and-file; and, if politics are any indication, the risks of tolerating that distance range from disinterest to active rejection.

One of my mentors in marketing once told me that it was easier to sell aspirin than vitamins, because needs are far more compelling than wants.

Maybe next year.