CES 2019 is bullshit we don’t need after 2018’s techlash

6 min read

The asinine charade that is CES is running in Las Vegas this week. Describing itself as ‘the global stage of innovation’, CES attempts to set the agenda for a new year in tech. While ostensibly it’s an opportunity to see how technology might impact the lives of all of us over the next decade (or more), it is, in truth, a vapid carnival that does nothing but make the technology industry look stupid.

Okay, perhaps I’m being a fun sponge: what’s wrong with smart doorbells, internet connected planks of wood and other madcap ideas? Well, nothing really – but those inventions are only the tip of the iceberg.

Disagree? Don’t worry: you can find the biggest announcements from day one of CES 2019 here.

What CES gets wrong

Where CES really gets it wrong – and where it drives down a dead end of vacuity – is how it showcases the mind numbing rush to productize and then commercialize some of the really serious developments that could transform the world in a way that is ultimately far less trivial than the glitz and glamor of the way it is presented in the media would suggest.

This isn’t to say that there there won’t be important news and interesting discussions to come out of CES. But even the more interesting topics can be diluted, becoming buzzwords for marketers to latch onto. As Wired remarks on Twitter, “the term AI-powered is used loosely and is almost always a marketing ploy, whether or not a product is impacted by AI.” In the same thread, the publication’s account also notes that 5G, another big theme for the event, won’t be widely available for at least another 12 months.

Ultimately, what this tells us is that the focus of CES isn’t really technology – not in the sense of how we build it and how we should use it. Instead, it is an event dedicated to the ways we can sell it.

Perhaps in previous years, the gleeful excitement of CES was nothing but a bit of light as we recover from the holiday period. But this year it’s different. 2018 was a year of reckoning in tech, as a range of scandals emerged that underlined the ways in which exciting technological innovation can be misused and deployed against the very people we assume it should be helping.

From the Cambridge Analytica scandal to the controversy surrounding Amazon’s Rekognition, Google’s Project Dragonfly, and Microsoft’s relationship with ICE, 2018 was a year that made it clearer than ever that buried somewhere beneath novel and amusing inventions, and better quality television screens are a set of interests that have little interest in making life better for people.

The corporate glamor of CES 2019 is just kitsch

It’s not news that there are certain organisations and institutions that don’t have the interests of the majority at heart. But CES 2019 does take on a new complexion in the shadow of all that has happened in 2019. The question ‘what’s the point of all this’ takes on a more serious edge.

When you add in the dissent that has come from a growing part of the Silicon Valley workforce, CES 2019 starts to look like an event that, much like many industry leaders, wants to bury the messy and complex reality of building software in favor of marketing buzz.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the author Milan Kundera describes kitsch as “the absolute denial of shit.” It’s following this definition that you can see CES as a kitsch event. This is because the it pushes the decisions and inevitable trade offs that go into developing new technologies and products into the shadows. It doesn’t take negative consequences seriously. It’s all just ‘shit’ that should be ignored.

This all adds up to a message that seems to be: better doesn’t even need to be built. It’s here already, no risks, no challenges.

Developers don’t really feature at CES. That’s not necessarily a problem – after all, it’s not an event for them, and what developer wants to spend time hearing marketers talk about AI?

But if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that a culture of commercialization that refuses to consider consequences other than what can be done in the service of business growth can be immensely damaging. It hurts people, and it might even be hurting democracy.

Okay, the way to correct things probably isn’t to simply invite more engineers to CES. But by the same token, CES is hardly helping things either.

Everything important is happening outside the event

Everything important seems to be happening at the periphery of this year’s CES, in some instances quite literally outside the building.

Apple’s ad, for example, might have been a clever piece of branding, but it has captured the attention of the world.

Arguably, it’s more memorable than much of what’s happening inside the event. And although it’s possible to be cynical, it does nevertheless raise important questions about a number of companies attitudes to user data.

Another big talking point as this year’s event began is who isn’t present. Due to the government shutdown a number of officials that were due to attend and speak have had to cancel. This acts as a reminder of the wider context in which CES 2019 is taking place, in which a nativist government looks set on controlling controlling who and how people move across borders. It also highlights how euphemistic the phrase ‘consumer technology’ really is. TVs and cloud connected toilets might take the headlines, but its government surveillance that will likely have the biggest impact on our lives in the future.

Not that any of this seemed to matter to Gary Shapiro, the Chief Executive of the Consumer Technology Association (the organization that puts on CES). Speaking to the BBC, Shapiro said: “It’s embarrassing to be on the world stage with a dominant event in the world of technology, and our federal government… can’t be there to host their colleague government executives from around the world.”

Shapiro’s frustration is understandable from an organizer’s perspective. But it also betrays the apparent ethos of CES: what’s happening outside doesn’t matter.

We all deserve better than CES 2019

The new products on show at CES 2019 won’t make everything better. There’s a chance they will make everything worse. Arguably, the more blindly optimistic we are that they’ll make things better, the more likely they are to make things worse.

It’s only by thinking through complex questions, and taking time to consider the possible consequences of our decision making as developers, product managers, or business people that we can actually be sure that things will get better.

This doesn’t mean we need to stop getting excited about new inventions and innovations. But things like smart cities and driverless cars pose a whole range of issues that shouldn’t be buried in the optimistic schmaltz of events like CES. They need care and attention from policy makers, designers, software engineers, and many others to ensure they are actually going to help to build a better world for people.

Richard Gall
Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.

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