Our man at CES thinks the consumer electronics industry is selling the same old technology in new packages.
LAS VEGAS There's something about Vegas — the milling herds on the strip, the weird colorations and flamboyant plumage of the mingling species, the overt mating rituals and the call of the wild — that brings the zoo to mind. This sensation is magnified every January during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) — perhaps for no other reason than the sight of all those exhibitors in "booths."
They all have this vague aspect of caged beasts, trapped by corporate obligation in a space far smaller than is healthy or sane, each one exuding an air of either languor or frustrated vitality. They tend toward a subtle, sweet, sickly aroma, like disinfected manure. And the worst thing is — like the zoo — no one looks quite "natural."
By now, we know how zoo animals look in real life. This is the high-definition era of the Discovery Channel, National Geographic TV, Animal Planet and David Attenborough on PBS. The critters who, in the zoo, are inert, dusty, or sleeping unseen in their concrete dens have been amply previewed in our living rooms, in living color: an osprey plucking from the sea a silvery fish and disappearing into the sun on wings of flame; a polar bear plunging through the Arctic ice to throttle a white whale.
By the time we get to the zoo, alas, nothing much we see is new.
So also with CES.
As I monitored a marathon of Day One press conferences, followed by Day Two "keynotes," Day Three something-or-other and Day Four yada-yada-yada, I tried to think of anything new that's been invented in consumer electronics since, say, 1967. All this hype and glory — 140,000 geeks rubbernecking in Sin City — boils down to six homely categories: phones, TV sets, record albums, hi-fi, cameras and home movies?
Wait, wait, you say! What about GPS?
And I reply: Come on! You never heard of Telstar?
Yes, in 41 years since the first CES, the old gadgets all have new media and new technologies. Their "form factors" have evolved. They've gone from analog to digital, from wires to fibers to wireless. But, as I once heard a Parisian couscous shill admit about his menu — in the heart of the Left Bank couscous ghetto — it's all pretty much the "same stuff."
Phones, TV sets, record albums, hi-fi, cameras and home movies.
Gary Shapiro, the Consumer Electronics Association's apparent president-for-life (eat your heart out, Robert Mugabe), opened CES with warnings that his industry — like the zoo — is haunted by the specter of extinction. Shapiro's speech dwelt on the horrid danger that, somehow, Congress might wipe out "free trade" and kill thousands of innocent products before they could migrate to their rich pre-Christmas grazing grounds.
I smiled at this. Fearing for free trade in the predatory capitalism of America 2008 is a little like "defending marriage" in the most wedding-obsessed city in the world's marryingest nation. Have you tried to lift an issue of "Brides" magazine lately?