LAS VEGAS — So, it’s the first day of the Consumer Electronics Show
(CES) and I’m stuck in a nerd queue long enough to wrap twice around the
Death Planet in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. You can spot me, because I’m
the one reading a book (Enough by Donald E. Westlake). One of my
fundamental rules of life is: “You never know when you’re gonna get
stuck someplace. Take a book.”
This is not a fundamental rule for
anyone else here. CES is a technology get-together. A book is not a
technology; you can tell because it lacks a ring-tone.
I’m elbowing my way through the rubberneckers, booth-babes,
propeller-heads and bald albinos on the CES show floor — a scene only
Fellini could truly appreciate. I happen to mention to a guy beside me
that “I don’t carry a phone.” “Oh my God!” he goes. He turns to stare.
first, he smiles. He thinks I’m joshing. When he realizes I’m not, he
looks as though I’d just said I prefer to first decapitate the toddlers I
abduct on weekends, before raping them and feeding them — in bite-size
morsels — to my pet crocodile. The guy leaves, hurriedly.
fit in here. For instance, I’m in line again. I mark my book and
attempt conversation. The queue itself reminds me of this nature show I
saw — about the rather scary mating habits of king cobras. I broach the
subject, facetiously. More stares.
Later, hearing someone
mention portable music devices, I home in on the wrong word (“music”)
and I eagerly relate the remarkable tale of how Norman Granz, founder of
Verve records, sat Art Tatum down in 1953 to record what later came to
be known as Tatum’s “solo masterpieces.” But Tatum played piano. A
piano, despite its infinity of ring-tones, is not a portable music
device. Again, I get that stare.
Finally, I take a stab at
politics, mentioning Mitt Romney’s performance at a New Hampshire
Primary debate. More stares, but this time they include a hint of fear
and loathing. (So many toddlers, so few crocodiles.)
Why do I do
this? For something like 25 straight years, I have faced conversational
futility at CES. But I never get used to being surrounded by people
whose idea of an “issue” worthy of several hours’
animated discourse is the groundbreaking reduction of bezel-width on flat-panel LCD displays from 1 inch to 1 millimeter.
My real problem? Homogeneity gives me the creeps.
in the 60’s, while I believed heart-and-soul in ending the carnage in
Vietnam, I skipped my chance to march with the Moratorium crowd. Nor did
I attend a single Gene McCarthy rally. And I neglected to sing a verse
of “Alice’s Restaurant” at my draft physical. I mean, we were all of us
united in our skepticism about the war. But I was skeptical of anti-war.
I doubted the efficacy of 100,000 people chanting the same ten
passionate words — to no one who disagreed with them — over and over
At CES, my discomfort with unanimity approaches
claustrophobia. Do these people talk of nothing but smart-phone apps,
3-D TV market penetration and SoCs? Can they? Should they?
Why would they?
what’s an SoC?I get no relief by fleeing the show, because, overflowing
the streets (well, street — everybody's on the Strip) are a million
people convinced, despite the insidious disappointment of actually being
here, that Las Vegas is a swell place to spend a) a vacation and b)
thousands of dollars that might otherwise go to their kids’ education.
of them lurch from casino to casino sucking on pastel cocktails in tall
plastic cups adorned with toothpick umbrellas. All million of them are
not carrying a book.
Although I identify with neither of these
two chillingly homogeneous populations, I get along tolerably. On the
Strip, I’m invisible. At CES, unless I foolishly expose my phonelessness
or talk about coitus among cobras, they assume I’m one of them — else
why am I here? Even if they see me gazing down at a strange analog
wireless device, occasionally turning a page, my eccentricity doesn’t
register. To me, it’s a novel. In their eyes, it could be an electronic
tablet in a novel form-factor. It might even be a prototype!
anyhow, a week or so later I’m accessing digital video on an obsolete
(one-inch bezel) TV. It shows South Carolina Primary rallies for
Republicans Romney, Gingrich and Santorum. I see, in these crowds, a
pervasive sense of security and coziness. No wonder, because all these
folks aren’t just Republicans. They are uniformly — in a state where
almost a third of the population is African-American — as white as an
And I can’t help it. I get the creeps.
realize that some of humanity’s greatest advances (noodles, for example,
and the Blues) have emerged from homogeneous peoples. But I’ve also
observed that homogeneity can turn a bad idea into an institution, by
marshalling the power of numbers and the intoxication of demagogy.
CES, the institutional credo is that everyone on earth should “consume”
costly devices full of “features” that they don’t really need and — for
the most part — don’t understand and never use. But this can’t go on,
because — the credo continues — consumers (people) should discard these
devices well before they’re worn out, in order to buy newer, costlier
models, preferably in greater numbers. The institutional credo of CES is
that this relentlessly narrowing cycle of breakneck obsolescence and
vast material waste enhances the quality of life, increases leisure and
makes consumers happy.
Which I doubt, which is why — each year at CES — I suffer a case of the creeps.
institutional credo of the Romney/Gingrich/Santorum GOP, which has
morphed in just a few dizzying generations from the Party of Lincoln to
the American Christian White People’s Party, is that “they” (as typified
by the tall dark usurper in the White House) have taken America from
“us.” And “we,” real Americans, must take it back, else our nation will
devolve into something “we can’t even (hint, hint) recognize.”
Maybe it’s me. Maybe I get the creeps too easily.
—David Benjamin is a Brooklyn-based journalist and novelist who writes
occasionally on technology issues, usually from the Luddite point of