Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More
The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.
He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).
Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.
LAS VEGAS -- The more time I spent wandering the great halls of the convention center, the more I grew obsessed with how conference booths were designed. From the choice of floor covering to the arrangement of products, every company was trying to say something, even if it wasn't always clear what.
The oddest manifestation of this newfound interest is the gallery you see above. It's a bunch of (mostly) stock photos that different companies used to illustrate their products. Stock photos like this tell you nothing about a product, obviously. They could be used to sell salad or cell phones. Stock photos are photographic emoticons. They tell you how a product will make you feel.
I found all these particular specimens in South Hall, but they were scattered pretty evenly throughout the thousands of booths. I'd say one in four booths made heavy use of them, though not all stock photos are quite as ridiculous as these.
LAS VEGAS -- "Hey, man, do you want a free beer?" the bearded man asked as I walked by his booth. Like any good conference attendee, of course I said yes. He handed me a card. On one side, there was an image of Jesus Christ with an Xbox 360 controller in his hands, a headset in place of a crown of thorns, and a Twitter bird on his arm. On the other, there were the details for a USB stick giveaway, and the note that for four hours a day, they'd be giving away free Sam Adams bottles to passersby.
"Are you a Christian game developer?" I asked.
"No," he said. "We are just here telling people that Jesus loves them, making sure they hear that Jesus loves them."
This is the GameChurch.com booth, which consisted largely of tattooed, skater-style hipsters wandering around talking about Jesus and videogames. It turns out GameChurch is a Christian gaming website. Their slogan: "We are all for killing pixels on a screen but loving people in real life. Love Without Agenda."
The site is part of Fireproof Ministries, a site founded by Craig Gross, a former youth pastor with edgy hair. Gross aims to spread the word through "culturally relevant" programs, reaching people outside traditional church events. GameChurch is actually a junior member of Fireproof's website network. The original site was XXXchurch.com, which tries to connect with people making or looking for pornography.
XXXChurch actually sent a team to the Adult Entertainment Expo with a simple message: "Jesus loves porn stars." Or as the man at the GameChurch booth explained, "Jesus loves porn stars. He loves people wherever they're at."
LAS VEGAS -- Two retired cops, one from New York, the other from Dallas, were sitting on a black faux-leather couch off a hallway of Central Hall. Both are men of a certain age. Bruce Powell, the Texan, has a glorious belly and moves like an old athlete, creaky but graceful. He calls the New Yorker, Artie Mahor, his partner. Artie, dapper in a surprising pink shirt, is the suspicious type, and he's not too sure he wants a reporter sniffing around the CES security apparatus. He would be the bad cop, at least from my perspective. In fact, he'll later tell me that he thinks "the press is a greater threat to the security of the United States than Osama bin Laden." And he tried to look me in the eye while he said it. But terrorists don't like to make eye contact, so I laughed into my shoes.
There's a woman in the room, too. Mrs. Davidson, I think I hear her called. She's the sweet, silent type and listens with admirable patience as the boys tell her stuff that it seems impossible she could care about.
They'd just finished lunch when I wandered into their midst and sat down. Powell was finishing up a Coke, which he got up to throw away. On his way back in, he let forth a tremendous belch, a and excused himself. "One Coke and look at me," he said. He struck me like a gentleman. Or at least he seemed gentle, with his nicely combed gray hair, hearing aids, and made-for-walking sneakers. You wanted him to be your grandpa and teach you how to fix a car or use a band saw. He now lives in Arkansas near the Crater of Diamonds State Park.
There'd been a third ex-cop in the room before. A guy by the name of Ron Duffy, who was one of the higher-ups in the Consumer Electronics Show security team. He'd been a Chicago beat cop, and took a joking (but real) pleasure in being the boss of Powell, who retired as a captain.
Duffy was cut from a different cloth from either of the other, too. His passion was drag racing, and he even brought out photos of his son's hotrod to prove it. He got his start in the part-time convention security business at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago. He'd been helping guard CES shows for 17 years, since back in the days when the show was held twice a year, once in Chicago and once in Las Vegas.
The key to the job, he said, was to "try to create the atmosphere and perception -- perception! -- that Big Brother is watching." It didn't seem like there was too much crime or punishment going on at the show. In fact, Duffy, out of all those 17 years, couldn't think of a single war story, a single crime, or a single interesting incident. Mainly, he pointed out that doing hired-gun security work was a great way to make some coin in retirement.
He was about the equivalent of a captain, I'd reckon. He had a special go-cart in the hall to help him get around the show to meetings and such. It had his name written on it. There were three other guys like him, and then a security director above them. All the plainclothes security guys had been cops.
Duffy eventually had to run off to a meeting, and I was left with the two other ex-cops. We sat on opposite leather couches in the narrow room with Mrs. Davidson to my left behind a desk. Break time was over and they were readying themselves to head out and inspect the show floor.
I asked if I could come along, the equivalent of a ridealong or something. When Duffy'd been there, he hadn't seemed opposed, exactly, to my presence, but I'd noticed a creeping sense that I wasn't wanted. Mahor didn't like the look of me. Still, I pressed my request.
First, Mahor said if I tagged along all I'd see was them looking at people. Exactly! I said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. "So I can come along?"
He eyed me. "Have you gotten this cleared?" he asked.
I felt my throat tighten a bit. I felt like he was about to shutdown my house party for not having the right permits. He'd used his cop magic on me.
"Well, no, I haven't run this by anyone, specifically," I said, silently stifling the urge to toss in a "sir."
"No?" he said. "Then you can't come. It's nothing personal."
There was a down beat. The two ex-cops, me, and Mrs. Davidson sat there quietly. Then Powell patted his big hands on his big knees, and pushed off from the couch.
"Ok, killer," he said.
LAS VEGAS -- Vegas is a karaoke-loving place. Respectable steakhouses turn into grim amateur hours at a moment's notice. One minute you're chewing a decent sirloin, the next some guy is shoulder thrusting his way through Warren G's "Regulate." So I shouldn't have been surprised when my quiet dinner with This American Life's Starlee Kine turned into a besotted karaoke extravaganza. But I was.
It went on and on and on with mostly predictable results, but there was one moment that spread a thin layer of sweetness over the whole proceeding. A large guy in a Baltimore Ravens tracksuit got up and confessed to the audience, "I feel like an old man singing 'My Girl.' But I've been coming to CES for years and years and I already miss my wife." This turned out to be George.
After his sterling rendition of the Motown hit, Starlee and I accosted George to find out the secrets of long-term love. After all, CES seems like the kind of place where people go to destroy marriages not affirm them (in front of a crowd of strangers).
"I'm old fashioned," he said. "I don't want nobody else." Then he told us a very Vegas story that manages to warm the heart about getting dragged to a strip club by some old business associates when he really wanted to be talking to his wife.
I've been coming to CES for so long, and all the guys would always want to go to strip clubs. So, I was on my phone a strip club and there is this girl in front of me on a pole and she's dancing. She says, "You don't like what you see? Put the phone down." Then she says, "Who you talking to?" I say, "My wife." And she goes, "Get the hell out of here." I gave her the phone, and I said, "I'm here for [my coworkers] not for this."
Your mileage may vary when you hand the phone to a stripper while talking to your partner, but the moral of the story may be a good one for CES attendees to consider. As an old friend used to say, "It's never too late to make a good decision." So, you might have been dragged to a strip club in Vegas, but you can always pay more attention to your wife than the show. It worked for George, who decamped soon after finishing his story for the nightly chat with his wife. They've been married for more than 30 years.
LAS VEGAS -- Walking around the CES showroom floor, there is one specific cultural group that stood out to me. (No, it was not the booth models.) A surprising number of Hassidic Jews seemed to be exhibiting at and walking around the show.
When I wondered about that out loud on Twitter, a variety of New Yorkers told your humble West Coast lifer, "Duh, that's because of B&H." Apparently, B&H Electronics was founded and continues to be run by Hassidim.
"Known as 'Beards and Hats' because of the many Hasidic Jews who work there, B&H has become an authentic New York experience," the Associated Press wrote in 2006. "Shopping there is akin to ordering a pastrami on rye at Katz's Delicatessen."
The AP continued: "Ask how business is going and you get this: 'Baruch Hashem,' or 'Blessed be God' -- meaning, roughly, 'Thanks to God, things are good.'"
Like any successful company, some of its employees have gone on to found their own competitors and variations on the theme. So, now there are several electronics distributors run by Hassidic Jews that are here at CES.
I stopped to chat with Asher Shtesl, the CEO of one such company, Ideal Sales of Brooklyn, New York. They're a classic middleman operation: they buy from the manufacturers and they sell to independent electronics stores. They've long focused on photographic equipment but have been expanding their reach into more general electronics. Shtesl said he's built his business from a basement operation 10 years ago into a "multimillion dollar" enterprise now.
And how does being Hassidic impact the business? "People look at us as very honest people," he offered.
Image: Shtesl is flanked by his salesmen Joel Fischbein (left) and Leo Kish (right).
The Consumer Electronics Show is where all the gadgets you need and don't need come together to find out which category they belong in. CES (as it is always known) is defined by its scale: 2,700 exhibitors showing their wares on 1.6 million square feet of the Las Vegas Convention Center. It is a kind of profane Mecca for the tech world, and it spills out into the streets and hotel rooms of Vegas for days on end. It is obviously appropriate that the party is held in the nation's symbol for the wanton satisfaction of consumer desire.
It is what the Detroit Auto Show used to be: a place where America's industry got dolled up and went out with its new models, strutting to the smooth sounds of the near future. The show wasn't just about products but about creating the look and feel of the next year. There was a culture to it, and it was part of the culture.
Decades of advances in electronics have made our phones and computers the types of cultural objects that cars once were. The industry that makes them is rich and powerful. The CEOs of the most important companies are objects of veneration and disgust, they are celebrities.
Thinking about CES, I found myself reflecting on something Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story, told me back in August about the time he spends in upstate New York.
"Sitting at a fine restaurant, what's everyone talking about? They're talking about apps! These are their golden years and they are spending them talking about apps," Shteyngart said. "They would have talked about Portnoy's Complaint in the '60s and The Godfather in the '70s. There is enough to talk about, but technology has subsumed a lot of this culture."
Gary obviously saw this as a major problem. He saw technology as something outside culture that was destroying the appreciation of italicized art forms like books and movies. But let's look at it the other way. Let's say, yes, technology is culture, and let's try to think about the dynamics of this industry and the products it makes as objects worthy of critical thought beyond whether or not they "work" for whatever purpose we might give them.
All that to say, I'm headed to CES tonight to write about the show, but expect profiles and dispatches, not reports on gadgets. I'm going to try to tell you stories from the trenches about how the people of the electronics industry work, while salting that deeper coverage with some of the whizbang of the showroom floor. (Those are like this movie's sex scenes, you could say.) If you want wall-to-wall gizmos, you can look to the excellent teams at Wired, Gizmodo, and Engadget. What we're after is more cultural coverage about the consumer electronics industry. Look for a day-in-the-life of a booth babe or a night out with the Ukrainian delegation, or maybe an up-close portrait of 50 Cent's appearance paired with a Viennese collective's performance at the simultaneously held Adult Entertainment Expo.
And I'll try to bring some context to the development of the industry, too. The paucity of consumer electronics history is surprising. So, to kick us off, let's go all the way back to 1967, when the very first CES was held in New York City. Bob Gerson's short history of that time lets us imagine what it would have been like.
But to get some excitement and a strong opening-day crowd, Sunday evening featured "A Night At The Waldorf." It was the industry's biggest gala ever. For just $10 each, attendees were treated to an hour-long open-bar reception, a full dinner and entertainment featuring comic Dick Shawn and songstress Jane Morgan, with music for dancing supplied by the Ray Block orchestra.
Thanks to the magic of YouTube, we can see what the Dick Shawn, Jane Morgan, and Ray Block Orchestra might have sounded like.
First, let's warm up with a little dancing with the orchestra.
Then, while you're wiping your brow and grabbing a drink, Dick Shawn would have come on to do a quasi-vaudeville routine:
And finally, Jane Morgan kicks it up a notch with a little French-pop song, "C'est Si Bon."
And on that note, see you in Vegas. If you're in town, feel free to get in touch via Twitter (@alexismadrigal) or email.
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