At Las Vegas’s 50-acre Sands Expo Center this year, a full floor was dedicated to tech companies’ pitches on how innovation might still save the world—or at least help individuals save themselves. That’s where the show’s health, wellness, fitness, and family exhibitors assembled, hawking machines that allow you to do plank exercises while flying through virtual reality and wristbands that will alert you if your elderly mom falls while home alone. Their devices interpret DNA, biometric data, facial features, caloric intake, or brain waves to optimize practically anything: skin-care products, exercise routines, grocery lists, sleeping conditions.
The products varied, but their collective point was clear. The tech industry has been widely accused of dismissing the well-being of actual humans in favor of growth and profits, but many of the people who lead it are still selling the idea that the relentless pursuit of new technology should plot the path forward. CES is one of the world’s biggest stages for tech companies to provide evidence of their value; this year, those in attendance mostly proved that they’re still not sure—or maybe just don’t care—what people want from them.
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CES takes place inside a labyrinth of Las Vegas convention centers, ballrooms, and invite-only presidential suites that are disorienting in much the same way the city’s casinos are: enormous, artificially bright, clockless spaces free from the passage of linear time and hostile even to a basic sense of spatial awareness. Inside the show, the wellness exhibition was a personal-monitoring bonanza, with almost all of the gadgets geared toward some slim category of potential self-improvement. At one booth, I sat in front of a mirror that analyzed my pores and promised to track the effectiveness of my skin-care regimen against an arbitrary ideal that the company’s representatives couldn’t quite explain. At another, I strapped a monitor to my head that claimed to encourage sleepy brain waves via smartphone game—all I had to do to win was think calm thoughts. I thought of petting my dog, but based on my score, I didn’t think of petting her very well.
Around every corner, it seemed, I found a smart scale intended to track my weight, body fat, balance, and posture over time—including one intended for kids. If you stepped on one and found the information startling, another company was standing by to make healthy grocery lists for you based on a DNA test. There were scores of smartwatches doing everything from tracking steps to measuring atmospheric pollutants, but no one selling them sounded concerned that humans have only two wrists with which to collect data, and that most interested parties probably already have an Apple Watch or Fitbit. At the booth for a corporate wellness program that lets employers monitor how effectively its workers are sleeping and exercising, I asked one of the company’s representatives if people ever complained that the program was invasive. No, he said, sounding confused—it’s just an electrode device you stick to your chest. It doesn’t go inside your body at all.