Everywhere I turned, there were signs that I didn’t totally understand. “Can textiles empower mothers to share their personal experience of pregnancy?” one big, blue banner asked, fighting for attention among hundreds of others in a cavernous exhibition hall. “Shop with your DNA,” implored another. Just around the corner, in lofted lights, a company promised that its products are “where sleep tech meets holistic wellness.” Across the room, a plumbing-fixture company got right down to business above its digital commodes: “Make any bathroom smarter with an intelligent toilet.”
It was my first time at the Consumer Electronics Show, and I hadn’t expected everything to transcend parody quite so quickly. The massive global technology expo more commonly known as CES has been around since the 1960s, and it now draws in excess of 150,000 people to the Las Vegas Strip every January to gawk at the latest gadgetry from tiny upstarts and massive global conglomerates alike. The technology lovefest can feel like a relic of an era just passed, when every generation of iPhone was greeted with wonder instead of a wave of angst over what smartphones might be doing to society. In some cases, the industry has become more self-aware about the suspicions that consumer tech now inspires in many people, paying penance with features that limit screen time or promises to be more transparent about data usage. But at CES, the only solution available to Americans’ tech-fueled agita is more technology.
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.
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.
Each time I stopped to talk with another company’s smiling marketing representative about a progress-monitoring yoga mat or a wristband that automatically logs calorie intake and hydration, something went unspoken: For these devices to have any future at all, people have to be pretty miserable. They have to be poorly rested, anxious about what they’re eating, scared for the safety of their aging parents, and alienated from the natural responses of their body to things such as food and physical activity. They need to be stressed out and under pressure at work, not spending as much time as they’d like with family and friends, and unsure if they’re doing the basics of modern human life—walking, sleeping, washing their face—correctly.
The tech companies at CES might have detected this widespread angst accurately enough, but nothing I saw suggested that they understand their role in it, or that they’re willing to acknowledge that the solution to every problem might not be more tech. When applied to broad problems, innovation has led to things such as lower cancer mortality rates and cleaner, faster public transportation, but when consumer-technology marketers have unfettered influence on how people live their life, their track record is shakier. Constant interactions with screens disturb people’s natural sleep cycles and distort the passage of time. Perpetual connectedness to news and work saps people’s energy and stokes America’s soaring anxiety and depression rates. Smart-home devices might turn on your lights or reorder your paper towels, but they might also be listening to your intimate conversations with your husband. Smart scales, step trackers, and nutrition apps might help some people adhere to reasonable nutrition and exercise programs set by professionals, but for many others, they feed insecurities or disordered eating by holding people to arbitrary standards that have no particular proven impact on health. (They might also prove that you lied to police, or implicate you in a family member’s murder.)
Tech companies, like many for-profit enterprises, aren’t necessarily incentivized to ensure that what they sell is used correctly, or that correct use provides any particular material benefit. They simply need to make a compelling argument to people who can pay, which means identifying and capitalizing on the anxieties of the affluent. Those are the circumstances under which CES’s at-home belly-fat scanners and handheld meditation optimizers are given innovation awards—not the kind of stuff whose efficacy could change the lives of a generation, but things that gesture toward ambient, untenable social problems at which people might be inclined to throw some money. It was hard to imagine who had asked for most of the products on display, but it wasn’t hard to picture people ordering plenty of them on Amazon, because hey, what’s a hundred bucks if it ends up working?
In simpler times—say, the mid-2000s, when CES really became the media-dominating behemoth it is today—the convention’s baked-in optimism about consumerism’s potential probably felt a little different. America was flush with cash and had just learned about texting, and daily life was only beginning to morph into the anxious, distracted reality we now live in. After two days of walking the aisles at CES, tech companies’ visions of the future felt hardly more generous or optimistic than those of the hotel magnates running the casinos in which the convention is held every year. Successful start-ups and gambling empires are both built on cash, hope, and slim odds, but no one on the Las Vegas Strip sells their services by pretending to save the world.