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.