The Consumer Electronics Show begins today here in Vegas. I first attended decades ago, back when I was a teenager visiting Chicago. Tech is even more important than it was then, but now the conference is struggling for relevance (queue the last-minute Ivanka Trump announcement). CES is actually being challenged by its own success.
Competing with the big-budget shows
Decades ago, the show was focused on the behind-the-scenes tech. In fact, nearly all major tech was behind the scenes. There were the servers your bank used to keep track of your deposits and the machinery your car manufacturer relied on to monitor your safety and the protective gear your police force wore to stay safe. Football fields of this stuff. I loved it.
Then, about a decade and a half ago, I noticed a couple shifts. First, video game culture changed from a subculture to mainstream culture. In my 2008 book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, I talk about then white-hot singer Justin Timberlake announcing the new Sony PlayStation console and other tastemakers arguing that video games were now cool. The smartphone revolution sped up this process, and the energy transformed once-nerdy tech conferences like CES to celebrity-driven enterprises.
They were no longer competing with MacWorld, but with the Grammys. It meant shifting to getting mainstream attention while diluting the deep-dive tech longtime attendees expected.
Finding tech as ubiquitous as oxygen
Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other tech notables have argued the best tech is interwoven into our lives. It should be invisible like air or a basic utility like natural gas. I'd argue this vision has come to pass: We don't think about the supercomputer in our pocket or the arm device monitoring our every breath.
One of the missions was to make tech mainstream. Mission accomplished! But this is actually a problem for conventions like CES. If you are a general tech conference, then what do you focus on if everything is tech?
As the years pass, the Consumer Electronics Show adds more tech: First the hardcore tech, then the smartphones, then smart refrigerators, then the smart toothbrushes, and so on. It's easier to say what isn't impacted by tech than it is to highlight what is.
The most-impactful conferences have become a highlight of niches, from the intellectual TED (literally Technology, Entertainment and Design) to the primal Burning Man (perhaps a response to our tech-overstimulated world). The broad-based tech conference has become a jack of all trades and a master of none.
Who is it for?
As I join the 200,000 people attending CES this week, I wonder what identity the conference will have this year: A celebrity-focused Bacchanal event or a rare discussion on tech's impact. So many fellow tech veterans told me they are actually relieved they don't have to attend this year. In recent years, the substance hasn't outweighed the hassle of coming. Besides, there are other conferences specific to their fields that they say are more worthwhile.
But if we're not the intended audience, then who is? This week, I'm curious to find out. I just hope CES itself knows.