“An all-digital CES 2021 will allow the entire tech community to safely share ideas and introduce the products that will shape our future. You’ll be able to participate in all the awe-inspiring moments of CES wherever you are…”
— Consumer Technology Association
MADISON, Wis. — In all my years of shlepping to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), my awe — despite the earnest promises of the Consumer Technology Association — has never been inspired. One of my rare joyful moments during the Covid-19 scourge was the email from the CTA that this year’s actual be-there-or-be-square CES had been flushed.
For twenty-odd years, I’ve been a CES regular, always as a “trailing spouse” tagging along behind an EE Times editor, performing reportorial jobs for which she’s too busy. My annual CES ordeal serves at least to validate my tenuous cred as a journalist — although subtly sullying EET’s rep for technology omniscience. Since we became, by default, a reporting team, I’ve accompanied my own true love to trade shows, seminars, conferences, techno-bashes in Munich, Paris, Cannes, Chicago, Montreux, Berlin, San Francisco, Malta, New York City, Dublin, Osaka, Washington, Bordeaux, Eindhoven, Makuhari, Brussels, Taipei, Los Angeles and Tokyo. Invariably, I bring to each venue only a muddy sense of what the hell everybody’s talking about.
Our most frequent excursions take us to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and CES — both of which fell victim this year (and next) to Covid-19. The CES cancellation spares me, next January, a raft of sufferings, not the least of which is the cloud cast over the Christmas season by the grim imminence of a forced pilgrimage — usually before the feast of the Epiphany — to Vegas (affectionately known by social scientists as “the drainhole of American culture.”
I will not miss, for example, an inaugural press event dubbed “CES Unveiled” (I prefer “CES Unchained”), a sort of carny sideshow of gadgetry, wearables, sensors, toys, gewgaws, doo-hickeys, whatchamacallits and card tricks where I’m required to fight my way through throngs of camera-wielding, rubbernecking, snack-noshing bloggers and “influencers” to photograph and caption a dozen “innovations” whose purposes seem to me superfluous — or even hostile — to the conduct of a simple, uncluttered and meaningful consumer existence.
Nor will I miss the jostling among herds of nerds in the corridors of the Las Vegas Convention Center and on the myriad, milling show floors of CES, or fighting through fleshy bottlenecks clogged with tunnel-vision conventioneers. I won’t lament a January absent of standing in a half-hour line for a bus that will haul me from one place I don’t want to be (the Sands Convention Center) to a destination I dread (the LVCC). I’ll be grateful every day not to be queuing and elbowing my way toward a mountain of box lunches in the “media center,” after which I’m required to scrunch over lunch surrounded by “journalists” pecking at keyboards while inhaling their ham ’n’ cheeses and vegan salads with all the delicacy of a pack of hyenas over a zebra carcass.
I’ll be glad to to forgo the torrent of hype, crapola, propaganda and sequined mendacity that has been native to every industry trade show since Neanderthals gathered during the Ice Age to unveil the hexagonal wheel and the non-flammable safety flint.
I won’t miss daily news deadlines, nor the sweaty dilemma of trying to get up and down the sprawling Las Vegas Strip, a four-square mile patch annually overrun by 200,000 extra people — all of them needing a ride, right now. I’ll not feel bereft of the awful coffee and the absurdity of finding a copy of the New York Times in a city that doesn’t read. I’ll not miss the stop-and-frisk security minions who guard the entrances of conference rooms, delaying my access to dog-and-pony shows whose high-tech promises would strain the credulity of a sixth-grader.
I will absolutely not regret a week in January not squandered amongst the tawdriness and pathos of a city built by mobsters and moguls, pimps, grifters, has-been crooners and a hundred million hand-to-mouth suckers.
However, as with any obligatory ritual, like a colonoscopy or Thanksgiving with crazy Uncle Lenny, there are moments of consolation.
I get to travel to exotic locales all over the world, where my wife and I re-unite with colleagues and friends. Every year, we start CES by dining with the beautiful and brilliant Myra. We inevitably come across longtime friends Tekla, Rebecca, Liz and — if we’re lucky — Jacques. At the show, we work side-by-side with smart cats like Brian, and my wife introduces me to intense, frenetic and sometimes funny geniuses like Gill Pratt and Nicky Lu.
We always end CES with a gourmet feast in one of Vegas’ obscenely overpriced eateries, hostessed by Cynthia, our favorite p.r. person in the world. She always brings along clients with a sense of humor, flirts with me and lets me pick the wine.
In between Myra and Cynthia there are good moments. Every year, I cover the “one-on-one” interview by the CTA’s slick and nimble head honcho, Gary Shapiro, with the current chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. I bring an excess of irony to this thinly veiled deregulation ad and I lard my eventual story with fact-checking and incriminating background material that the “CES Daily” tends to overlook. More important, I always sit in the front row, bouncing up annoyingly to take pictures of Shapiro’s facial expressions. Over the years, I’ve developed a sort of grudging admiration for Shapiro’s relentless, unctuous salesmanship. I even sometimes wonder if he has any idea who I am.
Not that I should care. Anonymity is the popinjay’s ace in the hole.
Vegas itself has unexpected charms. I usually take a day off during trade shows to explore the host city. In Vegas, I’m indifferent to gambling, strip clubs, five-dollar buffets, pastel cocktails and Celine Dion. But the scene tickles my shutter finger, sending me hither and yon in search of arresting images. Lately, EE Times has been turning these shots into montages that receive an inordinate number of clicks — proving that people will look at anything online.
And every year, there occurs in Vegas, Barcelona or somewhere else, an incident that adds to the lore and legend of our partnership.
For instance, one year, the now-defunct Cable Show took place in New Orleans. On Sunday before the official start, my wife and I ventured to partake of the famous brunch at Gallatoire’s, the high-falutin’ Bourbon Street bistro. To make sure we could get in, I dressed up spiffy in blazer, buttoned-up shirt and tie. My pants even had a crease. But as we queued for the opening rush, the Gallatoire’s maitre d’hotel noticed my feet. I was wearing my usual warm-weather footgear: sandals.
“Sorry,” quoth the maitre d’. “Unacceptable.”
But I had a brainstorm. “What if,” I ventured, “I put on socks?”
The maitre d’, his eyes atwinkle, nodded. I sprinted to our hotel while my wife was escorted to the lovely, dark and cozy upstairs bar at Gallatoire’s. There she was questioned amiably, by other patrons, about my encounter with the maitre d’.
I returned, breathing hard, just as the doors opened. I found my wife in the bar and we hurried downstairs. Graciously, the maitre d’ waved us inside. Every table swiftly filled with impeccably dressed and elegant brunchers — plus us.
As our coffee arrived, a statuesque blonde of a certain age shimmered past our table, and paused. She turned to us and looked downward. She raised one eyebrow.
Then, catching my eye and smiling conspiratorially, she said, “Nice socks.”