I've just landed in Las Vegas for my seventh consecutive Consumer Electronics Show, and I feel like I'm finally grasping what this grand gathering is about. It's the world's largest, most futuristic mall — in existence for just a few days — but instead of selling wares directly to you, it previews what is to come. If a regular mall is a temple to consumerism, CES is the holiest shrine, the source of all consumable creation.
Flashy pitches and flashing lights
Consider the parallels. In both venues, you have people occupying booths, both big and small, trying to sell you a product of some kind. CES vendors are selling to journalists and other businesses, hoping to curry favor for their offerings in the year ahead. It's a different kind of salesmanship, but the effect is the same. Flashy pitches and flashing lights.
The music is awful at both venues. The food is somehow worse. Both have gangs of malcontents chain-smoking cigarettes outside the entrances.
Whether you go to CES or the mall, you will have to wade through a lot of dressed-up garbage to find the good stuff. Fitness bands whose biggest health benefit is in exercising your wrist with their ridiculous weight. 3D printers that mostly produce big goops of misshapen plastic. Glasses-free 3D screens that also happen to be 3D-free. Oh, and you should check out the Chinese game consoles and the insanity they come preloaded with.
Another commonality between CES and malls: no shortage of people prepared to bitch about them.
Good things are out there, you know they are
Think of your experience snaking through Ikea's exhibition area and you'll know exactly what it's like exploring the CES floor. Good things are out there. You know it. But there's no shortcut to finding them, no signpost for quality, and you have to grind through all the trivial junk to find the truly worthwhile thing.
And yet, CES exists and thrives because it continues to host worthy things in among its litany of technological excess. Everyone and their cousin are now doing headphones, so it's very easy to be jaded about them, but last year I stumbled upon the Audeze booth and discovered the benefits of planar magnetic headphones. All it took was curiosity and a smidgen of perseverance.
Malls would similarly not exist if all they contained was irredeemable nonsense that offered little practical benefit. They have some jewels in the rough. And the big advantage that online shopping will never be able to replicate is the ability to touch and experience a gadget in person — and to then turn around and quickly compare it against its direct competitor.
After your first time at CES or any big shopping center, you come away with a mix of awe (at the massive scale) and a budding cynicism (at the trifling problems being solved by most products on show). The important thing is not to let that cynicism overwhelm and mute the purpose of attending. We are here to find the cool gadgets in a maelstrom of hot air.
The great advantage for you, dear reader, is that you're coming to the future mall with a bunch of experienced shoppers. I'm not going to suggest you'll enjoy absolutely every single thing that is to come in the week ahead, but we'll do our best to keep it tolerable. More signal, less noise. More joy, less cynicism.
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