First Click: That year when David Foster Wallace came to CES and wrote about porn

January 8th, 2016

“Are there booth babes?” interrupted a friend as I explained the experience of covering CES. I paused, not clear if the model-slash-actress types hired to hawk goods at CES truly deserve the sleight once reserved for scantily clad Playboy Bunnies. “I guess,” I sputtered.

“Did you know that David Foster Wallace covered CES?” he added, incongruously.

Um, what? David. Fucking. Foster. Wallace?

It’s true. He covered the pornography exhibit.

Wallace came to CES to cover the Adult Software exhibition in 1998, in an essay called "Big Red Son" that was first published in Premiere and later collected in Consider the Lobster. I’ve come to CES to cover the consumer technology exhibition for The Verge. But in reading Wallace’s account I’ve realized that the experience is still very much the same. Here’s how DFW described the porn show in 1998:

"The best way to describe the sonic environment at the ’98 CES is: Imagine that the apocalypse took the form of a cocktail party. Male fans move through the fractal maze of booths in groups of three or more. Their expressions tend to be those of junior-high boys at a peephole, an expression that looks pretty surreal on a face with jowls and no hairline."

Today, the soaring dildos and porn starlets in vertiginous heels are gone; the Adult Video News Awards have been pushed back a week and the Adult Entertainment Expo is no longer affiliated with CES. What hasn’t changed, though, is the continued use of attractive women hired just for CES. The overt sexuality is largely gone, but the sentiment remains, lingering over CES like the stench of sweat and cigarettes stamped into the sprawling carpets of the Las Vegas ballrooms: these women are props, bait for the throngs of leering men, luring them into the booths where professional PR types can unleash their pitches. Booth babes, in other words, decoration for our gadgets, only with a more conservative décolletage.

CES isn’t what it was, but it remains an infinite jest that’s not very funny.

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