CES is a magical and strange place. Everywhere you look there are people who have spent years trying to get here, booths with thousands if not millions of dollars poured into their displays, and lots and lots of gadgets. Many of these gadgets are garbage, some of them are cool, but all of them represent an overwhelming mass of human work. Every now and then as you fight the crowds on show floor, you're struck by the knowledge that the sea of humanity you're wading through is deep.
For all the shallowness of the spectacle, imagining the depth of human effort it takes to create it all can set you back on your heels.
And I'm not just talking about how long it took to erect Fort Samsung. Because the vast majority of what there is to see at CES doesn't come from the Samsungs and Sonys — it comes from tiny companies you've never heard of, hustling to land a retailer. It comes from companies like DPI, based out of St. Louis, MO, which has half a dozen consumer brands and makes everything from water-filled Karaoke machines to Android tablet/DVD players to hoverboards to headphones to floating speakers to crank-powered weather radios to garden gnomes with built-in Bluetooth speakers.
It's a breadth of products that would make even Samsung blush. There are Wi-Fi speakers and knit caps with Bluetooth headphones built in. There are alarm clocks — a lot of alarm clocks.
DPI's business model is to take the stuff that cost $399 last year and find a factory in China that can make it so they can sell it for $129 this year. But their actual business is to customize and design this stuff just enough to make it palatable to a US audience. More specifically, their audience is major retailers like Walmart or Target or whatever generic department store sits at the end of your small-town strip mall.
It's a company that cranks out so many products that get sold in so many places that there's a chance you have something it makes in your home. It's all derivative and usually inexpensive (read: cheap), but it's also the thing you pick up at Walmart or 7-Eleven when it catches your eye.
When you walk into a booth like DPI's and start taking photos, everybody gets really nervous until you tell them you're with the press. It's an American company with designers in China, working with Chinese factories like Foxconn to source its products. There are a lot of companies like this at CES, and when someone in the booth sees photos being taken, their immediate fear is that you're from a competitor, trying to steal what work they've done to customize and design products that are basically interchangeable commodities.
This is the system that produces the stuff that, not very long ago, we called crapgadgets. But the mockery and elitism in that term rankles me now. A Bluetooth speaker I can float around in my pool or attach to my shower wall doesn't need to be some high-end APT-X Sony box. And frankly, most people can't justify the extra expense when this stuff works just fine. The best TVs at CES are better than ever, but so are the worst TVs.
The gadgets at booths like this aren't here just to be sold to retailers, they're here as proof: we can make this, so we can make anything. The small tables and chairs in these booths are just as important as the gear on the shelves. It's where the deals are made, where a firm handshake amidst the ambient insectoid buzzing of drones turns into real money for regular people just trying to make a living. They're not trying to change the world, they're just trying to change their small corner of it.
I like alarm clocks and I would buy the hell out of a basically disposable winter hat that has some Bluetooth speakers in them. Neither will DISRUPT my technological paradigms, but both make small moments in my life slightly better.
CES is where the horror and the wonder of capitalism is on display and where it actually happens. It's easy (and true) to say that nobody should buy 99 percent of the stuff here. But the cheap stuff here is better than it ever has been, so don't look down your nose at all of it.
And it's true, CES can be awful: everybody hates the hordes of people and the inevitable sickness that descends on all of us as we eat too much bad food, drink too much bad alcohol, work too hard, and sleep too little. Oh, the humanity! But the fray can also be very human. Look at every drooped face and behind it is a person who has had a success or a failure, who is downtrodden but prepared to wake up after a couple hours of sleep to go at it again. A person whose efforts will put those earbuds you want behind the counter at the local bodega.
This is a down year for CES. Nothing groundbreaking happened here this time around. The world was not changed. But for most of the people here, world-changing gadgets aren't even the point. It's about hustling to get their products into our personal, smaller worlds and thereby enrich their own personal, smaller worlds.
Even though the technology isn't inspiring this year, the humanity still is.