CES2014: Together, alone

Trying to connect in a sea of tech

I try to attend the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every year. And every year I hit the Wednesday wall. I wake up, my feet hurt, my face feels like parchment, and I think, “What’s the point? Can’t I just read about all this stuff on the web?”

Whether you’re an exhibitor, blogger, or VIP, CES is daunting. If you are a mere mortal, no matter what you do here, you will likely only matter to ten people, and there are 150,000+ attendees and 3,000+ exhibitors trying to matter just as hard to you. If you’re an anonymous tech dude wearing a blue blazer, open-collared shirt and jeans, you probably only matter to the dudes you flew in with, who are also wearing blue blazers, open-collared shirts and jeans. If I were you guys, I’d just stay home.

I first came to CES in 2010, to produce live shots for CBS News at the usual unholy hour of 4am Pacific. Despite the bone-crushing exhaustion of wrangling products until 11pm, panic-napping for two hours and then going back to work, 4am is a beautiful time to be inside the convention center. You and your crew are the only people in the cavernous silence, and live television is magic when it all goes right. That’s when you get to take a victory selfie wearing giant headphones bedazzled in Swarovski crystals, eat a caloric breakfast with your crew, and do it all over again.

This is my 4am producer face.

In 2011, I learned that CES is hard when you’re working, but it’s even harder when you’re not. I had credentialled in preparation for a piece I was planning for a web ‘weekend lifestyle’ series. The piece ‘went away,’ and then the series did too, and I was in temporary job limbo with little to do. But my credential remained, so off I went to see friends and see the bling.

Here’s the problem with ‘just seeing friends’ at CES. They’re all working. They have five minutes for a hug, and the vague promise of a drink. And when you’re not working, the tech seems cold and pointless and it’s not like you can afford it anyway. Which brought me to 2pm Monday, when I had already seen everyone I needed to see, and found myself standing in front of a tinted window at The Wynn, staring out at Vegas in the harsh sunlight, thinking, “I matter to no one.”

This is called ‘touching the darkness.’ I don’t recommend it. But I’m lucky, because I have someone to whom I always matter: my husband Matt. I called him, cried a little about my uncertain future, and he made me laugh like he always does. I hope all you blue blazer dudes have a person like that in your lives too. Then I did the only sane thing you can do in Las Vegas when you have no plans.

I went outlet shopping. (It’s like gambling, only you get stuff for your lost money.) As I stuffed bags of discounted clothes into my car, a friend called about drinks, and then some other friends called about dinner, and just like that CES was fun again. Especially all those wacky 3-D TV’s.

I returned to CES in 2012. I don’t remember much about the show itself. All I remember is the party where will.i.am spent the night DJ’ing and making repeated inquiries about my preparedness to muthafuckin’ party.

There he is! mr. i am. He is working hard, and the blue blazer dude in front is like, ‘preach it.’

I spent most of that night admiring will.i.am’s work ethic, and thinking, “Thank you so much, mr. i.am, you are doing a good job with those spinny things, but I really just want to be alone in my hotel room, reading Stephen King’s JFK time travel book.

I didn’t go to CES in 2013, because I was working so hard at my job, which I loved. And it really paid off, because on Dec. 5th, 2013, my work threw me a surprise ‘mutual separation party.’

Wait a…

The upside of mutual separation is that I got to spend Christmas with my family, and New Years with my husband, CNN, and $60 worth of Chin Chin. And all that time, I never had to check email, and never had to worry whether I mattered, because for the moment, I didn’t. And it felt like magic. (Especially when I saw this.)

Well played, @Dixey_Normous, well played.

In 2014, I returned CES as a freelance producer for a brand-new tech podcast. Once again, I had purpose. Of course I’m still wandering around the floor saying hi to distracted friends and former co-workers. There are still too many dudes in blue blazers, and they’re all worried about the ‘whether the Lenovo meet is still a go.’ And there’s still that one European dude who asks my tall blonde friend if she is ‘good at the press release’, which I’m pretty sure is Euro-dude code for ‘I want to whisk you away to the Springhill Suites and tie you to the bedpost.’

But this year, I have found more interesting moments. Like the panel on music licensing rights, which sounds kinda dry until I see how hard Hank Shocklee is trying to stay calm, until the guy from the RIAA says something ‘spinny’ and Hank shake his head. Slowly. And it gets real. Then Dave Allen from Gang of Four smiles like musical Gandalf and says musicians should never sign contracts with record labels, they should be entrepreneurs, and BOOM goes the RIAA. Except then the RIAA guy says something smart too, and I realize nothing about this problem is simple.

Caption this: Hank Shocklee post-games the panel with Steven Marks from the RIAA

After that thought-provoking panel, I push through a sea of humanity to the Central Hall for the privilege of watching one baboon scratch another baboon’s red ass in 4k, and I see a guy sitting stone-still in a futuristic chair, wearing a Sony immersive headset that weighs more than some babies, and he’s not even smiling. This is when I think, do I really need to be here? Can’t I just read about all this on the web?

Dismayed, I head towards the exit. But there’s a crowd blocking the doorway and they are enthralled. I turn around and find myself at the LG booth. Booth is the wrong word. I found myself in the LG moment.

Now I don’t know if LG’s Web OS smart TV is going to be any good, or end up yet another failed marriage between a giant TV and the infinite web. But in this moment, it doesn’t matter. Because LG is handing out 3-D glasses to watch a building-sized 3-D Ultra HD wall display, and people are oohing and aaahing like I’ve never heard at CES. The 3-D was better than anything since Avatar. There were actual gasps of delight.

This picture doesn’t do the display justice. And that’s kind of the point.

Sitting on the floor in front of a monitor that wouldn’t fit in anyone’s house, and certainly does not exist outside CES, I duck my head as a giant whale swims past my ear and the Horsehead Nebula dissolves into a million orange and yellow particles, and a roaring lion ripples fur that top-level directors found impossible to create ten years ago. And when the giant astronaut floating above the earth reaches his white gloved hand out in order to touch the humans in front of him, damn it, I get a little emotional. (I blame Gravity.)

The rapture.

I must have watched the entire 3-D presentation three times. Then I watched the other enraptured attendees melt into the rug and take it all in. I saw them jump up and share their 3-D glasses with co-workers, smile as they grabbed the hand of the friend next to them and say, “Can you believe this?”

This is when I understand, once and for all, that there are moments you can’t just read about on the web. Moments when technology doesn’t isolate us behind immersive headsets, or make us sit, useless, inside self-driving cars. Moments when CES isn’t just a sea of blue blazers and weary bloggers rushing from panel to panel, standing in line for hours to watch CEOs expound and Michael Bay explode.

Once in a while, technology can create a genuine moment of connection and wonder. I keep coming back to CES year after year because it promises an exponentially brighter future than the one I’m watching unfold on my ‘old’ HDTV at home.

It’s the promise of that future that’s going to break me out from behind the Wednesday wall, so I can wade once more into the breach. Because you never know which small company has the next Quadcopter, or Z-Board, or maybe even a time machine.

Hey, a girl’s gotta dream.

Jennie Josephson is an award-winning freelance producer and notorious over-thinker. You can read more about her at about.me/jjo