CES: A Symbol of Global Vandalism

The Consumer Electronics Show closes today, after four frantic days in Las Vegas in which about 20,000 new consumer technology products were unveiled to an audience that last year attracted more than 125,000 people. This year, Samsung alone announced 75 new products.

I wasn’t there, but rather monitored announcements from a distance. And each one met a similar response: “What?” followed by, “But why?”

I honestly don’t want to knock the hard work of executives who are struggling to survive in a terrible economy. But really. 20,000 products? Each one the result of hours, days, weeks, months of meetings and discussions and agonized decision making. Each one apparently accompanied by a breathless press release describing how it represents genuine innovation, not to mention fabulous design. And yes, some of the products will probably even be a welcome addition to our gadget-laden homes. But this as the face of modern day innovation? Oy.

Before the show, Shawn Dubravac, Chief Economist and Director of Research of the Consumer Electronics Association reckoned that 80 tablet devices were to be announced at the show. 80?! What clearer way to illustrate the way that consumer product lemmings once again demonstrate why genuine innovation is both so rare and difficult to execute.

Yes, yes, there’s nothing wrong with a “fast follow” strategy. Just because one player puts a stake in the ground doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement. I get that. But how many of these products represent genuine improvement, and how many are inferior versions created in the name of a company not wanting to be the wallflower at the party? How many were created with the consumer’s needs in mind, and how many in the name of oiling some executive’s career path up the corporate ladder?

And let’s not forget, all of these products use resources, not just the brains and energy of the supporting executives. We live in a world in which I constantly hear designers earnestly describe how committed they are to environmental responsibility. 20,000 products isn’t responsible. It’s vandalism.

I remember being so taken with IDEO CEO Tim Brown’s story of going on vacation to some exotic location, standing on a beach and stumbling across a toothbrush he’d helped to design that, discarded, had washed up on shore. This moment, Brown avowed, led him to realize the non-degradable consequences of his design work and to commit to a sustainably minded future. Cradle to cradle architect Bill McDonough, meanwhile, writes and eloquently challenges us to think about garbage. When we throw something away, where exactly is “away”? he asks.

And yet somehow these individual moments don’t seem to add up to much. Rather, they still add up to 20,000 new products. This year. Who’s paying attention to this? Who’s thinking about what this means on both a macro corporate level and for individuals? Who’s connecting the dots between environmental lip service and the rampant guzzling of scarce resources that this represents.

Suddenly that gimmicky product seems less cute and more like an obscene gesture.

Image: Attendees at this year’s CES pour into the event’s Central Hall

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About Helen Walters
Helen Walters is the ideas editor at TED. Previously the innovation and design editor at BusinessWeek, she writes about interesting people and what keeps them up at night.

23 Responses to CES: A Symbol of Global Vandalism

  1. Pingback: Innovation; both rare and difficult to execute | Hiding in plain sight

  2. When I had worked for Tibor Kalman in the early late ’80s, early ’90s, he spoke at Cooper Union about the excess of design. Before walking into the auditorium the audience was greeted with 50 different toasters.

    20 years ago!

  3. donholloway says:

    I was at the show, and really only spent a couple of hours walking the floor. I agree that this show in particular is less about innovation and more about “me too!”. I don’t even think that much of this line extension is good for either the brand of for profits.

    Last year, I saw a lava lamp with alarm clock and iPod jack wired to it.

  4. Lisa says:

    An excellent post. Right on point. Something I bring up again and again when friends buy their third or fourth version of the iPhone within a couple of years. It’s ridiculous that we support this problem, as consumers.

  5. Not sure if you’re up on this – but most of these products debuted at CES aren’t actually in production – most won’t come out for a year or two.

    It’s not so much vandalism on a global scale as it is a prototype parade.

    Trust me, many of these prototypes end up in loving homes, and very few wash up on deserted beaches.

    • eh says:

      Rizzn hits the nail on the head. prototypes are barely part of the consumer culture; the enviro impact of prototypes is miniscule, and they lead to other innovations. completely mis-placed commentary on the true blight of consumerism

  6. Anthony Blow says:

    These guys need an independent entity than can let them know when enough is enough, that a space has been saturated before they consume all these human and natural resources to pile in.

  7. Pingback: The electronics industry is broken | Klatergoud

  8. Just think what we could achieve if all the creative and financial energy that went into creating those 20,000 new products had been directed at restocking oceans, protecting biodiversity and taking carbon out of the atmosphere. The sooner we start to make replenishing the environment an economic activity, the sooner we will start to make things better.

  9. Pingback: Care for the Consumer | Sharat Buddhavarapu

  10. leland maschmeyer says:

    Agreed. It always pains me to see all that epoxy resins, fiberglass, PCBs, polyvinyl chlorides, thermosetting plastics, lead, tin, copper, silicon, beryllium, carbon, iron and aluminium shining under the lights of the showroom floor. I just know it’s all going to become e-waste within the year. Makes you reconsider classic economic thought sometimes: while competition is good for markets, when it comes to electronics, its disastrous for the earth/our health.

    BTW, did you ever see this clip from the Onion? It could not be more perfect compliment to this post.http://onion.com/bDfTkX

  11. The answer to “why” are there so many products is “because we can.” Never mind the world doesn’t need it, or want it, or whether it’s fundamentally safe to have a fax machine under your front dashboard, we have it, and it’s there “because we can.”

    As far as innovation & “why,” I have an interesting story: My late husband, Jon Philip Ray, was founder/CEO of Datapoint Corporation, responsible for designing the microprocessor & the first desktop computer, the Datapoint 2200. During a dinner meeting he had with Bob Noyce, President of Intel, along with the President of Texas Instruments, Philip drew the schematics for the microprocessor on two cards, and gave one to each man. He then made them each a bet. The company, Intel or TI, that was first to build a computer on a chip (microprocessor) would forgive Datapoint of their outstanding invoice. Philip was looking for ways to cut expenses, thereby postponing a second public offering, which would’ve diluted Datapoint. At the time, Datapoint bought lots of parts from Intel & TI, so not having to pay either bill would have helped Datapoint tremendously. The response he got from Bob Noyce was amazing!

    Bob Noyce asked “why” would Intel want to build a computer on a chip? Intel was selling tons of “shift registers,” but if all that computing power was on one single chip, Intel would sell fewer products. We all know how that turned out!! My blow dryer has more computing power than the first microprocessor, which was called the 8088. That chip got it’s name because 8088 was the number of Datapoint’s invoice to Intel for the first batch of chips. And yes, Intel won the bet and forgave Datapoint’s outstanding invoice–except for the new computers on a chip. FYI, I was there at dinner that night and since Philip Ray was deceased, I was deposed by Baker Botts, the attorneys for Texas Instruments, when TI and Intel were involved in their suit as to which one “invented” the microprocessor.

    “Why” is one of the best questions.
    Brenda Ray Coffee, CEO
    Survivorship Media Network, LLC
    BreastCancerSisterhood.com

  12. Brenda, greetings from Jack Frassanito-and according to him, the first microprocessor was 8008, not 8088, and the Intel chip, 1201. (For everyone else’s info, Jack is writing a book about the early days of Datapoint.)

  13. Thanks so much for all the comments. I’ve been humbled by the response to this post. @Rizzn and @eh, I appreciate both that prototypes are an important part of the design process and that many of the products “launched” here will not end up on shop shelves. However, I do think that this show is symbolic of a large problem facing 21st century businesses built on 20th century thinking and practices. The fact is, the foundation and structure of the industry is set up to funnel ideas and creativity along this wasteful path. Individuals may question what impact they could have on the process but all too often are left feeling disillusioned and downcast, and the wheels keep turning. Wholesale transformation is necessary and will require both multiple strong leaders from across industry and nations, along with an enormous shift in approach and thinking. Is it possible? I don’t know, but I don’t see current leadership even contemplating it. A good read that nods to a new paradigm is Lisa Gansky’s book about “Mesh” businesses. Thinking like that gives me hope, but I still fear that we’re caught in a terribly toxic cycle. Anyway, thanks again, all, for reading.

  14. Pingback: The New Calculus of Competition | iTAX – tax news

  15. Nathans Schor says:

    Great insight and comments as well!
    One point, however; I’d like to receive via email new comments without having to regularly check back to this site. Surprisingly, there these not seem to be a way to do that without leaving a comment. Many sites provide that ability (via Disqus, fro example) and it surely helps in spreading their message.

  16. Pingback: Friday Links « 800 CEO Read

  17. Pingback: todaysbizupdates.com » Blog Archive » The New Calculus of Competition

  18. Pingback: Das Produktdesign muss sich verändern

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