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