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This year’s Consumer Electronics Show was apparently the largest in history.  It featured the latest in self-driving cars, giant drones that carried people, massive sound and video systems and of course the cutting edge of cell phones and complementary gadgetry.

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Even though most of the information is available online (hype does not require personal attendance), thousands flocked to Las Vegas to party and hob nob among the Technorati.

The question I always ask myself when attending this show is, “how much of this stuff is really necessary and/or useful?”

Another question to ponder is how much of this stuff is a distraction from things that are really important (which is just asking the same question another way).

So much of what you see here is very “cool” but truthfully not really any sort of necessity.  There is plenty of innovation visible but a lot of it is over the top and more of the same; do you need to charge your phone wirelessly or can you walk over to the wall, lean down, and plug it in?

This show has replaced a show I travelled to from Los Angeles in the 80’s and 90’s that focused on computer hardware and software—COMDEX.

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COMDEX had its own hype to be sure, but there was real innovation with software programs and peripherals that did things no one had ever thought of before.  We saw the first scanner, the first video capture, the first 3D animation and so on.

From my initial foray into computer graphics it was amazing to see how the technology evolved every year as spreadsheets and word processing gave way to photo editing, then video, and eventually even virtual reality.  I remember a virtual reality exhibit where the computer was as large as my living room.

Now of course VR is working (a bit) on cell phones. The Oculus exhibit at this show had an hour wait to get in.

With the massive crowds and difficulty in moving around I prefer seeing some of the smaller booths away from the strip at press events.

Here is a sampling of the floor from the Showstoppers press event:

Fiera Arouser: Internal Vibrator for maximum stimulation for women in foreplay.

Ultimaker: A 3d Printer from the Netherlands that prints in multiple materials for $2500.

Casper:  A bedding distributor for the new millennium.

JAQ – Instant green energy for all of your PDAs and plug in devices.

If you want to keep up with some of the latest gadgets you can find many on The Chris Voss Show.

There was also a session on the new genetics, featuring Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D, co-authors of Super Genes.

According to Deepak, the technology to enable us to “reprogram” our genes is available now, and many of the products are now linked to cell phones and watches to allow us to monitor our organic activity for maximum health and wellness.

He added that it will take many people from multiple disciplines working together to achieve the potential that these new sciences offer.

But there is another aspect of this phenomenon that is worth considering.

When I witnessed the massive revolution in technology at COMDEX most of the software and hardware was transparent as it evolved.  We could tweak the code and change the settings and since there were many companies involved at all levels there was massive innovation and we could get a sense of how things actually worked in harmony.

For example, the Microsoft Office system has its own programming language and Microsoft offered other programs to create one’s own version of existing applications.

Now, a generation later, this is no longer the case—the actual nuts and bolts of most systems are opaque and not accessible to the end user.  What this means is that we are simply consumers and no longer participants in the process, and many younger people are simply addicted to whatever the corporations decide to push down the pipe.

The number of corporations powering the market, as in mass media, has also shrunk dramatically.  It is almost a studio system in that very few giant companies control the landscape.  Of course there are startups that “disrupt” various areas from time to time, but giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are more and more in control of the direction and meaning of technology.

Digital technology is so much a part of our lives now that very few of us grasp the incredible difference in our lives in terms of limits on privacy and the explosion of access to information (much of it wrong and misleading).

The reality that under the hood of these products there is massive programming and logical design that mirrors the technology in our own bodies is completely lost on most end users today.

Douglas Rushkoff commented on this in his excellent book, Program or Be Programmed.

As more and more people become dependent on these tools without understanding anything about how they work or are designed, we will have a gigantic rift between the information savvy and the information ignorant.

It is important the readers here who are concerned about the future of our planet and species remember that technology evolved out of us—and we in turn evolved technologically within Life itself.

Consumer technology is not an end in itself, just as making money is not a goal to be obsessed about. Rather the products at CES are potential means to lift people from poverty and to raise the quality of life.

For that reason, technology and consumer products must be evaluated as tools and not worshipped as “idols”—we need to retain perspective in order to use them, or refrain from using them when appropriately, with wisdom.

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