"More than machinery, we need humanity."

Today at CES! Tomorrow in the Landfill…

If worshipping technology was a religion than the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) would be the mega-church/mall in which new gods try to charm worshipers with promises of heaven whilst the old gods demand continued fealty. The massive tradeshow filled with entertainment world celebrities, tech industry stars, and mountains of the latest pieces of technology (soon available for purchase) is a sort of bacchanal for the gods of the machine (no, not Hephaestus) and though the attendees may bask in the self important glow of Apollonian ideologies the drunken ecstatic faith is pure Dionysus.

CES is the type of event that brings to mind Lewis Mumford’s admonishment (from Art and Technics) that:

“If you worship a machine there is something wrong with your religion” (81)

Though it is more likely that CES (if it were in possession of a giant networked mind [more like HAL 9000 than Deep Think {or Deep Blue}]) would reply to Mumford’s comment that there is nothing wrong with your religion if you worship a machine, it is just that you are worshiping last year’s machine and the time has come to upgrade. For the techno-faithful, there is no higher heresy than failing to stay up to date.

Although it would be much easier if it was only the attendees at CES who were kneeling in supplication before the machine. For CES is the conference where the next generation of “innovative” technologies are unveiled, from new televisions, to apps, to streaming services, to vehicles, to….well…you get the picture (and there are new things being unveiled in picture taking too). All of these new products are, of course, cast in an intoxicating mixture of technological utopianism (“it will change the world”) and simple appeals to fashion and pop culture (“buy this or be left behind!”).

While the show is certainly set-up to be as much a media event as a trade show (a mix between a TED conference and a Best Buy), what CES also provides is an interesting lesson in the new lines being added to the technophile’s catechism. For, CES is a demonstration of the areas of society that tech is aiming to conquer next: from wearable tech (you won’t even have to take your phone out any more), to tech that is increasingly integrated with your home, to cars that are better integrated with smart phone technology (it’s dangerous to text and drive, but checking Facebook while you drive is a fine idea), to the gradual affixing of the prefix “smart” to everything because…we…why not? Granted, it does not particularly seem that privacy questions were high on the list of priorities at CES – but it is always awkward for tech companies to declare unwavering devotion to fighting surveillance while marketing ever more invasive technologies. Besides, CES is a feel good celebration, it does not want to have to bring up a downer like the way in which our ever-more technological society has been easily recast as an inchoate surveillance state. The goal of CES is simple: to convince consumers that the real source of all of their existential woes is that they can’t turn on their dishwasher with their smart phones. The solution, is therefore obvious.

CES is the type of event that brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s indictment (from Minima Moralia) that:

“Rampant technology eliminates luxury, but not by declaring privilege a human right; rather, it does so by both raising the general standard of living and cutting off the possibility of fulfillment.” (127)

A line that should be twinned with another bit of repartee from Adorno, namely:

“The cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new.” (250)

Granted, to these comments from a fellow who was hardly renowned for his sunny disposition, the networked hive mind of CES would likely retort that there are numerous new products on display. Behold: a television with a curved screen! Tremble before: a television with a built in streaming service! Clearly these are so radically different as to make your old television/streaming device look like useless drek. As for “raising the general standard of living,” well, if you look at the enclaves populated by tech staffers you can certainly see that somebody’s standard of living has improved, and isn’t offering these products giving people a way to buy into that “standard?” Besides, beyond the gloss of “don’t be evil,” the only important “human right” from the standpoint of consumer technology is people having the freedom to buy more consumer technology.

For, as loud as the propaganda coming from CES may be, the products unveiled at the conference are largely more of the same. CES shows that, as much as tech companies may like to make claims to the contrary, today’s technological innovations are less about satisfying the genuine needs of humanity than they are about satisfying the needs of shareholders. CES proves that Moore’s law is really the capitalist law of “buy more!” CES thereby provides an ingenious answer to Neil Postman’s first question for technology (“what is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”) by stating that the problem is “the need to make more money” and thus selling this new product is the obvious solution.

While tech executives at CES merrily dispense with comments to conference attendees and journalists about the transformative effects their new device (read: slightly different) will have – a question that generally goes unaddressed is: what happens to the old devices? If everybody rushes out to buy a new curved-screen television, what will they do with their old television? If people buy a newer smart phone, what will they do with their old smart phone? If people buy a newer…and so forth.

It may be the case that many slightly-out of date devices circulate through informal friend and family networks, yet as the rate with which new devices is unleashed increases so too does the speed with which things are turned into trash. Certainly, a person can pass their old (but still fully functioning television) on to a friend, but what will that person do with their even older device (but still fully functioning television [though {gasp!} not flat screen)?

While many simply cast these old devices into the trash, many people have developed rather informal stockpiles of old technologies in their own abodes out of a vague awareness that technological toys are not ideal residents in a rubbish heap. Indeed, they are not – as the numerous toxic chemicals within consumer electronics can have nasty environmental and health consequences as they break down. Though ultimately a sickening (literally and ethically) amount of these devices wind up in landfills (some estimates [for the US] are at 91%), those that are properly recycled often pursue a path wherein it is not so much that the dangerous breakdown is avoided as that it is displaced. As Jennifer Gabrys writes (in her excellent book on what happens to discarded technology Digital Rubbish):

“the vast majority of electronics collected for recycling are eventually sent, in varying states, to developing countries, where they are processed and handled in relatively unsafe and environmentally unsound conditions” (91)

To this point the hive mind of CES would angrily growl some defense of how “green” their latest devices are whilst stating a commitment to having their products “recycled” because they know that these are meaningless sound bites that nevertheless sound pretty good. No tech CEO wants to openly admit that when their devices are discarded they poison the planet (and the people doing the recycling). Our societal obsession with ever newer technological toys relies upon nobody fully thinking through what happens to the items they discard. Likewise, it is reliant, upon a love for newness and speed that would make the futurists blush (at least they were honest with the {albeit distasteful} reasons they liked technology), a desire and need for the newest device even when the old one works just fine.

Though it is worth pondering whether this desire for the constant replacement of the slightly old with the soon-to-be slightly old comes from the consumer or the company’s shareholders? Which is really just a polite way of framing the question: isn’t CES simply a spectacular celebrity driven infomercial designed to bludgeon consumers into accepting planned obsolescence as a natural process? Isn’t CES just a marvelous circus to help distract people from the real problems facing the world today – many of which are problems that have only been exacerbated by consumer electronics?

I doubt the organizers of CES 2014 will honestly answer those questions.

They’re too busy planning for CES 2015…wherein all of 2014’s wondrous new devices will be declared hopelessly obsolete.

Which, is actually an answer of sorts.

Further Reading

The Plan is Obsolescence

How Cheaply We Are Bribed

“More than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

The Panoptic Con

Is Privacy Really a Priority?

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.

Gabrys, Jennifer. Digital Rubbish. The University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Mumford, Lewis. Art and Technics. Columbia University Press, 2000.

Image Note

The picture used as the background in the header image for this post is by Ondřej Martin Mach. Available through a Creative Commons license on Wikipedia.

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Today at CES! Tomorrow in the Landfill…

  1. doughill50
    January 9, 2014

    Another excellent essay! Loved the Adorno quotes in particular. And for direct support of the ideas expressed here, see the article in today’s Washington Post, headlined “The PC is dead, and this year’s CES proves it.”

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This entry was posted on January 9, 2014 by in Capitalism, Environment, Ethics, Privacy, Surveillance, Technology and tagged , , , .

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