On the flight in, Las Vegas resembles nothing less than a lunar outpost. Personally, I have little use for the place — being sealed off in the artificial atmosphere of the casino, convention center, or The Beatles Love Cafe is not my idea of fun. When you do get a chance to look outside you’re greeted by monumental buildings with retro sci-fi accoutrements, a winding monorail that runs from the Sahara to MGM, and the dry mountains that surround the city, protecting it from the wasteland beyond. Even though this place is thought of as a refrigerated oasis, that is but the first of many illusions: with an average yearly rainfall of 4.5-inches, the city can only continue to supply the water that feeds its many hotels, casinos, and mega-fountains by bleeding Arizona’s Colorado River dry.
The airport shuttle was piloted by a strong-looking, middle aged black woman who played middling modern R&B at a seriously distracting volume. Between her verbal outbursts and the excited chatter of the rest of the passengers (blue haired old ladies who were apparently no strangers the slot machines at Circus Circus), I took in as much of the Vegas Strip as the distractions would allow. One woman in particular could’ve played a feisty grandmother on a sitcom — she was talking about her favorite TV program, a crime procedural that follows a group of cops who are trained to tell if someone is lying based on his or her body language. They solve crimes with the most important tool in the arsenal of law enforcement: their minds. Sounded like a bunch of bullshit.
“You don’t think that’s a little far fetched?” I ask. When I am tired and cranky you can usually count on the The Critic to make his appearance.
“Those cops are pretty clever,” she responds, sounding like she knows something on the subject. “They have to be.”
“Yeah, well, so are the criminals.”
“Don’t you know it!” she says with a wink.
Soon my outlaw friend and her companion depart at The Sands, leaving me to contemplate my visit. Every year, the Las Vegas Convention Center is home to the International Consumer Electronics Show, a non-public trade show that plays host to thousands of technology companies and hundreds of thousands of guests. CES is an opportunity for tech companies to show off their latest and greatest, for buyers to decide what to stock over the next year, and for middle-brow, middle-class types to fly in from middle America for a long weekend of partying in the sun. It’s not for nothin’ that every year the festivities correspond with Elvis Presley’s birthday and the Adult Video News Awards, and I was here to record some of the minutiae for a technology blog. It wasn’t a bad deal, at that: all my travel expenses were covered, on top of whatever I got paid for writing. The only downside? I was in Las Vegas — a city that feels the need to recreate the New York City skyline within spitting distance of the Sphinx.
Once in my room at the Hilton, I took a moment to soak it all in: Basic cable! Air conditioning! Room service! Pardon my excitement, but I’d been couch surfing for a while (long story), so finally having some amenities was one of the most exciting parts of the gig — even the standard hotel desk with power outlets built into the top surface seemed like a luxury. I could see myself propelled on some substance or another, for many late nights, while hard at work (at this very desk!) on some sort of great story, or essay, or immersive journalistic endeavor, something through which I’d chronicle what it is to be an American in the post-American Century, with a hollow trade show (and conspicuous consumption) as the setting — and with The Truth at its core.
After grabbing a shower and putting the “do not disturb” sign on the door (during an extended stay in a hotel, I prefer to get the room disheveled in a hurry and keep it that way), I met up with my colleagues. The lead up to CES is generally the busiest time of year in the consumer electronics biz, and this go ’round was no exception — the next four days go by in a blur of embargoes, corporate keynotes, and product announcements.
* * *
At an event like this, the show floor has more than a passing resemblance to a shopping mall. Of course, if this actually were a shopping mall, I would get to buy something — and my life would instantly be better for it. But alas, nothing here is for sale (at least not to me), so I must be content to wander, to wallow, and to ogle the Samsung booth girls, who are all very attractive, all very tall, and dressed in a toned down version of the naughty sailor outfit that one sees in so many Japanese (or in this case Korean) comic books. A short while later, I find myself at Polaroid’s booth, where journalists from around the world are sucking down as much gratis Miller` Light, Beck’s Dark, and boxed wine as they can before happy hour wraps up at six p.m. Once that’s out of the way, it’s off to a simulated gallery to see some “artwork” highlighting the versatility of the company’s digital imaging product.
On the way there I get lost. Again. I could try to stretch this into some sort of metaphor about the individual getting “lost” within consumer culture, but really that would be full of shit — my sense of direction has always been piss-poor at the best times, and three beers on an empty stomach didn’t help things one bit. Instead, I offer you some highlights from the hour or so I spent wandering around the Las Vegas Convention Center in a highly agitated state.
THE SUSTAINABLE PLANET PAVILION. This is the area where all the “greener” gadgets are located. Probably the least exciting place I could find myself, there were no simulated explosions, simulated gunfire, or simulated rock bands to be had — just a bunch of earnest folks trying to sell you on the virtues of the Smart Strip (“Ten outlets work together, autoswitching your devices on/off automatically, to save you money on your electric bills”), the Zero Waste Eco-Charger (still not sure what that’s all about, but it sounds good), and about a gazillion ways to power your phone by walking, biking, or whiling away the hours in the sunshine. Of course, nothing in the thus-called pavilion was the least bit “sustainable,” but drastic and meaningful actions (like cutting back on buying shit you really don’t need in the first place) is not within the repertoire of the consumer electronics industry. It was after leaving this place that I came across Motorola’s booth, featuring one lone tree planted in a darkened corner of the building, barely illuminated but for the ambient light of several far off video displays. If the booth designer was going for a “Central Park at night-meets-Logan’s Run” vibe, they hit the nail squarely on the head.
THE PARANOIA PAVILION. Even if the movement towards responsible manufacture of consumer electronics someday produces tangible results, eco-disaster is just the beginning of modern man’s modern woes. For example, anxious computer owners: did you know that many modern PCs ship with a software client called Computrace Agent built into the computer’s BIOS (the first code launched when the computer is turned on — before it even gets to Windows). With the right software (and for a small yearly fee) this bad boy will dial into LoJack corp’s servers and register your computer’s location daily — bumping the frequency up to every fifteen minutes if it’s reported stolen. Don’t worry about the increasingly small number of people who don’t have Big Brother-enabled laptops, either: Computrace can be installed after market.
Ok, maybe your sense of unease isn’t being fueled by the nagging suspicion that someone might steal your computer, but by the nagging suspicion that the guy you met on eHarmony is a serial killer. You too are in luck! DateCheck, your one-stop iPhone app for criminal background checks, proof of employment, and even horoscopic compatibility (with some rudimentary social networking integration thrown in for good measure) is available right this minute, free of charge, from the App Store.
No trip through the Paranoia Pavilion (not an officially sanctioned CES pavilion, by the way) would be complete without a visit to the kids at Taser International. The company’s big announcement this year was a little something called Protector, a subscription-based parental control service that runs on smart phones and PCs. Using the GPS that’s standard issue in most mobile phones, parents can now track their child’s location and monitor their driving habits. In addition, the ability to manage the contact lists and content of their child’s phone (including texts, emails, photos and video) means that anxious parents might someday be able to fool themselves into believing that their kids aren’t “sexting.” Indeed, Protector, along with the recently-announced Axon brand head-mounted digital video recorder for law enforcement (with Web 2.0 integration!), signals Taser’s transformation from less-lethal arms manufacturer into an all-around protection company. Which, when you think about it, makes sense: Tasers are wonderful, after all, but the market is pretty limited (at least compared to the number of voyeuristic parents in the country).
The highlight of the company’s presentation wasn’t the smug feeling that you get knowing that middle class children are finally safe from their own biological urges, however. The highlight was the fact that every fifteen minutes the president of the company would come out, deliver his spiel, and zap a select member of the audience with a Taser! Now, don’t get me wrong: the present author understands how uncertain and chaotic the world has become, and how in the absence of real security people will run out to sext-proof their home or run background checks on every potential sex offender they brush up against in a bar. As irrational as these things are, they are evidence of a feeling of insecurity that’s all too uncommon in the world. But what does this have to do with members of the audience volunteering to be Tased? Maybe I don’t understand our society’s pervading sense of guilt as well as I thought.
CELEBRITY SIGHTINGS. Guilt and punishment aren’t the only ways to have fun at a trade show. After all, it wouldn’t be capitalism if there weren’t a few paid-for celebrities on hand to make us uncomfortable. Those cats lucky enough to attend Sony’s press event, f’rinstance, found themselves serenaded by the sweet, sweet sound of a certain Ms. Taylor Swift, while a quick trip to the bathroom got me stuck in a throng of Tommy Lee fans waiting to hear the wise businessman sell the crowd on his latest online business venture (I’m pretty sure the term “kick ass” was used, like, a half dozen times in about ten minutes). But the one celeb that really captured my imagination (read: sick sense of humor) was the indefatigable Lady Gaga. This girl is obviously a quick study — from shilling Dr. Dre headphones to being named a creative director for special projects at Polaroid in just a few short months! Of course, Polaroid went bust quite a while ago: the logo is really all that remains, the property of a holding company that will allow you to slap it on damn near anything for the right price. Ms. Gaga, too, is a brand of sorts — and a sometimes amusing one at that. Her backing group never showed, but she did take the stage to read some classic PR drivel at a laudanum pitch: “Polaroid for me is a lifestyle… and what I’m excited about doing is working with Polaroid on taking the iconic image of the Polaroid instant film photo and bringing it into the digital era of cameras.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, kid.
* * *
On my last night in the city, my colleagues and I received what should have been the climax (or is it dénouement?) of this story: a chance invitation to an Adult Video News awards after-party. This was held at the The Venetian’s Tao restaurant / ultralounge / nightclub complex, where a twenty-foot tall Buddha towers above diners awkwardly, signifying as little to me in this context as it would if I were a hilly-billy draftee stumbling upon the thing in the jungles of Vietnam. Indeed, the imported likeness of good ol’ Siddhartha Gautama had the opposite of the intended effect: instead of peace and contentment, I experienced nothing less than five-alarm vertigo. Adding to my unease, everybody in this place seemed to be really tall — like, really tall. I swear that the top of my 5’8″ head never extended past the shoulders of anybody the entire night. Even friends of mine that I towered over back on the East Coast seemed to be looking down at the top of my head when we talked. The DJ played imminently danceable deep house music with the occasional diva wailing on about the kind of music I was hearing, and how it’s supposed to make me feel.
I lasted about two minutes.
Sure, you’d think that a heavy handed (con)fusion of China, Japan, and Thailand, populated by silicone-enhanced women and one Mr. Kid Rock would be right up my alley — and normally you’d be right — but there were things on my mind that evening besides schadenfreude. My companions were incredulous: How could I bail so early? A late night rendezvous, perhaps? Lingering cocaine migraine? Gambling habit finally catching up with me? I didn’t offer any excuses, though — it was handshakes and bear hugs all around, and then I was out on the street with its plastic surgery disasters, guys in airbrushed bowling shirts, and day laborers passing out business card-sized glossy flyers advertising the services of Kendra (“Totally Nude! Full Service! $35 special!”) and Heidi & Honey (“$79 2-girl special; To your room in 20 mins or less”). An unsettling cross between old-time carny barkers and migrant farm workers, they went out in groups of two or three that night, but in the afternoons they would gather by the dozen. Nary an English speaker among them, these middle-men would get your attention by vigorously snapping the corners of two piles of flyers against each other, with a sound not unlike that of a baseball card stuck in the spokes of a bike. When thirteen or fourteen people are doing it the effect is frightening, like a swarm of man-sized locusts or something. Not that I would take exception to an encounter with Heidi, Honey, or the pair of them! Unfortunately, the $79 introductory price just gets ‘em to your hotel room. Beyond that, the cost climbs quickly and considerably.
Indeed, for all the talk of prostitution and night life, the highlight of my trip was something so seemingly insignificant as to be pathetic: a free hotel room. You see, through a few accidents of disorder (including some real estate shenanigans on my ex-landlord’s part, a last-minute sublet with a roommate that turned out to be mentally ill and violent, and nothing less than the G20 Summit itself — so, in a sense, I blame Barack Obama for the whole mess) I was essentially homeless, and had been living in all-night diners and friend’s couches for over a month. Of course, things could be much worse — but the whole experience really drives home how easy it is to lose it all if you don’t have a “safety net” of some sort. And, as we all know, safety nets are getting pretty scarce these days.
So there I was, in a city that bases its whole existence on the power of illusion: the illusion that it can exist forever as an air-conditioned oasis in the desert, the illusion that you could “beat the house,” and the illusion that whatever you do there will have no impact on the rest of your life. And the biggest illusion, of course, is America’s firm belief that safety, security, and planetary harmony will all be yours if you make the right purchases. And I was indulging in an illusion as well. Laying in bed that night I was living out a wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s become all too common in this country: that I had a home.
This article originally appeared in a vastly different form (with lots of great pictures) on Engadget.