Sony/Honda’s Afeela prototype creeps on stage at a CES press conference. (Image: David Benjamin)
By David Benjamin
“… Feelings, whoa, oh, oh, feelings/ Whoa, oh, oh, feel it again in my arms/ Feelings, whoa, oh, oh, feelings/ Whoa, oh, oh, feel it/ Whoa, oh, again” — Morris Albert
Watching a relay team of Sony, Honda and Microsoft execs at a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) “press conference” Monday as they meandered toward the unveiling of a prototype “software-defined vehicle” (car) called Afeela, I found myself idly pondering the possible etymology of its name.
I suspected that “Afeela” might be a corporate appropriation of the bonding device, likely derived from hiphop culture: “I feel ya.” Applying this coinage, it’s easy to discern a motif that recurs annually and persistently at CES.
The masters of the consumer electronics gadget industry say that they want—above all other considerations—to usher “humankind” into “experiences” that will make us all feel better. Really! Why else go into business?
The ideal CES forum for conveying this altruistic theme is either a “keynote” address—the Consumer Technology Association stages a dozen or so every year—or a “press conference.”
You might have noted the quotation marks. This is because the so-called “press” at CES is a motley melange of bloggers, vloggers, influencers, fanziners and plain old fans, early adapters, shills, hackers and rubberneckers. There remain a few old-school ink-stained wretches like me. But we’re a dying breed.
Demographics aside, I’ve never endured a CES “press conference” during which any conferring occurred. The invited media are offered no opportunity to query the corporate leaders on stage. No reporter compelled—if he or she wants a seat—to queue up for one of these hypefests has ever tried, or expected, to ask a question. It’s all pedigreed dog and thoroughbred pony.
The consolation in this one-way news “conference” is that it’s largely news-free. For example, the star gadget in Sony’s show, the Afeela-mobile, was at least six months old. I looked up comments made in June, about the car’s prototype, by Nakul Duggal, who’s head honcho for automotive stuff and cloud computing at Qualcomm, the company responsible for Afeela’s in-car electronics hardware.
‘Digital living room’
Duggal proved an excellent pitchman for the touchy-feely angle on gadgetry. He referred to the inside of the car as an “ecosystem,” thus suggesting the harmony of all living things—animals, trees, butterflies, people, cars, chainsaws. He called the Afeela interior a “digital living space,” echoing other techno-promoters who foresee a car—twinkling and thumping with video screens, dashboard game displays, rock ’n’ roll and holographic porn stars—as a “digital living room.”
I’ve suggested to a consumer electronics expert that, nowadays, the only people who “live” in their cars do so involuntarily. They’re homeless. But I’m reminded that these people are residents of old-fashioned, internal-combustion “analog” living spaces that will soon be as outdated as … well, me.
CES press conferences typically present two sorts of products. The first is something that’s been on the market for a while but it’s been “reinvented” to keep it up to date or to correct flaws that threaten its survival. The other, like Afeela, is a techno-miracle, still on the drawing board or spinning ‘round the test track, that will—when it’s ready—transform society and gently guide people toward a utopia for which the current crop of humans might be ill-prepared to appreciate.
Or, as Marty told his parents’ generation in Back to the Future, “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.”
In thirty-odd years at CES, I’ve witnessed the coming and going of many imminent miracles. I’ve seen more artist’s renderings of Paradise—projected on twenty-foot screens eighty feet wide in sprawling ballrooms at the Sands, Venetian, Mandalay Bay, etc.—than I could count. For instance, I’m still awaiting the proliferation of intuitive smart homes that know where you’re going, when you’re coming back, what you want from your smart fridge after you’ve crossed the smart threshold and whether you need to go to the smart toilet for number one or number two. These smart homes will fill smart cities whose smart streets teem—safely—with driverless cars and trucks, buses, trams and dumb kids on smart bicycles.
“Look, ma! No hands!”
I cautiously expect some variation of this Jetsonworld to emerge eventually, although piecemeal and subject to the economic straits of its inhabitants. It will look nothing like the giant slides—augmented with strobes and pyrotechnics—in the Palazzo ballroom. I hope to Christ it doesn’t resemble Blade Runner.
But the future’s not the point.
The mission of CES, every year, is not to mark tangible progress toward a time in which the advance of technology fulfills the promises made by marcom sharks. Like any trade show, CES is a pep rally. CTA chief Gary Shapiro’s job is to create—on every exhibitor’s behalf—a buzz so loud it drowns out the outside world. CES returns bigger and better every year so that all those credulous influencers will gape and go “ooh” and take photos, make videos, flood TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, etc., with images of the Next Big Things, thus allaying the anxieties of the investment community and keeping the wolves from the door.
CES also has a psychological role, to stir the emotions of participants about its products and to assure them that they’re all making gadgets that are worthwhile and doing business that’s good, proper and virtuous. These are mothers of invention who are NOT only in it for the money.
But listen carefully. Sony’s presenters assiduously referred to the employees making their films, music and games as “creators,” shining on them a weird glow of godliness. By and by, however, the script slipped. All those songs, movies, screenplays and medieval fantasy worlds fell back under the heading of “content.” This candid slip of the tongue restored Sony’s artists, writers, lyricists, singers, composers, actors, directors and animators to a familiar, expendable commodity: “content providers.”
Finally, what about us fragile human creatures whose feelings—not our wallets—are the reason for all “innovations” to exist, progress and create new things that make the previous things old and useless. They want for us, “the joy of experiencing life’s potentialities, “a new experience that defies conventional wisdom,” “a creative entertainment space in an immersive experience.”
Eventually, as each presenter drones on about the human “experience,” he or she reverts to words like “customer” and “consumer,” which after all gives away the game—the “C” in CES.
But never mind ulterior motives. After the Sony people finally pushed the world’s only Afeela onto the stage, I took a quick photo of the car and headed toward the exit. Except I couldn’t.
The aisles were filled. I turned away from the stage to a wall of faces, camera lenses and uplifted smartphones that illuminated eyes round with wonder. They were packed like poultry in a factory farm, credulous and awestruck, gaping at a car that isn’t yet a car, peering into a future that’s already six months old, willing to believe a promise that lies somewhere between a pipe dream and a crap shoot.
Which is probably why CES takes place in Vegas, where pilgrims come to make their fortune and almost everybody goes home busted. Some even end up living in their cars.
David Benjamin, an author, essayist and veteran journalist, has been examining the human element in high technology for more than 20 years. His novels and non-fiction books, published by Last Kid Books, have won more than a dozen literary awards. Most recently, his coming-of-age novel, They Shot Kennedy, had won the 2021 Midwest Book award in the category of literary/contemporary/historical fiction.
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