CES: A Wonderful Example Of Not Knowing When To Stop

From a great distance, a massive waterfall is a beautiful thing. From a lesser distance, it’s deafening. Directly beneath it, it’ll crush your bones to salt.

Each year, we make our voyage through the waterfall that is CES. Each year, the noise gets a bit louder, the water a bit more torrential. This year is the first in which I’ve felt my bones begin to give.

Enough metaphor? Fine: CES, which has long been the biggest consumer tech show in the world, has gotten too big for its own (or anyone else’s) good.

For sake of context, let me step back a bit: while some are quick to dismiss it, I really dig the core concept behind CES. How could I not? The biggest companies in the world (minus one) all bringing their shiniest new toys to one spot at the same time? For anyone who even wonders if they’ve got a bit of geek blood in them, that sounds like heaven.

And it is! Or it was, to a point. While anyone who ever attends the same conference many years in a row — be it CES, CTIA, or the Tokyo Electronic Automobile And Games By Southwest World Congress — tends to eventually say “Conference X has really gone downhill”, it often really just boils down to the conference not living up to the impossible hype established by reminiscing on the collective good times of years prior. That’s not at all the problem with CES.

The problem is that the conference has grown to the point that there’s just too much everything. Too many booths. Too many products. Too many friggin’ people. It’s a signal-to-noise issue — and it’s only going to get worse.

I fully understand how curmudgeon-y this sounds, as if I’m complaining about having too much of a good thing. In a sense, I am. When you’re dealing with something so large, with so many people, with so many companies, there has to be a point where the people in charge say “Hey, maybe we should.. you know, stop growing.” Where, if it were to grow bigger, everyone’s job and experience would actually be made worse. Diminishing returns and all that.

CES is well past that point.

Take, for example, the pre-CES press event, Unveiled. Meant as a means of connecting the press with a limited crop of companies away from the chaos of the show floor, it’s become the epitome of everything that it was started to combat. There were so many people and so many exhibitors crammed into a hotel ballroom that, even a few hours in, simply trying to navigate from one side of the room to the other meant elbows to the face, spilled drinks, and a mountain of frustration. And to actually fight your way up to chat with one of the exhibitors? Heh. Good luck with that.

How is this good for anyone?

Meanwhile, the show floor itself has evolved (or, really, devolved) into something so mammoth that it would be literally impossible to see all (or even most) of it. It takes up not one, not two, but three separate multi-million square foot halls… and even then, it spills out into ballrooms and side venues all over Vegas. CEA (the company behind CES) boasts that CES has more exhibitors this year (3100+) than any year prior, going so far as to say that they’re searching for alternative venues outside of Vegas with more room for more exhibitors — as if that’s a good thing. Seriously, guys: signal. to. noise.

More companies means more news. Again, a great thing… to a point. Eventually, the news flow grows so rapid that even the stand-out products have trouble standing out. That’s not to say there’s a shortage of really, really cool stuff at CES this year — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. There’s so much cool stuff that no one — be they press, analysts, or the consumers back at home — can really give any of it the attention it deserves.

Making things worse, many companies have come to see CES as something of a competition. This is, admittedly, largely the fault of the tech press and the way we collectively choose to report; we argue who “won” CES, leading companies to both hold products they’ve had ready for months (seriously) and to announce things that won’t be ready for months in an effort to buff up their overall offering. The problem: everyone else had that very same idea.

Imagine a room full of scholars (or famed poets, dead celebrities, whatever). They all have something interesting to say, and that you’re just dying to hear. Alas, they all have to talk at the exact same time. While you may be able to pick up what some of the louder voices in the room are saying, the vast majority of it (regardless of how intelligent, wonderful, or news-worthy) blurs together into a mish-mash of nonsense. And yet, we just keep cramming them in.

Now, consider how all of these things affect the show down the line. More companies and more space requires more man power. At a point, more man-power means hiring people you otherwise wouldn’t have, thus lowering the overall quality of the staff. When the talent pool grows so dry that you’ve got people working the front desk who don’t think to make an exception for Leo Laporte and his missing paperwork at a press event, you’ve hit that point.

I hate to sound as if I dislike CES, but to act as if the show can just grow and grow without degradation is to spit in the face of simple logic. I love the idea, I’ve loved shows prior, and I hope to keep loving it (and plan to keep attending) in years to come — but if they continue this trend of quantity over quality, it just won’t happen.

(And for the sake of offering up constructive ideas rather than just criticizing: CES, split your show into two [One in January, one mid-year], thereby negating the urge companies get to front-load their news year. Meanwhile: Companies, stop mucking up the rest of the year by putting so many of your eggs in the CES basket.)