CES 2021 in review: gadgets & guardrails

While entirely virtual this year, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) had all the usual trappings of the futuristic tech gadgets prototyped and brought to market that it is known for. Rollable phones stole the show, along with enormous and transparent screens. The pandemic loomed large, inspiring sanitizing robots, touchless doorbells, and air filter monitoring smart masks. CES, as always, teemed with some absurd and puzzling products we may not want or need—the Keurig of ice cream, poop-analyzing wellness toilets, wine-pouring butler robots, AI-powered emotional support furballs, and a $3000 doggie door.

Aside from the virtual format, this year also stood out with efforts to grapple with the industry’s biggest challenge: the techlash. Industry leaders across the conference called for regulation and policy interventions to address tech’s challenges.

  • In his opening remarks, Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro said the Biden administration should help to promote clarity and provide “rational and clear guardrails” while keeping US companies competitive globally.
  • Top policy execs at Twitter, Google, and Amazon were bullish that the likely introduction of federal privacy laws would help address cross-border data transfer issues and rationalize a patchwork of data protection regulations across jurisdictions (regulation we've predicted is likely to come to fruition in 2021).
  • Microsoft president Brad Smith also called on industry and government to address not only tech's potential, but also its “peril,” citing the SolarWinds “mass indiscriminate global assault on the technology supply chain” as the latest reminder of the vulnerability of our interdependent infrastructure. "Every day when we go to work, we will decide whether tech is used for good or ill," Smith said. "Technology has no conscience but people do and we must exercise our conscience."

Despite attempts to address the industry's dwindling consumer confidence, the discussion felt like it was happening in a vacuum. A panel titled “Is big really bad? What to do about Big Tech” posed the question as a foregone conclusion. The short list of panelists lacked any consumer advocate representative to balance the perspectives of a conservative lobbyist and a think tank representing the innovation and competitiveness interests of the industry. Despite being presented as “live,” much of the virtual event was prerecorded—as early as December—so while industry experts answered the question: “why is this techlash phenomenon happening, and is it likely to die out or only intensify with the new administration?,” the capitol insurrection, deplatforming, and impeachment were glaringly absent from the conversation. All of which left attendees wondering why we had to follow the dictates of a schedule at all (a programming choice that certainly wouldn’t end up in any virtual events best practices list).

CES missed yet another chance for relevance. The trade show has always been a PR-driven dog and pony show, and this year's carefully orchestrated virtual production only confirmed that. The show has slowly lost relevance as software and services became a locus of innovation in consumer technology and as premier consumer tech companies like Apple and Facebook run launch events of their own. The tech industry can no longer afford to push products in a vacuum. The biggest challenges facing the industry revolve around how tech's power has impacted the lives of consumers and citizens. CES needs to figure out how to bring the consumers of its namesake back into the center of the discussion.