Here in the land of tech and business, January means CES — the massive consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. At CES this year we’re also peering into a whole new decade. I’ll be there covering the event, as will a lot of other tech journalists, including WIRED editor-in-chief Nicholas Thompson.
Historically, CES has been a fizzy and fun celebration of gadgets, TVs, drones and phones, but in the last couple years the sentiment toward tech has turned a bit. I asked Nick Thompson whether a new focus on privacy and the “techlash” would be felt at the show this year. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Nick Thompson: I think they’re going to sidestep that again. I think that maybe you’ll feel the response to the backlash at 10% of CES, maybe it was 5% last year. You’ll have a little more of a response. You have a few more gadgets that are designed to protect your privacy, a few more gadgets that are designed at limiting surveillance. Last year, I showed up and I said, “You know what, this is the year where CES responds to techlash.” The first product I saw was basically a device that sells all your baby’s data to anybody.
Molly Wood: Let’s talk about 5G, the next generation of wireless. Do you think that CES will actually give us some insight into what to expect from it that isn’t mostly marketing?
Thompson: Yes. 5G is interesting, because we think of it as one technology in one moment that will happen in one day but, of course, it’s not that. It’s chips that are compatible with 5G devices, devices that work on 5G networks, building those 5G networks, then having applications that are specifically built for that. There are about a hundred steps in the equation to get us to 5G, so we’ll see improvements at each and every step. My plan is to go in there looking for products that genuinely don’t work on 4G, and will only work on 5G, and then I’m going to try to think about what exactly those are and what those will tell us about the 5G future.
Wood: There has been pretty regular criticism, last year in particular, including from me, of CES giving an award to a company that made a sex toy for women, [CES] then took back the award, then gave it back again. They’re still working on proper representation, I guess you could say, in their keynote lineups and across the show. What’s your sense of how CES has responded over the last year?
Thompson: I think that on the question of representation, I think like most of technology, it’s become a far bigger question than it was one year ago or two years ago or three years ago. It’s also with an event like CES, where you have a lot of legacy slots and similar companies with similar people with similar booths from year to year, it’s like turning a large ship on a harbor. I think that there is change, and it’s not as fast as one might think. On the sex toys thing, I think it’ll be a huge change. Last year, you couldn’t show award-winning sex toys. I think this year, there’ll be tons of sex toys, which is appropriate both for gender parity, and also because it’s Las Vegas.
Wood: We’re going into CES 2020, and I know that every year there’s this conversation: Will there be anything new? Should there be anything truly new? But I feel like the pressure is on to start a new decade with something cool, right? Do you expect to see anything truly new? If there was ever a year to land a spaceship on top of the convention center, this is the year, right?
Thompson: I think the nature of CES, though, is that it’s impossible to have something truly new, because if you had something truly new, it would be at one small booth in the corner one year, and then maybe three or four companies would have the same idea and something similar. There will always be people for whom it was new and people for whom it wasn’t new. The notion that there’s going to be some kind of device or some kind of idea that will completely blow your mind is unlikely. But there’s going to be all kinds of great stuff that we’ve barely seen before. I’m super interested in foldable glass, for example. We’ve seen it, it’s been out there for a little bit, hasn’t quite worked. It’s probably not going to really work this year, either, but will be further along than [it was] last year.
Wood: I’m excited about foldable glass. I actually think that it looks really neat. I want to see it get better. What do you think we’re going to see? We’re obviously also in the middle of the tariff war, we’re in the middle of China building, arguably, a parallel tech economy. What do you think we’ll see from Chinese manufacturers?
Thompson: I think we’re going to see a fair amount. Last year there were many more Chinese companies that I’ve never seen before at CES. Part of that is because China has been catching up in all ways to the U.S. tech sector. But this year is going to be tricky, because China’s tech is way more advanced. But we’ve also driven a wedge between the two countries –– Huawei being put on the entities list; U.S. companies have been told they can’t work with Huawei. It is harder for the Chinese companies and U.S. companies to work together, which may put some pressure on the Chinese companies or give them some disincentives to come from CES. I’m incredibly interested in seeing how many are there, what they’ve got, how advanced it looks and, also, whether there are any kind of foundational differences in what you see in the Chinese products from what you see in the U.S. products.