CES & The Politics Of Distraction

Lots of folks are annoyed that Ivanka Trump is giving a “keynote discussion” at next week’s Consumer Electronics Show (“CES”). It could be worse than you think.

Trump will join CES leader Gary Shapiro to discuss “jobs and the future of work,” according to this story in The Guardian, which is annoying because she has about as much insight into those topics as, well, you or me, and perhaps less since she has no experience in technology.

Could it be that the consumer tech industry’s trade group wants to curry favor with the government?

Of course, such sucking up happens no matter who is in office, but it’s usually done in private. Forcing it on CES attendees is an insult to the many, many women who do have deep tech cred, along with a commensurate level of quality insights. There are also many women who know a boatload more about jobs and the future of work.

The tech industry has a problem recognizing women generally, not to mention treating them with respect, so this invitation comes across as a lame gesture to please one woman while slighting pretty much everyone else.

But it could be even worse.

Whether you love or hate President Trump, a key component of his leadership style has used distraction: While saying and sometimes doing one thing, he and his party’s leadership do other things.

Things like pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, or getting chummy with dictators…each is a full-time news story in and of itself, only we don’t talk about them because the President seems to intentionally prefer to piss people off (or, if you’re a supporter, send chills up and down your spine). There’s no time to focus or follow-up on anything.

Do you know what ever happened to all those kids lost at the border? How about how much stronger NATO is now that some countries have forked up more cash? Can you cite the substantive differences between NAFTA and USMCA?

Yeah, I can’t either.

The reason why distraction, or misdirection, is a tried-and-true tool for magicians and politicians alike is because it lets them control, quite literally, what people see. Technology companies have used it too, like Google and Facebook collecting and using data to manage how people see the world while distracting them from considering the implications of that oversight with offers of “free” benefits and better shopping experiences.

So what is it that they want us to miss at CES?

I know this is a reach, but what if the technology coming out this year could raise questions and concerns about privacy to a whole new level? What if we’re near a step-change in AI that will fundamentally transform how we work and live? Could continued tech innovation represent a threat to the global environment larger than anyone understands (I’m thinking massive growth alone in the electricity needed to run all those server farms)?

You wouldn’t know it from the other speakers scheduled to appear…they’re all qualified but in an evangelist believer mode versus independent, thoughtful observers. And the CES hype machine — both the show organizers and key exhibitors — has been hard at work promoting rosy, almost embarrassingly happy versions of what our robot-dominated future will look like, such as this story.

Maybe the point of booking Ivanka Trump is to get us talking about her so we don’t talk about the other stuff, whatever it is?

By Jonathan Salem Baskin

I'm a writer, musician, and science junkie.

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