CES 2013: The World's Largest Electronics Tradeshow, Buddhism, and the Illusion of Choice

TechCocktail/CC BY-SA 2.0

At 7:30 in the morning, I arrived at the airport on my way to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And as is my habit, I stopped to grab a magazine at the book shop. A magazine that would entirely change the way I approached this conference.

CES is the biggest consumer electronics show on the planet, and if you've been there, that statement is easy to believe. The tradeshow covers ‪1.9 million square feet of exhibition space‬, and over 150,000 people gather to see what some 3,200 companies have to offer them in gadgetry.

I have attended CES for four years now. I started out hopeful. The first year, I looked for anything green in consumer electronics, and for what could be made green if effort were applied. The second year, I wanted to report on any improvements I saw, any movement that pushed the needle closer to sustainability. Sadly, there was little in that area to report. The third year was a grab-n-go: I looked only at what was here at the show that TreeHuggers would be interested in, and left it at that since the CE industry was leaving green behind like a bad fashion choice. And this year, well this year I picked up that magazine and ultimately made a decision.

There is one thing that is painfully clear to me each year I am here. We produce too much stuff to the point of redundancy and even ridiculousness. The consumer electronics industry is bound up in this truth: the myriad choices we are given as consumers of gadgets is pure illusion. Instead of freedom through modern gadgetry, we are unwittingly made increasingly unhappy by it.

Three things made this post unavoidable for me today.

Choice and Freedom

First, it was that magazine I picked up. I rarely read Tricycle, but the magazine's theme was Science and Buddhism and I was intrigued. And the article that caught my attention is called "Freedom and Choice: Breaking Free From the Tyranny of Reaction" by Ken McLeod. The article boils down to the idea that we think choice equates to freedom but the opposite is actually true. "The illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom."

Don't worry if you're asking, "Huh?" I did too.

McLeod writes that choice requires us to react. A constant stream of choices requires constant reactions. And when we are constantly reacting to the world, we aren't living freely within it and enjoying what is actually there.

"The more options you have, the more energy you have to invest in making decisions. Which shampoo? Which car? Which movie? Your energy and attention are consumed by these decisions and you have less left with which to live your life… When you have no choice, you have to learn how to relate to what life brings you. You can't weave a comfortable cocoon."

This can sound like a highly debatable concept to someone living in a culture where choice reigns supreme, especially in the market place; where having choice as a consumer equates to having control over our lives. But McLeod is certainly not the first person to bring up the concept that having many choices actually leads us to unhappiness. In particular, I'm thinking of psychologist Barry Schwartz, who points out that choice has not made us more free and happier, but instead more pinned down and unhappy. I am also thinking of psychologist Dan Gilbert who points out that having choices, and doubting our ability to choose what will make us most happy, actually makes us pretty miserable. (Both of those links, by the way, lead to outstanding TED talks which you should definitely watch at some point if you haven't already.)

Really, the concept is not far fetched at all. Having a multitude of choices is hard, much harder perhaps than having one choice. Or if anything, having choices is ultimately no more freeing than having no choice.

The Limitations of Excessive Choice in Electronics

A second article zeroing in on the illusion of choice within consumer electronics popped up mid-day, and added to my spinning thoughts about the quantity of items on display at CES and the subjective usefulness of all of them.

One of the things I wanted to pay attention to at this year's show is the conversation around connected devices, or the Internet of Things. Companies have been working for years to connect our devices -- smart appliances that we can set up and run via our tablet devices, security systems that can be controlled using our smart phones. Even the popular Nest Thermostat is designed to learn our habits and control our home's heating and cooling all on its own. Everything all connected, so that we don't have to think about anything or worry about it (and yes, ultimately hopefully save energy with smart grid technology). Everything we own all linked up and functioning together. But is this even possible? Not really. At least not so easily, and not all that soon.

In Mobile ecosystems and the growing impotence of choice, Brad McCarty writes that while it seems like we have more choices than ever for smart phones and tablet devices, we are actually setting ourselves up to be bogged down by one ecosystem -- run by Apple, Microsoft, or Google -- and that which choice we make in the beginning actually limits all our other choices. It's not just about which smart phone we want, because we will want that phone to connect to our TVs (Apple TV or Google TV or Microsoft XBox??) and our tablets and so on.

And in this, we are setting ourselves up for unhappiness, as Dan Gilbert notes, because we will forever be doubting if we are the happiest we could be and wondering if folks using a different ecosystem have it better. We'll especially think so when even more "choices" hit the marketplace.

"So here we are, at the intersection of choice. Make no mistake, this is exactly where the major players wanted us to be. The more invested you are within one ecosystem, the less likely you are to change. But the increasing lack of cooperation between platforms will not play out to the advantage of the consumer…Now more than ever choice is becoming the enemy of the consumer electronics buyer. It’s not just a matter of what brand you want sitting in your pocket or in your living room, it’s a decision that can affect every other aspect of your future purchases. Choose well, because changing your mind is about to cost a lot of money," writes McCarty.

Choice suddenly doesn't sound so freeing, does it?

Less Choice, More Simplicity

What the creation of the Internet of Things also says is that we have too many things. We can't control or keep track of all the electronics in our lives without them being "smart" for us. We are really asking for simplicity. Again, we want everything to work together so that we don't have to keep track of managing all those things individually.

And this is where a third article I read today on this topic came into play, ultimately changing the way I am approaching CES this year. Lloyd wrote on an article in Sunset Magazine about families choosing to turn away from technology and "unplug."

Jess Chamberlain in her Sunset article, "But what 'unpluggers' like Corliss and Wegman have decided is that technology, despite its promises to improve our lives and make it more efficient, often distracts us from more meaningful interactions. At the heart of the unplugging movement is a desire, à la Thoreau, to get back to a purer way of living: to rediscover hobbies, use your hands, get outdoors, have a conversation that isn’t mediated by bits and bytes."

While today I was in the largest crowds I have been in since probably last year's CES, I had one meaningful and joyful interaction with a human -- when I surprisingly ran into a friend in the hall and we chatted for awhile. (I love when the world reminds us how small it actually is.) I am around all this technology, and I am in longer "conversations" with people on my Twitter and Facebook streams than the hundreds of people I walked by today, or the many I sat next to or stood next to or even dined next to. It is in large part because of all this technology that I have not had to have meaningful interactions with people standing around me. Why do that when I have my iPhone, all the people I know who have their smart phones, and we're all gabbing away on social media platforms, email and text? I don't have to speak to a stranger standing next to me because I can busy myself in my iPhone -- and everyone thinks that's okay.

How do consumer electronics actually improve our lives? I ask this question in all seriousness.

The answer I pose is that for any "improvement" we gain from electronics, we also lose something that connects us to ourselves, to being human, to being part of our immediate surroundings, to being part of the natural world, even to our own minds. As an example, instead of practicing mindfulness while eating to regain a connection with our food and bodies, announced this week at CES is "smart" cutlery that will tell you when you've eaten too much. Yes, now even our silverware can't be made of metal but of electronic components so that we don't have to think about what we are doing. And we wonder if we haven't gone over the deep end!

As gadgets give us access to other gadgets, we lose access to more important things.

A Different Approach on What Matters

So back to CES and all it has to offer for readers. Yes, I'm still going to write this week about what technology is at CES that TreeHuggers would be interested in. That is my job while here, and there are indeed some companies doing really cool things. I'm looking forward to writing about devices from the One Laptop Per Child initiative, the latest from 3D Systems and their Cubify printer, and more. However, I leave behind the gusto for writing post after post after post on every device I can find; I leave behind the panic at missing any new device that might use solar power or any company that just boosted its recycling program by a little bit. Those are just pieces of a much larger, and much more cumbersome story that we work to tell every day anyway.

I have watched the idea of "green" come and go at CES, a worrying notion since CES is essentially a representation of the activity within the consumer electronics industry as a whole. "Green" was such a big deal at one time, with electronics companies gearing up to tout how their product will cut vampire power, or use fewer watts, or boost recycling rates. But it was just the talk of the hour, a fashion that faded. No, what companies kept front and center even while supposedly worrying about the environment is the notion that they cannot survive without providing consumers with a constant stream of choice, and making consumers chose their own company's product over others in the marketplace. But here we are back to that Buddhist notion again -- that "the illusion of choice is an indication of a lack of freedom." And so it is with consumer electronics. The more we have to choose from, the more confusing and even burdensome navigating the world actually feels.

So this is the environmental concept that I leave you with, a message blaring loud at CES for those who wish to listen: sustainability is still a serious issue in electronics whether or not it is still discussed, and our commitment to this thing we call choice is keeping us from moving in that direction at a pace rapid enough to matter to our planet.

If we are to choose among all these many consumer electronics, perhaps the best choice is simply to choose them less often.

Tags: CES | longreads

2014 Gift Guide

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK