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Thoughts on the Plane to CES

IMG_6570As one who organizes conferences and conversations about how technology transforms business and society, I’m acutely conscious of the continuing value of the in-person connection. One might think that the triumph of digital communications systems like Facebook or Skype or FaceTime or even SMS messaging and iChat would have changed the landscape. But CES is its a powerful rebuttal of that notion.

Here, every January just after New Year’s, as if to force upon recently idle strivers the urgency of redoubling their labors, converge hundreds of thousands of tech-focused leaders, strategists, inventors, financiers, retailers, and of course journalists. CES, now just an acronym, has until this year stood for the Consumer Electronics Show. It’s American tech’s biggest trade show, fiesta, business meeting, glad-handing exercise, walking course, and source of both elation and frustration.

Tech, like all other human activities, is ultimately a human activity, and humans want and need to get together with other humans. That they are even more prone than those in most other industries to go to conferences, conventions, meetings, thinkfests, brainstorms, and suchlike is in my opinion one of the secrets to the tech industry’s long-standing energy and steady progress.

Arriving early morning at Newark Airport for my flight to Las Vegas my colleague Josh Kampel and I ran into friends and acquaintances from companies including Conde Nast, Nielsen, Spotify, WebMD, and New York software giant AppNexus in the boarding area and on the plane.

Just about anyone even vaguely connected with tech could quite possibly be found at CES. (When we checked in to our hotel we ran into Slava Rubin, CEO of Indiegogo. I told him about the piece I was writing. “CES is one giant networking event,” he said. “Instead of having to fly all over the country for weeks to meet people, they all come here and you can meet with them in a couple days.”)

Setting up on the show floor.

Setting up on the show floor.

One of the huge issues in Vegas this year, as last, is the growing centrality of the so-called Internet of Things. Devices are what this show is meant to showcase, and while today’s world of tech is increasingly intangible and virtual, the IoT has a lot of T. Such devices connect to the Net and sometimes to each other, generating data that can range from your pulse to the pollen count. But what the IoT is really about is the world entering a true age of interconnection–where data is generated from disparate human activities both by hardware as well as apps and software. The key is that the data goes into the cloud and can add up to better information, decision making and even automated improvements in our health, our environment, our cities, our factories, or all kinds of other things. Techonomy thinks this IoT transition is so important we’re making it the theme of all our activities in 2016, including our main conference in Half Moon Bay, California November 9-11 and our one-day New York event on May 26.

It’s been much commented-upon this year that the auto industry is in Vegas in force. But that’s because tech ain’t what it used to be. Cars, too, are becoming part of the Internet of Things. As they get connected, they are becoming electric and self-driving, over time, and software is increasingly the most differentiated thing about them. Apple, Google, Lyft, Tesla, and Uber–all ostensible “tech” companies in Wall Street parlance–are careening into an industry that’s increasingly being rethought. GM this week invested $500 million in Lyft, and last night on the Bloomberg West TV show, GM President Daniel Ammann spoke about how the two companies will together work to address “consuming mobility.” That’s not your mother’s GM.

Meanwhile Ford, a company that has talked about itself as not just a carmaker but also a “mobility provider” for some time, reportedly is working with Google. It has all kinds of software and alliance-related announcements up its sleeve this week. (One biggie was an agreement with Amazon to take the Echo software out of the living room and put it in Ford vehicles soon: “Alexa–turn on the windshield wipers.”) The automaker’s F-150 pickup includes more than 150 million lines of software code, so these are now truly mobile computers on wheels.

Along with obvious eminences like Salesforce’s Marc Benioff or Fitbit’s James Park or IBM’s Ginni Rometty, smart executives from every industry flock here if they’ve figured out that what they do will be profoundly altered by connectivity, smartphones, apps, and software. Last year Josh and I spoke with leaders from JP Morgan Chase and Kraft, for instance, and this year we’re lunching with a bunch of senior execs from GE. These are the smart ones. I challenge readers to name an industry that won’t confront massive tech-driven change in coming years. That’s why I am increasingly uncomfortable even speaking about a “tech” industry–tech is becoming an integral part of every industry.

Maybe the influx of executives from companies in other industries will dilute one of the funny ironies of CES. The geeks in the crowd generally don’t care much about gambling. Drinking and partying still gets a lot of attention, of course. Sleep is generally not a major priority.

Everybody spends three days or so struggling to make it on time to appointments spread over a city with virtually-nonexistent public transportation and quasi-gridlock during this massive influx. Whatever hardware, software, service or idea we’re flogging, we leave with tons of new connections and sore calfs. And then we get ready to go to the next conference.

When we finally got to Vegas, it was raining...

When we finally got to Vegas, it was raining…

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