LAS VEGAS — Washington is one American power center. Silicon Valley is another. But if any national policymakers entertained the idea that most of the tech industry lives in constant dread of D.C. — with voters complaining about privacy and CEOs forced to testify before Congress — they would have gotten a wake-up call at this year’s CES.
The nation’s largest technology conference drew more than 170,000 people to Las Vegas this week, showing off the kinds of disruptive or data-hungry technologies that worry the industry’s critics and vex regulators. People dined on synthetic meats, played with cryptocurrency apps, demoed “Star Trek”-like home body scanners and kicked the tires on Alexa-commanded cars. And through it all ran a carefree, even triumphalist streak — a display of spending and celebrity appearances in which tech’s travails in the capital were barely a blip.
Of the national policy debate, “there’s still a feeling that it’s kinda far away,” said Zach Graves, the head of policy at the right-of-center tech advocacy group Lincoln Network, calling Washington too slow-moving and too ignorant of how tech works to merit much concern. “There’s still a little bit of the attitude of ‘Build it, disrupt, and deal with the regulation later.’”
The conference did feature CES’ first-ever discussion of breaking up the big tech companies — an idea getting a lot of debate, thanks to politicians like Elizabeth Warren, that once would have seemed unthinkable. But that proposal lacked any real champions. “It would have been even more lively if a ‘break ‘em up’ advocate was also on the panel,” said Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Robert Atkinson, who spoke at Thursday’s session on the topic and argued against breakups.
That panel, along with similar sessions on issues like privacy, artificial intelligence and blockchain regulation, was held on the Las Vegas Convention Center’s sleepier upper floors, away from the glitz and buzz of the multistory showroom halls where people poked, prodded or swooned over products like sweat-analyzing skin patches, a DNA-powered wrist strap that warns wearers about poor food choices and smartwatches for kids promising parents real-time location tracking. That’s not to mention the Twitter and Amazon parties where Snoop Dogg played DJ and Guy Fieri mixed cocktails.