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CES 2067: Welcome to the future

CES started back in the summer of 1967, showcasing with such cutting-edge gear as transistor radios and reel-to-reel tape recorders. This fictional "what if?" imagines what it will be like to attend the show 50 years from now.

James Martin/CNET

Editors' note: The first CES -- the event originally known as the Consumer Electronics Show -- ran from June 25 to 28, 1967 in New York. In celebration of the show's fiftieth anniversary, we asked CNET's Scott Stein to imagine what the show would look like on its centennial.

All the media drones fly early, at once, at the bell. It's a battle. Get lots of comfy gel around our eyes and ears to make sure we can stay looped in for a good long time. Channeling, winning the emotes.

Fifty years ago, people wondered if journalists, or "professional" media, would still exist. It does, now, but it's sometimes indistinguishable from its homegrown social media counterpart. Just more eyeballs to peek through. Stories to sift through. Even more filter bubbles, because no one really wants to be truly alone.

To understand the hundredth CES, you need to know what it was. 50 years ago the show was an actual place, thousands of square of feet of air-conditioned caverns and hotel rooms, buried in the desert. People would go there. Run around, watch press conferences. Visit booths. Discover and feel objects, watch demos of technology. To see it with their own eyes.

It was already shifted, then, than what it was fifty years before that. In 2017 it was more of a kick-off to a year filled with nonstop surprises than a defining summary. And the media was in transition: early attempts at live streaming via flat video, lots of social media (text shared by others), and photos. But CES in 2017 was about the technology industry. Big trends then included AI, "augmented reality," "virtual reality," the rise of "smart homes" and always-listening software. We heard a lot about peripherals that connected to phones, which were the most important devices of that age. There was plenty of early robotics, too, in all sorts of failed forms, and nascent self-driving cars.

Some people said CES was dying then. There was no use for it anymore.

You'd read this text, back then, as text. It wasn't translated, or animated, or "wrapped" into M-oji or visceralized emotions. There would be posts you'd read on a phone, or whatever, live from the show floor.

Ask your grandparents what it was like. President Trump. The Memes. Fears of artificial intelligence, of losing your job to automation. Drones. The rise of self-driving cars. The helmets and wires of what was called virtual reality. The most popular game involved people hunting Pokemon with their phones, in parks (this was before Pokemon were fully intelligent and independent, and were just game characters). Watch an episode of that classic early teens show, "Black Mirror," to get a good sense of some of the paranoia: it fit the age like "The Twilight Zone" did more than 50 years before that.

Some 2017 technology don't make sense anymore. The gadgets, in particular. They ran on batteries, so many batteries. Some of them exploded. Some needed special charging cables. It was an age of new shiny boxes and lots of screens and apps. Trade shows like this one dealt with remnants of consumer trends: TVs, laptops, phones. The "items people wanted to buy."

In 2067 there are still "gadgets," of course. Spuds, pods, bits. Bundles. Nothing works without getting patched again later. We're always being sold on the upgrades. Eventually, of course, that was silly. People bought whenever, from vending machines and flash sales. Downloaded all the extra parts. And then printed the other parts.


James Martin/CNET

The show assembles itself now, virtually. Our information comes to us, self-generated. There is no Vegas. We sense the world long and short distance, across infinite spaces and times. The show exists in a whole bunch of carefully curated forms, infinitely. There are still messes in the world. Will we self-organize robots to deep-drill Mars? Will replicating bots keep polluting flood regrowth zones? How do we fix the maze of worlds that's become our nested sets of realities? A show doesn't answer that. We've had all the previous years in archives that anyone can pop into and travel to. History has layers. But the current moment, it's complicated.

We still need to experience new ideas: how to grow robotic systems from replicating hives to something more interconnected with us. To evolve messy nested sets of AR worlds and all the broken-down parts into a clear, refined, simplicity. To repair and rehabilitate decayed smart home systems. Solving for biased surveillance systems. No interface is perfect. And we need to do it. Alone. See a thing never seen. At some point, in an ornate hotel room during a CES decades ago, visitors were asked to put goggles on their heads. They found themselves in a medieval village. Skating, sliding. Like riding an impossible carnival ride. A century earlier, filmgoers screamed at a projection of a train; with early VR, it was more about trying to avoid nausea.

There are still new things. Our self-assembling robotics develop new wrinkles -- like ways to sense and control across deeper distances, quick-learning cross-species communication and biological growth for fast farms. Or, the entirely post-text musical language of Generation Slide. Technology means changing the language.

CES '67 isn't just a tremendously popular family game. It was once a tech show, too. Now it's an organization run by maker contingents, hackers and solvers, something most people play, and the prizes can get insane for those who do well. Also, the whole Final Champion robot-league didn't exist. Strip away the points and the leaderboards. Forget X-97 and the Roster of Legends. In 2017, we still watched the NFL playoffs. Real people, televised on cameras, shown on flat televisions in hotel lobbies... as you know from looking at any archived Facebook videos.

We look forward, and things seem unpredictable. Weird. Scary. Apocalyptic. They still do. Fifty years ago, in 2017, the future was mysterious, daunting. And 50 years before that, in 1967, it was the same. And 50 years before that, in 1917. And in 1867.

We couldn't clearly imagine now back then, and similarly, we can't imagine 2117 right now at all. We think we might know, but the future is always seen through the prism of the present.

Today: how do you describe in text, to a 2017er? Eyes and bodies and senses floating in a connection to all things. Our deep, dark labyrinth of present, past, fantasy and every location at once, all data at once, layers and layers and layers. Our separate visions, our mixed worlds, the layered vibrations and tingles we can pick up across all things at all distances. We're tuned antenna. We speak without language. We jump into robots as interchangeably as our bodies. We're jumpers, and we print our ideas into reality, and dissolve them just as quickly. We're surrounded by ads, but they live inside us, and appear as relatives, buddy-ghosts, or in our messages like tiny mites.

Anyway. We also have families, and love each other. We worry. We need food and shelter. We manage our resources badly. The world is buried in the trash of the old. Some things don't change.

One thing that's really weird: trying to write this in text. In 2017, we already lived somewhere between writing and video, virtual and real. But it wasn't blended yet. It wasn't the language we've gotten used to since.

You can live in 2017, and we already do. Whatever time, obviously. (Provided you're subscribed.) But it's not the same as being then and not knowing what was next.

Join in and remember, and have fun.

This story was originally published on January 3, 2017.

Technically Literate: Original fiction about technology