CES Proves Tech Companies Won't Be Happy Until We're All Drowning in Debt

By Gavin Whenman on at

The Consumer Electronics Show is done for another year and jaded tech reporters, hyper-caffeinated PR representatives and bleary-eyed industry staffers are now emerging into mid-January to take stock of an event that saw the usual mix of headline-grabbing novelty gadgets, absurdly large TVs and concerns over how poorly event organisers treat women, as well as a demonstration that tech companies want to put voice assistance everywhere.

Yes, even in the toilet.

But this year’s CES also demonstrated a more disturbing trend, one that has been gathering momentum in the industry for years and which is now hard to ignore: tech companies’ vision of the future caters for the rich and they expect the rest of us to become laden with debt if we’re going there with them.

There have always been over-priced toys at CES designed to appeal to the over-wealthy and under-thinking, like that robot that folds your clothes.

This really happened and it’s due out this year if you have more money than sense.

Nobody takes them seriously and this year the Lamborghini massage chair, a “smart yacht” and a cat treadmill caught our attention as the latest examples of costly tat that will probably be gathering dust in a fair few Silicon Valley basements in the coming years.

However, many mainstream products can now attract eye-watering prices and, as household debt in the UK not only hits a fresh high but continues to grow, the means by which the industry expects normal people to keep up has become clear.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with smartphones. Global smartphone sales fell last year for the first time as the product matured and everyone realised their current handset, even if it is a couple of years old and has a few dents and cracks here and there, wasn’t all that different from Apple and Samsung’s shiny new flagships and so they might as well hang on to it a bit longer.

Industry analysts have found people tend now to be replacing their phones roughly every three years rather than, as was the case at the start of this decade, every two and so it makes sense for smartphone makers to eke as much cash as they think you are willing to surrender for their freshest devices. Justifying the price increases this entails is one of the reasons bezels practically disappeared, displays were pushed to the limits of what a hand could comfortably hold and screens became curved, notched and, pretty soon, foldable.

A tech enthusiast earning the UK median full-time wage of around £29,000 might baulk at the prices smartphone makers demand – rumours are that Samsung’s foldable offering will cost £1,500, i.e. 5% of the average pre-tax salary – but that decision becomes much easier when you can spread the repayments over a 36 month contract, as is rapidly becoming the norm for top-end handsets.

TVs are another tech product where prices are being kept high by innovations that seem less and less compelling. After widespread adoption of HD TVs thanks to Blu-Ray and the advent of free-to-air digital broadcasting, most of us haven’t made the switch to 4K, but manufacturers are already pushing 8K as the next big thing and there are questions over how much of an improvement this superfine screen resolution really represents. Even LG’s rollable TV seems more like a gimmick than an essential technological evolution every household must adopt within five years.

Outside smartphones, TVs and cars (another product annually strutted out for CES delegates which is heavily supported by consumer finance), there were plenty of examples of more mundane products receiving price-inflating tech touches. Smart fridges, washers and dryers have been around for a few years now and thermostats, doorbells and lightbulbs feature in many a geek abode, but the Internet of Things has spread its tentacles even further into the home in recent years thanks to the rising popularity of voice and it could soon infiltrate the humble wardrobe if Bosch and their laser-projected virtual touchscreens have their way.

But this push towards a smart-enabled future isn’t universally popular, as the 340,000 followers of the Internet of Shit will tell you. Gizmodo UK’s editor Tom Pritchard wrote a couple of years back about his own distaste for the Internet of Things, and, even if he was roundly mocked, Captain America himself complained on Twitter last week about the growing ubiquity of smart tech.

One reason for the backlash is that smart products not only come with heftier price tags, but they also tend to become obsolescent after only a few years – smart TVs have an ignominious record on this front and only the latest versions were able to play Netflix’s recent interactive Black Mirror episode. Does this mean we are soon going to be taking out loans to pay for kitchen appliances and other everyday household goods with life cycles only as long as the loans themselves?

Dixons Carphone, owners of Currys PC World and Carphone Warehouse, certainly hope so. They are well-positioned to take advantage of the appetite for increasingly expensive tech and they have been open about their plans to expand their successful flexible credit plans this year by making “buy now, pay later” the progressively accepted rule rather than the exception.

If there is one thing the Consumer Electronics Show 2019 heralded it wasn’t the bendable screens, driverless cars or the dominance of voice, it was the choice electronics will be forcing more and more consumers to make: either go into debt or risk being left behind in the future we are building.