Glassholes Revisited

by David Kordahl

In the part of my life when I was most actively trying to invent myself as a writer, I was working as a high school teacher and was desperately unhappy. (Notice the way that I put this: “I was working as a high school teacher,” not “I was a high school teacher”; the notion that a job defines a person still disgusts me.) In the evenings, I left work and wrote magazine pitches, not as many, I realize in retrospect, as could have brought me success, but enough to keep me talkative in the teacher’s lounge. I had the impression, back then, that a writer could make a name for himself on the basis of a single strong piece, and since my work was deeply derivative—I was, after all, inexperienced—I hatched a plan.

Some of my favorite writers, from Tom Wolfe to Hunter S. Thompson to David Foster Wallace (I know, go on, roast me), had visited Las Vegas to mine its filth for gold. I figured that I could do the same. No one responded to my pitch (why would they), but I was undeterred. I bought a plane ticket to Las Vegas to write a piece so great it would be undeniable, an X-ray of American culture.

The site I chose for my con was the Consumer Electronics Show, the 2014 International CES. This required a bit of planning, since CES was (and is) an officially closed event, whose guidelines only allow industry insiders to attend—writers, for instance, whose venues reach “more than 1,000 unique monthly visitors and [are] updated weekly with original tech-industry related news.” I was no professional, but I listed myself as writing for an online book review, which was sort of true. After an initial rejection, CES (mistakenly?) gave me a press pass, which I took as a good omen.

The piece that I wrote about this event, all 13,000 words of it, was never published, but I reread it recently and was surprised. The world (to repeat a cliché) seems to have experienced a schism in the past decade, but such schisms aren’t so easy tracked in oneself.

My piece used the appearance of convention-goers wearing the Google Glass, that relic of wearable tech, as an organizing motif. In January 2014 this seemed futuristic (a commercial version wouldn’t be released until March), a symbol of the cyborg world to come.

I could hardly have been less prescient.

Ever since social justice battlefields of the culture war have turned hot, it’s been convenient to forget the early complaints about Millenials, where we were described as dazed and passive, drug-addicted and technology-obsessed, a generation of porn-haggard automatons. I accepted these tropes, despite the fact that they didn’t fully describe me. (I’m drug-free.) Yet such diagnoses of youth culture seemed even then a century too late. Tao Lin could get a jolt in Taipei (2013) by depicting his alter-ego as an Adderall-popping MacBook dongle, his eyes its blinking cursors, but mechanistic self-description had already been around for a while. Recall that famous line from Christopher Isherwood in 1939: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”

What seemed different this time around wasn’t the sense that we were like machines, but the sense that Millenials were self-aware in chasing mechanization, in becoming as productively blank as possible. Which, I suppose, is where the Google Glass came in. I had become convinced, by reading hipster autofiction, that my generation was trending away from attempts at social improvement, and were leaning hard on cool, non-judgmental self-description. There had already been backlash journalism about Google Glass users, beta-testers who had live-streamed their visits to the bar—the “Glassholes” of this essay’s title. I thought these pieces meant that the Glass would be huge, and would kick off the mainstreaming of a mechanistic sensibility.

The possibility that one could simply record one’s own life and broadcast it endlessly seemed disturbing to me. It seemed like an attitude that would lead us only further into our miserable present, rather than toward a better future. I titled my piece “A Glass Darkly,” a joint nod to the Apostle Paul and Philip K. Dick.

But when I read it now, I realize that I was just another literary Glasshole.

I was very interested, at that time, in soaking up all sorts of outrageous details, a la Wolfe and Wallace, with page after page of little mordant descriptions, the Fiesta Chihuahua and Dolly Parton slot machines at the airport, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers protesting with their “SHAME ON CenturyLink” picket signs, a magician taking volunteers’ watches as a live advertisement for Norton Anti-Virus, all appearing as equally weightless flourishes. Did the reader need to know that there were 3,200 exhibitors there that day? That there were 2,00,000 square feet of exhibition space? The scope of the show made it ideal for this sort of writing, but any sufficiently large convention could have worked. The gun convention or the porn convention occupying the same halls in the weeks that followed might have worked even better.

But I wasn’t the person to write that story, try as I might.

The story I wanted to read had a writer who was unimpressed by the extravagant display, who could see it as a tacky PR stunt and call out the tricks as they passed on by. But I wasn’t that sort of person. I wasn’t the hardened seen-it-all cynic, impervious to the technical delights. I wasn’t used to this sort of display, where everything looks amazing because it’s designed to look amazing, with robots cleaning windows and drones doing synchronized dances and Lou Reed (who had died just a few months earlier) endorsing headphones from beyond the grave. These stories had been basically prewritten for whatever journalist might take the bait.

And the truth is, even for those prewritten stories, it wouldn’t take much work to emphasize their sinister undertones. For instance, there was a big booth standing before a group of linked dual-story media cubicles—CNN, Bloomberg, NBC News, Fox Business—where a speaker would go on all day, every day, discussing tomorrow’s Internet of Everything. “Today, only one percent of the world’s objects are connected,” the speaker lamented, before he went on to celebrate how, in coming years, every light bulb, every basketball, every food carton, might be integrated into one great network, so that “things that were silent now have a voice.”

With statements like, “This is not just about us as individuals, this is for the benefit of our whole society,” right next to claims about the projected $19 trillion in value that could be mined in ten years off the proposed integration … well, it doesn’t take a visionary to spot the dystopian possibilities.

Yet sometimes obvious stories are better than a high-concept plan. While I worked to document my day-in-the-life experience of CES 2014, a few of the details seem retrospectively prescient. While the booth presenters were mostly female (the discourse over “booth babes” at CES seems to have continued on unabated), the event’s visitors were mostly male (as was the booth presenter for OhMiBod, a company specializing in iPad-controlled vibrators). As I shared a ride back to the airport at the end of my visit, a conventioneer wearing a fedora—yes, a fedora—frankly shared tips on negotiating fees with hookers with another man in our shared limo. Up until 2012, CES was held at the same time as the AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, with a large overlap in attendees, and the subsequent attempts by CES to market itself as strictly non-sexual have been rocky. (See, e.g., the 2019 incident when a sex toy company was given an award, then stripped of it, then awarded it again after the company’s female CEO harnessed public outrage.)

But I was even less qualified in 2014 to write a “sexism in tech” piece than I was to write about the Internet of Things. My favorite report to emerge from CES that year was “Ke$ha and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad CES corporate afterparty,” featuring a photo of one of Ke$ha’s concert skits where she cradled the giant plush balls of a walking penis. Given Ke$ha’s later problems, I hesitate to mention this. The terrible sexual dynamics in science and tech have been convincingly cataloged. But what I notice in the Ke$ha report is similar to what I had hoped to achieve in my own: an awareness that whatever perversity drives the gross behavior on display is also, always, present within you.

As a writer, I’ve been perpetually too timid, too embarrassed to risk frank self-inventory. Anyway, I never finished “A Glass Darkly,” and the world that I imagined as right around the corner never arrived. The Glass (as it has since been rebranded) is now strictly an industrial tool, and the stray remaining Glassholes, no longer explorers of the bleeding edge, have become historical reenactors. The feeling I had of stasis, with my generation of artists as avatars of an unusually brazen transparency, seems to have been thoroughly discarded in favor of politics.

The most recent CES, in the shadow of the pandemic, was entirely virtual, making it hard to comment on how the event has changed. As always, I’m having some trouble finishing this piece. I don’t know what to expect from the future anymore. Then again, neither do you.