Thoughts on CES and the Tele-Technological System

As is becoming increasingly common, the Consumer Electronics Show has sent a tidal wave of news stories and press releases roaring into my RSS reader, full of information about the latest inventions aimed at changing the way we watch television and online video.

Three short years ago, such news was scant.  In 2009, Brad Stone of The New York Times returned from CES to report that,

Piping Internet video into a television seems as if it should be simple—after all, a screen is a screen. But consumer electronics and media companies have been moving toward that combination with painstaking caution, both because of technical limitations and to protect their existing business models.

Not long afterward, some of those technical limitations began to lift, and sensing consumer demand, content providers also began to edge toward what they had long viewed as the precipice of digital distribution.  By 2011, Internet-connected televisions had become a major focus of CES.  And at this year’s show it seems every device manufacturer you can think of, including some who’ve never made televisions before, have a connected TV to sell you.  With Panasonic announcing yet another television OS and app store, there are so many damned “smart TV” operating systems now that we even find companies springing up whose business model revolves around converting your content to run on all of them.

We’ve gone from relative silence in this space to cacophony. With multiple publications already having declared 2011 the year of connected television, others are now telling us that connected TV won’t peak for another five years.

CES 2012 brings televisions that respond to your voice,  televisions that recognize your face when you sit down on the couch and automatically bring up your favorite shows, televisions that tell your friends what you’re watching, and more.

But even amid this maelstrom of announcements, the overarching theme of the connected TV coverage coming from CES is an intriguing one: boredom.

Peter Kafka, in a post titled, “Why the Future of TV Won’t Be Here Soon,” is incisive as usual on the subject:

This is the year for many big pronouncements about The Future Of TV, and we’re hearing the first round this week at the Consumer Electronics Show. Here’s how I’m sorting through the deluge: I’m ignoring almost all of it. Instead, I’m focusing on the ones that promise to bring me the TV I want to see, when I want to see it, without charging me a fortune. And without making me pay for stuff I don’t care about. Try it yourself. See? Things get quiet in a hurry.

What Kafka is getting at is that the various players in the television ecosystem—particularly on the content side—are highly entrenched.  One only has to look at the Kafkaesque (pun intended) struggles surrounding new media distribution channels like Netflix, Hulu, Boxee, or Google TV to see that there are a lot of powerful forces in play here.  Cable distributors want to protect their existing business and content providers want the most money possible for their content (which right now means selling it to cable providers).  To uproot this system will take a lot of user demand.  And while the intense debate surrounding cord cutting suggests that this demand probably exists, there’s another problem here.

The reason for Kafka’s pessimism is further apparent when you look at the marketing data on television manufacturers, which suggests that the basics of a good television—a nice image, good sound, and so forth—have become common enough across brands that consumers don’t really care who makes their TVs at this point.

There is little excitement or brand loyalty among consumers surrounding any TV manufacturer at the moment.  So all the saber rattling by television manufacturers that’s going on at CES right now makes for a sort of divide and conquer scenario.  Instead of one or two major connected TV platforms, we have at least eleven, and a user base that’s split between them.  If you’re an app developer or a content provider, do you develop for Google TV? Yahoo TV? Boxee? Roku? Samsung? Panasonic? Or…I digress.

It’s going to take a lot of consumer demand behind far fewer and more standardized platforms before things start to shift in earnest.  It’s fun to wonder if there’ll be clear winners among the current field of software and device manufacturers—whether an upstart like Boxee or an underdog like Samsung could carry the day and win the hearts and minds of the TV-addicted general public.  I have my own favorites and I root for them.  I marvel at the clever ways that they weave together business deals, marketing campaigns, technical resources, and legal protections—impressive feats of “heterogeneous engineering“—to rally users to their respective corners.

But a growing number of analysts and trade journalists are suggesting that the companies with the customer loyalty and clout to change the game aren’t at CES at all.  When you think of tech companies with the power to influence the content industry, you tend to think of Amazon or Apple.  And indeed, one of the memes to come out of TV trade reporting from CES is that nothing presented there will matter once Apple releases its oft-rumored television.  Google, meanwhile, has its own deep pockets and is reportedly giving kickbacks to smart-TV manufacturers who use Android as their OS.

The problem, in other words, is that while CES is all about gadgets, the ecosystem that makes a medium like television work involves a lot more than just technical components.  Television is not, and may never have been, a mere gadget.  It is, in fact, what sociologists call a socio-technical system.  Roger Silverstone called it the “tele-technological system“—a complex of technical, scientific, commercial, legal, and social arrangements surrounding the delivery of content that can’t be isolated one from the others.

When you think of a technology as involving all of these things, a new gadget—no matter how impressive—is fairly useless, absent a working arrangement these other important factors.  It’s a hemi on a car without wheels.  By itself, a new clone of an existing TV operating system can’t make app developers and content providers magically appear any more than the flopped 3D televisions of CES 2010 were able to make 3D content materialize.  Or, as Raymond Williams put it, describing the American model of television in 1974,

Many of the creative possibilities of television have been frustrated precisely by [the system of which it’s a part]….When there has been such heavy investment in a particular model of social communications, there is a restraining complex of financial institutions, of cultural expectations and of specific technical developments, which though it can be seen superficially, as the effect of a technology is in fact a social complex of a…central kind. (p. 31)

Long before we started talking about “apps,” “smart TV,” or the Internet, he wisely recognized the ways in which socio-technical systems are both enabling and constraining.  They create possibilities for innovation, but also place limits on them.  The more incisive of today’s trade journalists, like Peter Kafka, see this when they look at the gadget mania of CES.  Gadgets are single factor in a messy and interrelated system of technologies, players, and interests.  This is why technology trade shows, which give us a chance to obsess over shiny boxes and imagine their possibilities, have a poor track record of predicting actual innovation and market success.  Some tech journalists call it the “CES curse.”  Others prefer to think of it as the tele-technological system.

This item is cross-posted to Josh Braun’s personal blog.

[Image Credits: “LG-HDTVs” cc by-nc 2.0 VentureBeat; “SLOW TV … is on its waycc by-nc-sa 2.0 Topsy@Waygood]