I Dropped Acid and Saw Into the Future: My Surreal First Time At CES
Maybe the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas was a bad place to take LSD for the first time.
What finally brought me to the edge of emotional break was the carpeting.
There’s nothing particularly special about the carpeting in the Las Vegas Convention center. It’s bright red, crisscrossed with other primary colors, loud like most convention center carpets. Easy to clean. But at that moment, with nervous urgency and greed shimmering off the crowd around me, music and lights and gadgets and the smell of stadium food, reality buckled. I started to laugh, and suddenly all of my emotional faucets were on full blast, and then I started to cry. Then I was sobbing.
Maybe the Consumer Electronics Show was a bad place to take LSD for the first time.
CES is strange enough not on drugs. It’s part circus, part science museum for adults. But its purpose isn’t to entertain or educate; just to sell. It’s an ad. A massive pop-up ad that fills half a dozen convention centers, an ad that can swallow an entire village. The big brands like Sony and Samsung aim to make news with demonstrations of their newest gadgets on a massive scale. Medium brands put on a medium show. Small brands do their best. Tiny brands park a sad person in a booth in front of a wall of cheap cellphone cases and slogans in both Chinese and English. The English slogans sometimes almost make sense. It is not clear what any of these companies do.
The booths fit together like a giant’s jigsaw puzzle. It’s rarely possible to look in a straight line and see a clear path to a door. On every possible place a person’s eyes could alight, there’s something reminding you of a cool product you might want to buy. It is somehow both too big and too crowded, enabling the attendee the unique experience of feeling both lonely and suffocated.
The drug started kicking in as my friend and I made our way past General Electric’s display of brand new washers and dryers. I glanced upward, looking for a second of a poster starring a woman. She was elated. I don’t remember what the woman was consuming that made her so happy. Perhaps she was doing her laundry in a brand new way. Her eyes flickered at me as though backlit. I looked down at the shuffling crowd. All of their eyes also flickered like the woman in the ad. They, too, wanted to do their laundry in a cool new way. Then everything went back to normal.
The display that came next was less gentle to my sparking brain. Five or six androids on tiny wheels, maybe three feet tall, turned and blinked in unison on a smooth white surface. On their chests were screens displaying a cartoon heart, like a child’s drawing of a heart. The hearts were beating. Shitty pop music thrummed. One robot, separated from the dance crew, turned and blinked alone. I felt strongly that the robot on the outside was ostracized because she was too fat, or because she’d hit on one of the dance team robot’s boyfriends. Either way, she was not sitting with the cool robots at lunch. I felt really bad for her. I couldn’t look her in the plastic eyes. I wanted to tell her it was going to get better. Some girls who got picked on in junior high grow up to be very mean journalists who only have friends because people are afraid of them, I wanted to say. You, too, can amass a fear-based crew one day. I believe in you, tiny dancer.
Not far away, actual living human women wearing very tight small shorts zoomed around on Hoverboards, for some reason. They were moving in exactly the same way as the blinking robots. There was no difference.
My companion pulled me away, toward another display of more robots. I can’t look at that right now, I said in an extremely bossy voice. I hate that robot. That robot is not here for the right reasons. I did not know what I meant when I said it, and I still don’t know what that means, but I know I am right.
It was time for me to go outside for awhile. I sat down on a concrete toadstool next to a Japanese man and woman wearing identical glasses. They did not appear to know each other. I considered asking one of them if they knew they were wearing identical glasses. They have to know I’m on drugs, I thought. Doing drugs in Las Vegas has been done, you idiot, I thought. Hunter S. Thompson would think you’re awful. I remembered what my friend had told me about negative thoughts. My friend said: don’t have them. Let them go. Focus on why this is even worth doing. This is my first time doing acid. This is my first time at CES. Plus, when in Rome, right? Vegas is the Rome of writers being idiots.
I felt better.
All of the world curved away from the convention center, toward the Strip. The Wynn and Encore hotels, pristine copper-colored buildings rising from the desert, look like they’re walking distance away. They’re not, really. In Las Vegas and at CES, nothing in sight is really within walking distance; everything is a mirage. You can’t walk to Circus Circus from New York New York. All of the technology the nametagged throngs crowded around to gape at, the magical kitchens and smart juicers, aren’t going to show up in anybody’s kitchen tomorrow, or even a year from now. I’m not going to buy a television that’s only the thickness of a piece of glass until the last possible second. I have student loans. I wondered if somebody in the Wynn hotel was looking out of their window at me at that exact moment. I wondered if I’d ever have a blender that knew my blood type, or if anybody could ever convince me that my ice dispenser should know the time of day I typically return from work. Do I need a bathroom scale that recognizes my the swirl pattern on my big toe?
Above my head, a monorail flew by like a dragon. Every breath felt like a laugh. In my peripheral vision, a woman very blatantly held out her cell phone to take a photo of me. She was only a few feet away. I turned to tell her to mind her own business, I’m no celebrity, I’m just an amateur idiot drug-doer getting some air. She wasn’t a real woman; she was an ad for Polaroid. I laughed with relief. The Japanese people with the matching glasses were gone. I began to cry a little bit.
I thought I saw Kid Rock, and then I thought I saw Al Gore. A lot of people in Las Vegas look like Kid Rock.
Right about then, my friend, also on acid, found me. We went back inside, spending several minutes standing in front of three of LG’s best TV’s. They’ve figured out how to make a screen black, you see, and that is why the fish I watched swim in slow motion looked so amazing. They spent all that time and effort making black. Black was here way before anything was here, and after all this, we’re at black again.
I identify as a luddite like I identify as a Swede; I eat lutefisk and I believe most inventions are stupid and we’re all going to die no matter how hard we fight it. I’m a nihilist about creation; most people’s life’s work won’t even be good enough to be forgotten about in a library. I’ve long thought that technology was the embarrassing stumble toward making something that comes close to as good as the real thing. Drones, for example, are dumb ugly inedible birds. 3D-printers are shitty uteruses.
But what I was seeing on a screen was better than reality. It was extra-real. There’s natural way for a human being to see a backlit Japanese fighting fish that’s two feet long wriggle in slow motion. There’s no possible way any ancestors of mine registered with their eyes the way the scales slide over each other. They probably didn’t even know fish came in these colors.
Beyond the hyper-real fish was a tunnel tiled with those screens, and sounds. It was pitch black in the tunnel, save for the dozens of awed spectators trying to capture what was happening on their phones. On the screens, whales swam around and over me. The Northern Lights, greener than I ever saw them back when I was a kid in Wisconsin, were so bright and clear it was almost painful. Next, we were in space, zooming in and out on the planet, all the way out to the galaxy. I am experiencing beauty on a cellular level. My cheekbones hurt from the inside. It would have been overwhelming had I not been on my own mental space expedition. All of the people in the tunnel gasped at the same time.
When I left the tunnel, I asked my friend if the whales were real. The whales weren’t real, he said, they were animated. The trip through space wasn’t real, it was animated, it was an approximation of space being shown to me on a screen based on what we’ve been able to glean from earth. Scientists sit reading printouts alone, and they do math and figure it out, and then an artist takes that and makes it into something that registers visually. Nothing I was seeing had ever really existed, and yet my reaction felt incredibly real.
Calm down, stupid. You’re on drugs, I told myself.
I’d starve to death in that tunnel, I told my friend. He laughed like I was kidding around.
Polaroid was giving away bags festooned with a large yellow smiley face, I think to deliberately fuck with me. Everybody seemed to have one. Sitting still and watching people make their way to and fro was like watching a Facebook Live video where every reaction was a smiley face. No hearts, no angry faces or thumbs up. Just smiles. Just a clusterfuck of happy people who can’t wait to not be able to afford a new TV that has figured out how to display blackness.
LG, also to fuck with me, suspended silver teardrop-shaped ornaments from thin wires. The ornaments danced in a coordinated manner.
I ambled over to the part of CES where people who love playing games get to try out the new gaming devices. There were simply too many men over there for me to individually pay attention to each of their faces. My brain stopped registering individual faces and started categorizing them for me, like the Japanese glasses people I met on the toadstool. Here comes a swarm of beards. Here are several white men with elbow bones that jut out. It’s half a dozen dark-haired guys who look like they have pet falcons back home. A clump of grape-colored ties.
The clusters of similar men hover around game demo stations. The tables were full of men assuming the same posture, wearing headphones with the same logo. I slowly rotated 360 degrees to see if I could spot another female human person. I could not!
Over by the Samsung booth, stadium seats jerked and twisted and flipped. Above the jerking twisters, passersby can see the images the testers see inside their Virtual Reality masks. My friend asked me if I wanted to try Virtual Reality. After tearing their masks off, the people who tried VR had the same expression as the woman in the ad whose eyes flashed at me earlier.
I’d been warned that the drug would make me “sensitive to vibes,” which I interpreted as hippie talk for “overdramatic about liking or disliking things.” This turned out to be true. On my rocket-ship flight through CES, I very dramatically did not like booths advertising new speakers. I did not like cars. I did not like the robots. I did not like the large kitchen appliances. I envisioned some rich idiot who doesn’t know how to cook outfitting his dumb kitchen with them because they’re expensive, because they are a thing to have that tells visitors he has money. He’d never use them. It’d be like buying a racehorse and then turning it into glue. A wasted good kitchen is a goddamn crime. An expensive dishwasher won’t make your trophy wife love you for your personality.
As I sank pleasantly into the floor in the Canon booth, I thought about how hard those who want us to buy electronic products work to conflate consumption with creation. Some tech aids in the creation of art, sure, but the act of buying a camera isn’t the same as the act of making it. Having a laptop that took some innovation to create isn’t the same thing as being innovative. A new washing machine that hilariously advertised itself as being able to handle “multiple loads” at the same time will only give a person more time for leisure activities. To do what? Fart in a chair while gaming on Acer’s $9,000 gaming laptop? Go on an imaginary Samsung boat ride? Teach your smart toaster exactly how to electrocute you in your light-up rainbow bathtub? Owning something isn’t the same as making something. Shit, neither is taking a drug.
I turned to my friend. This isn’t real, is it? He assured me that it wasn’t. That was a relief. Things were starting to feel extremely strange.
Here are some things that were a lot to handle, as one might expect: a giant television featuring spinning dancers and falling rose petals and rotating bromeliads. Two signs that said “Food management” and “Family communication” in a smart kitchen display. A child in a stroller. A nonsensical Chinese sign made by a person who does not understand flow charts. A large photograph of a gorilla’s face at the end of a long corridor. A merry-go-round around a temporary tree house featuring fucking monkey dolls with sad faces.
I felt my pores open up, all at the same time, and my vision become a tunnel. Suddenly the place seemed crowded and the air wasn’t moving enough to breathe. I stood behind a mannequin pretending to ride a bike in the GoPro booth and quietly freaked out. I took a photograph of my feet to remind myself that I was standing. I jumped up and down twice to assess whether or not the ground had become liquid. I had to leave. It was too much, too bright, too loud. I wanted to sit under the monorail again.
This was when I had my encounter with the carpet.
It looks like a fire ladder, I told my friend. He laughed. I laughed. The hall yawned in front of me like a tunnel that never ended. I couldn’t see the doors. There were so many people. The carpet seemed to ripple under my feet. I wondered who was walking on the carpet last week, who will be walking on it next week, next year. This was probably the most durable object in this entire goddamn convention. I thought about the World’s Fair in Queens again, how its bones still stand, insistent that it existed to everybody unlucky enough to fly out of JFK. How the inventions it contained are nonsense now.
Most of the companies at the Consumer Electronics Show didn’t exist a year ago, and won’t exist in a year. Ninety-five percent of the products everybody’s rushing to see are trash. Who knows how long this carpeting has been here absorbing barf stains of convention attendees? Longer than the next best television will be the next best television. I bet whoever designed this ugly-ass carpet doesn’t fancy him or herself an innovator or a disruptor. I bet they’re just some regular person doing their job, unaware of how many millions of people their work touches.
I laugh-wept as I pushed toward the doors. Even the security guards were too dazzled by the lights and noise or numbed by the crowd to notice.