It’s CES time again, with a flood of gadget news set to arrive when the industry’s biggest tech show kicks off later this afternoon. As usual, it’s easy to see the broad outlines of the show already: tons of new devices that support Google Assistant and Alexa, a flood of nonsense 5G news, and the TV industry trying to make people care about 8K after finally hitting mass adoption of 4K.
I think gadgets are endlessly fascinating and the silly innovation at CES is extremely fun, so I love all of this. But just like last year, I’m coming to the show after spending several weeks at home for the holidays, and I kept a list of all the tech questions my family and friends asked me during the break. It’s a crucial reminder of an important fact I think the entire tech industry forgets constantly: most people have no idea how anything actually works, and are already hopelessly confused by the tech they have.
I wrote this last year, and it still holds true: think of the tech industry as being built on an ever-increasing number of assumptions: that you know what a computer is, that saying “enter your Wi-Fi password” means something to you, that you understand what an app is, that you have the desire to manage your Bluetooth device list, that you’ll figure out what USB-C dongles you need, and on and on.
Lately, the tech industry is starting to make these assumptions faster than anyone can be expected to keep up. And after waves of privacy-related scandals in tech, the misconceptions and confusion about how things works are both greater and more reasonable than ever.
So let’s make this a CES tradition: a list of things the tech industry assumes everyone knows, but that are actually extremely confusing if you’re not in the bubble. I’ve got a bunch of my own here, as well as several sourced from this Twitter thread, but I want to start with the most-frequently-asked question of all:
No one knows how Facebook ad targeting works and everyone assumes their phones are listening to them
This, without question, is the number one thing people talk to me about lately. Everyone has a story about how they’ve never searched for something, but saw an ad for it after talking about it with a friend. Everyone. At this point people hate and fear online ads for diametrically-opposed reasons: they hate the poorly-targeted ads that show them products they’ve already bought, and they fear the hyper-targeted ads showing them things the machine has deduced they might buy in the future. Until every ad on every platform has a button that displays exactly why it was targeted in clear detail, this is a no-win situation. No matter how many times the industry explains lookalike audiences and location signals or whatever else is going on, people will continue to assume — if not argue vehemently — that Facebook is listening to them. Ads are sick, and the only cure is extreme transparency.
Okay, here’s the rest of the list. As you read it, don’t just answer the questions in your head. Of course you know the answers! You’re a Verge reader. Instead, just ask yourself: Why doesn’t everyone else know the answers? Why doesn’t all this stuff work together better? Why is everything named so poorly? And most of all: why is it so hard for these companies to just explain what’s going on?
- “Why can’t I save a photo to Google Photos from my iPhone?”
- “Why doesn’t the audio from my sound bar match the picture on my TV?”
- “What’s the difference between two-factor and a password manager?”
- “Why isn’t there a single remote that controls everything for my TV?”
- “How do I get faster internet?” (Broadband speeds in middle America are embarrassing: this person is paying AT&T U-Verse $75/mo for 10mbps down.)
- “Does the Google phone use Windows?”
- Bluetooth is still hopelessly confusing and flaky
- “Why can’t I rent a movie from YouTube on my Apple TV?”
- And, of course, its close cousin, “Why can’t I buy a Kindle book on my iPhone?”
- “How do I make sure deleting photos from my iPhone won’t delete them from my computer?”
- “Why aren’t there any photo frames that work with Apple Photos?”
- Gmail for new users is incredibly confusing and unintuitive
- “Why can Alexa control my DirecTV box and control the TV volume but not actually change the channel?”
- “What’s iCloud?”
- “Does Google have privacy settings?”
- “How do I keep track of what my kid is watching on YouTube?”
- “So the new phones just don’t have headphone jacks anymore?”
- You can AirPlay from an iOS device and Chromecast from an Android device, but you can’t share between them, which is hopelessly stupid
- Sketchy websites install shady Chrome extensions and no one knows it’s happening
- “Why do I need to make another username and password?”
- And, my perpetual favorite: thinking Hulu and Roku are the same thing
CES is great for seeing a little glimpse of the future, but real lives in the present are messy and complicated. Assuming that anyone cares about downloading one more app or creating one more secure password is a huge and potentially dangerous mistake.
It’s fun to look at new products and check out far-fetched concept touchscreen refrigerators, but I think the most important questions we can ask when we look at new tech products are actually the simplest: how does it work? How do you set it up? What happens when people don’t understand something? Do I need to create a new username and password? Will that lead to data collection? Is all of that secure? Does it work well with other things I’ve already bought?
If you’re not asking these questions, you’re not only doing yourself a disservice, you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you. Because if you’re reading this list, you’re the person the industry most needs to impress — and you’re the person everyone else comes to for help.