CES: One example of our lost technology edge

Just finished skimming 187 posts in my RSS reader that were piled up from Engadget‘s coverage of the winter Consumer Electronics Show (CES).  The innovation, evolutionary features and new gadgets are pretty cool but at the same time troubling.

The Japanese and Korean HDTV models are incredible. Any glimmer of a US-based production presence is non-existent.

In the late 1980’s I moved to Chicago to take a job at Pioneer New Media (PNM was part of Pioneer Electronics, focusing on laser videodisc, CD-ROM and cable gear). One task I undertook was holding discussions with Zenith TV in Illinois about their possible desire to private label one or more models of our laser videodisc players.

This was a company and brand I knew well growing up. My grandparents had two Zenith 13″ black and white sets and a color one in the living room, and I bought a Zenith TV as a high schooler for my bedroom. Knowing that former television manufacturing powerhouse Zenith was pretty much irrelevant, I nonetheless dutifully headed over.

The physical plant was like walking through a time warp back into the 1950’s. It was dingy, old, and filled with almost antique furnishings and equipment. The folks I met with were so incredibly clueless about the entire category — and wanted players so inexpensively we couldn’t possibly supply them — that I knew I’d wasted my time.

As a technologist and futurist I’m excited by all the new gadgets. As an American and a father who cares about the country we’re passing down to our children, I’m appalled that we’re making little the world wants to buy.

Apple and Microsoft have all hardware made outside the US. Toyota passes Ford in global sales. YouTube, Flickr and other hosted offerings are exploding in use, but the capture devices (e.g., digital cameras, camcorders) aren’t manufactured in the US. Nor are displays, keyboards, mice, webcams, most speakers, and so on.

One could argue that in a world where “bits” (digital stuff delivered over the Internet) have more intrinsic value than “atoms” (physical goods), the former is easier to create, knockoff and deliver than it is building a manufacturing facility, lining up suppliers, managing operations and shipping stuff the world buys.

I was also just reading an article (which I can’t locate just now) about the difficulty the professions are having snagging the best-n-brightest out of the top schools. Why? Because becoming an investment banker is FAR more lucrative than grinding out value (bonuses for the former often are in the >$2M range and the latter in the low five figures). Perhaps we’ll just go the way of Britain where financial and other services drive the economy (80% of the labor force works in services).

We’re graduating fewer PhD’s than Asia Pacific, the US manufacturing base is downtrending (except for the military industrial complex enjoying the nearly $1 trillion in debt funding the ‘war’ effort), and our automobile manufacturing is going the way of Zenith TV.

Think about that next time as you scan the HDTV shelves at Best Buy — as you hold the hand of your child — and realize that the only US corporate names on an HDTV are names slapped on something produced elsewhere.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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