The Seedy Future of Gadget Porn

Attendance at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the annual gadgetfest in Las Vegas, is down 25 percent from 2007, with 130,000 expected to attend. Are we just not that into tech toys anymore?

Actually, we are — but the thrill is gone.

The two biggest attractions at the show — Microsoft Steve Ballmer's demo of Windows 7 and Palm's Pre smartphone — are more apologies than anything, mea culpas for the subpar products they replaced. There are, as always, gee-whiz products that will likely never hit the mass market, like Dick Tracy-style watches and games where you control a ball with your mind.

For the past decade, gadget porn — media which seductively presents the latest gear — has been a growth industry. When Wired first started showcasing gadgets as erotically charged objects of desire in the '90s, not for nothing was the section called "Fetish." (The love affair sometimes went hilariously wrong.)

But the sex angle somehow seems out of step with the national mood. The Consumer Electronics Association argues that gadgets have become a necessity, not a luxury, and so spending will hold up comparatively well. A Forrester Research survey, on the other hand, suggests that consumers are cutting back, with 63 percent saying they won't buy a smartphone like the iPhone this year.

Of course, survey-takers routinely lie. And an $199 iPhone is hardly a luxury splurge on the scale of a Louis Vuitton handbag or an Ermenegildo Zegna suit. Come on — it's on sale at Wal-Mart!

So we'll keep buying gadgets. That won't change. What will: Bragging about the latest gear-shopping expedition will be socially unacceptable. Flipping through a glossy digital-camera layout on the subway? A little pervy. Who does that in public? Gadget blogs, though, will thrive — since they can be enjoyed in the privacy of one's home, like a filthy DVD.

When that comes to pass, gadget porn will really have earned its name: a shameful habit most indulge in, but few discuss. It will be the new parsimony's dirty secret.