Cords are today’s equivalent of yesterday’s ballpoint pens. We lose them, break them, and eventually, we leave them behind. They’re huddled in dusty, dark corners of airport floors, stained coffee shop tables, and swimming in strands at the bottoms of our bags, but when we desire them the most, we cannot find them as easily as we’d like. Without them we are frozen, helpless, limited. Cords are an instrument of communication, like pen to paper. Cords enable us to leave our mark on the world. They may not bleed, but they are messy. We can’t help it. We still love our cords.
Just look in any household junk drawer and you’ll find cords that have come and gone: relics of the camcorder era, laptops and digital cameras past, and outdated phone dongles. I’m speaking from experience. After a recent move, I found mounds of cords and wires, strung together in wily webs, a woven chronology in the way life had changed over the past decade as I cycled through fleeting gadgets. I found myself hesitant to throw away those old cords without certainty that I wouldn’t need them again. They were the only lifeline of access to an aging device, such as an old external hard drive in place of precious old papers. And so they made the transition from the junk drawer in the old house to claiming space in the new one.
As much as we say we long to be wireless in our phones, our headphones, and our speakers, the signs of our attachment to cords are everywhere. There’s a certain security in the cord. It’s the idea of connection, perhaps even dating back to our days in the womb.
A battery, no matter how sophisticated, is fleeting. When we have our cords with us, we are in constant pursuit of power, even when we are fully charged, as a form of security. We often discover our misfortune — the loss of power — when it’s too late. The opposite of being fully charged is dead. Cords, and our attachment to them, have taken on a metaphor weighted in existentialism. There is anxiety in being too far removed. We are in a relationship with our cords. The fundamental objection some people have to electric cars is because they imagine the pursuit of charging stations in the same way we seek out spaces for our phones. Committing to this cord means we live in fear of our own forgetfulness, like flowers on an anniversary.
How we charge shapes the way we live in ways that have become reflexive. It’s more than a practical question, one that we must consider every morning when we leave our homes. What form of charging will we be dependent on to sustain ourselves? Did we remember to plug in our wireless chargers? Sometimes we choose restaurants or bars only because they will share their power source with us, plugged in to precarious looking sockets behind barstools. At airports we resent those who covet seats in close proximity to charging stations. On planes, we are dismayed when the seat chargers often don’t work. On the most recent episode of Insecure on HBO, Issa Rae’s character uses a lost-and-found iPhone cord as an excuse to instigate a romantic tryst with her neighbor.
For over a decade “wireless” has been a tech buzzword. But when Apple introduced wireless earbuds last year, did it signal the beginning of the end of our attachments to cords? In December, Apple began to sell the Beats Solo 3 wireless headphones to accentuate its arsenal. If the rumors are true, Apple will challenge us to further disentangle by the time the iPhone 8 is introduced, if not sooner, as some have speculated that 7s may be wireless, too. And Apple is not unique in this latest takedown of electrical sockets. In July, Dell began to sell the first wireless charging laptop. While charging stations will tether our electric cars to cords for some time, Tesla Model 3 dares to be cordless in the phones that double as keys to power our cars.
How long will it take until our lives to become wire-free? The smart home beckons, but I say this as I stare at the elaborate twists and turns of my modem, router, cable, and power stack — an area that, no matter how hard I try to keep neat, stays a nest of haphazard wires.
In other words, when will Wired have to change its name to Wireless to be considered contemporary?
We’ve been here before, on the precipice of freeing ourselves from messy, dangling bits, only to return to them again and again.
The boombox was a revelation when it was introduced to American customers in the mid-1970s. Here was a way to make music portable. How much of our digitized style could we carry on our shoulders? The way we rock wireless headphones may be traced back to the height of the boombox era as a cultural turning point. Fab Five Freddy’s original Sharp boombox is housed in the permanent collection of The Smithsonian.
The boombox was followed by the Sony Walkman, as music transformed into a personal transitory experience. But to properly enjoy the walkman, it required a set of headphones, attached of course, via wires. And after cellphones were introduced, we became wireless with those awful Bluetooth earpieces. Thank goodness those have almost all gone away. And here we are today, semi-wired, with more sophisticated Bluetooth, still waiting on the decade-long promise of wireless living that evades us, like an unrequited crush.
Being freed from being stationary of course has made us more independent. Like our devices, we are on the move, free to roam far and free until we tire, like robot people. But as much as we’d like to think we are infallible, untethered, luminous, we are only human, and eventually we must be still. Eventually, we shut down, coil up in the fetal position, and like our gadgets, we must shut down, plug in, and recharge.