In September 2016, Apple’s iPhone 7 was launched at a now-infamous special event. This was the day we first heard that Apple had designed out the audio jack. The official video documentation shows Phil Schiller, Senior VP Worldwide Marketing, breaking the news to a rapt audience, saying that the decision “really comes down to one word — courage.” With more features than ever to pack into a small device, “maintaining an ancient single-purpose big connector doesn’t make sense because that space is at a premium.” The jack had to go.
That September event is also where we first caught a glimpse of AirPods, in a product video lushly narrated by Apple’s now outgoing chief design officer Jony Ive. A gigantic pair of AirPods floats onscreen, slowly rising out of their casing like an outtake from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “We believe in a wireless future,” Ive intones. We are told about the infrared sensors and motion accelerometers that enable the AirPods to do … whatever it is they do, before Ive’s narration jumps to Apple’s courageous vision: “We’re just at the beginning of a truly wireless future we’ve been working towards for many years, where technology enables the seamless and automated connection between you and your devices.”
The “truly wireless future” has not yet arrived, but it has been sneaking up on us slowly over the past two decades. As an old millennial, my technological coming of age has been marked by a succession of de-wirings. Most of them have been more prosaic than miraculous: fumbling with computer preferences to try and figure out how one might connect to “wi-fi,” realizing I could conceivably move a file from one computer to another without needing a disc or a flash drive. My product journey hasn’t been entirely without magic: I vividly remember the first time a friend played — or, more accurately, threw — music from his laptop to emit from a speaker across the room, wirelessly and instantly. I hadn’t known that was possible. It felt a bit like sorcery.
Today, technologists are sloughing off cables and closing up holes wherever possible
After the gorgeous AirPods video ends, the audience is brought back down to earth by Phil Schiller, who has more details to share (and enthusiastic applause to absorb). “Some people have asked why we would remove the analog headphone jack from the iPhone,” he says. “I mean, it’s been with us a really long time.” He clicks to advance the slide deck. The next image is a black-and-white photograph of a young woman operating a switchboard, plugging a chunky quarter-inch jack into one of many holes on the complex board. “The source of this mini-phono jack is over 100 years old,” says Schiller, “used to help quickly exchange in switchboards.” But we don’t need 100-year-old technology when we have instant wireless coupling. This is the promise of the AirPod, the cloud, the wireless revolution in general.
With all this promise, why do I miss the plug? Sure, bluetooth can be unreliable and dongles are a pain. But that’s not it. The fact is that the image of the young switchboard operator inserting plug A into jack B conjures a tactile thrill that AirPods, in their smooth guardedness, can’t hope to replicate. I’ve never operated a switchboard, but I have used microphones and AV decks, and thus have a vivid sense memory of plugging in a quarter inch connector. The cool heavy metal, almost as wide as my pinky. The right-sized socket, ready for the plug (“This is my hole! It was made for me!”). The initial clink of resistance as the plug’s tip hits the contact spring. The deep clunk as the tip slides past the spring and the whole shank of the plug settles into place, completing the circuit. Let the signal flow!
The sex metaphors are obvious, even as I’m trying to avoid them. The plug goes in the socket. It seems almost elemental — a finger thrusting at a circled thumb and fingers in a kids’ pantomime of fucking. And of course, the electronic components are known colloquially as the “male” and “female” parts. I’ve rummaged through many a draw of electronic detritus in search of a “male connector” or “female end” for some arcane video component, feeling like a weird machine sex scientist. However, I’m not sure that plug-as-sex is a sufficient explanation for the frisson of plugging in. It seems there’s more at stake in the act of insertion, a richer set of metaphors and meaning in the tethering of objects to each other and to ourselves. As an invitation to connect, commune, and consider how power moves, the plug engenders a mode of engagement with the material world that begins to slip away as we go wireless.
I’m not alone in questioning the sufficiency of the sex metaphor when it comes to electronics. One concerned person asks Quora, “Is it a little sexist to call cable ends ‘male,’ ‘female’? It disturbs me all the time.” In response, user Lexa Michaelides offers that “The analogy … is obvious: the male has a sticking-out part that goes inside the hole of the female part. But of course, that is not how all men and all women have sex, nor is it how all men and all women are shaped.” The hole could be a vagina, but it could equally be a butt, or an ear or a wound. And the plug might be a phallus, or a finger, an earplug, a tampon. Michaelides ends her response by saying “I’m not a fan of using hetero- and cis-normative sex as shorthand for things that could just as easily be described as belly buttons. Everyone has a belly button. It’s very inclusive.”
There are places to turn if you want to find a more polymorphic expression of what it means to plug in. Cyberpunk and body horror cinema offer us pluggings and couplings in spades, with different bodies inserting themselves into each other to transfer data, electricity, sensation, or affect. Crucially, cyberpunk imagines plugging in as something that can happen between different forms of being. Humans connect physically to machines. Trans-species couplings are possible. Machines are linked to one another in illicit LAN networks. And often, these connections take place in an environment of grime, salvage, and texture, where components are hacked together and infection is possible. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer, characters “jack in” to “cyberspace” (a term popularized by Gibson) by connecting themselves to a computer console using a system of electrodes and neural interfaces. The physicality of coupling with a machine interface is unsurprising in a fictive world that also involves surgical nerve splicing, bionic body modifications, and various other modes of biohacking. While “jacking in” allows a character’s consciousness to float free of the “meat puppet” that is the body, the physical nature of the tethering means the body remains an inescapable component.
David Cronenberg is perhaps the ne plus ultra of cyberpunk plug auteurs. His 1983 film Videodrome is a treatise on contemporary mass media as a tool of entertainment and control, attentive to the way technology shapes perception and, increasingly, bodies. In Videodrome a television becomes flesh, viral videos are literal, and a human torso splits itself open, revealing a living slot into which a video cassette can be inserted. Throughout, bodies are foregrounded as sites of pleasure and vulnerability (and pleasurable vulnerability). Unlike Neuromancer, where brains connect with cyberspace in a relatively seamless process, Videodrome’s connections of electronics and flesh tend towards the violent and transformative. In his 1988 essay “Cyberpunk and Neuroromanticism,” Istvan Csicsery-Ronay discusses Videodrome and other cyberpunk films as part of a wave of “implosive” sci fi, in contrast to the expansive, imperialist sci fi of earlier decades. Implosive sci fi situates its problematics not among the stars, but “in the body-physical/body-social and a drastic ambivalence about the body’s traditional — and terrifyingly uncertain — integrity.” Bodily integrity is constantly being violated in Videodrome, with results as exhilarating as they are scary.
If Videodrome exemplifies the body-penetrable during the video age, 1999’s eXistenZ provides a version of pluggable bodies for the digital era. eXistenZ is about video games, the worlds they produce and the epistemological uncertainty they might create. Game consoles in eXistenZ are biomorphic blobs of flesh which connect to the player’s body via an “umbi-cord” that plugs into a “bioport,” an artificial orifice at the base of the spine. One character, played by a young Jude Law, gets his orifice installed by a sketchy mechanic in a scene that is part Anton Chigurh with a cattle gun, part piercing technician at Claire’s, and part sexual assault. This new orifice provides a portal for penetration, usually by the umbi-cord but alternately by tongues or lubed fingers (in this case, the sex metaphor holds). New holes provide opportunities for new experiences, and for connections to other forms of life.
With data increasingly untethered from mass, our technology begins to retreat from visibility
Throughout, the representation of technology and digitally rendered gamespace is resolutely grimey, even drab. Technological objects are dusty and mundane or fleshy and motile, but never white, smooth, or wireless. Mark Fisher notes this aesthetic in his retrospective 2012 review of the film, saying “Looked back on now, this brownness looks like a refusal of the gloss that will increasingly come to coat the artifacts of digital culture.” The film lingers in the spaces where technology is built, foregrounding labor and the non-magical acts of splicing DNA, growing cultured flesh, and gutting fish. Work, sex, interacting with technology: in eXistenZ, each of these activities are hopelessly corporeal. The film’s “excitement over electronic technology’s potential to reshape identity,” writes Lia Hotchkiss in her analysis “Still in the Game,” “is tempered by a realization of the degree to which we are bound by materiality, not only neurally but also ethically.”
What is it to be ethically bound by materiality? Donna Haraway, mother of cyborgs, imagines that “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.” In eXistenZ, the “joint kinship” is a literal tethering. Plugging an umbi-cord into your bioport is an act of coupling that creates a new cyborg organism, an unstable but compelling chimera. Connected to their biological game pods, eXistenZ’s gamers appear as though they’re participating in a perverse gestation, umbilically connected to an externally carried fetus. As with human gestation, the fetal bundle and the host are mutually imbricated — a wet co-nurturing that Sophie Lewis, in her book Full Surrogacy Now, calls “amniotechnics.” Chemical or digital flows emanate from the pod, changing the brain chemistry of the human and giving them access to a game world, while the human sends nourishment, or contagion, to the pod. The gamers participate in an attachment parenting of their devices.
Throughout science fiction film and literature we see many new models for making kin, making connections via new and old orifices, and providing care and succor to the bodies of others. The Matrix, released the same year as eXistenZ, begins with tethered humans unwillingly providing nourishment to machines, while later on (post red pill), Neo is jacked in to the Matrix via a port at the base of his skull, and fed with a stream of fight training programs (“I know kung fu”). In 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, bodily fluids and gasoline flow with equal profusion, sometimes as tools of domination and other times as mutual aid. Max begins the film as an enslaved human blood bag, kept alive only for his universal blood type. Later in the film he provides this blood willingly to his comrade in battle Furiosa, sliding a needle into his own arm and another into hers, connecting them via plastic tubing. Vital fluids flow between beings in this human assemblage, creating a “network of blood” (this was the title of Videodrome’s initial screenplay) that materializes the already existing relationship of care and interdependency.
Back in our own world, there’s a temptation to think of our digital devices as inert objects to use and discard at our convenience. Cyberpunk and cyborg fiction, with its focus on plugging in and human-machine techtonics, “troubles the distinction between the for-itself and the in-itself” as Mark Fisher puts it, as machines reveal themselves as active participants in the shaping and transformation of humans. What’s more, the reciprocal relationships between humans, non-humans, and machines is shown to be affectively exhilarating, creating new sensations and new kinds of intersubjectivity.
Today, technologists are sloughing off cables and closing up holes wherever possible. In the transition from cyberpunk embodiment to wireless data-worlds, one version of pleasure and thrill is replaced with another, more sanitary version. While Neuromancer’s digital jockeys weighed up the dangers and exhilaration of jacking-in, and Cronenberg’s characters got to experiment with new forms of sex when they weren’t being menaced by AIDS metaphors, today’s technological objects offer fewer opportunities to connect. From a jacked-in world where things penetrate other things and bodies and machines alike risk infection, mutation, and transformation, we move to a wireless era of smooth resplendent surfaces unsullied by holes.
Instead of mechanics, we become magicians, holding, stroking, gesturing towards seemingly inert objects
The reification of smooth surfaces has a long design history. In his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” architect and theorist Adolf Loos declares that “the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.” For Loos, the ornamentation of the Art Nouveau era was grotesque and anti-modern, while “freedom from ornament is a sign of spiritual strength.” “Soon the streets of the city will glisten like white walls,” he prophesied, and today’s AirSpace of minimalist interiors and interchangeable condo facades shows this prediction come to pass, at least in places where capital circulates as freely as data.
The victory of wi-fi and hatred of ornament has led us toward the consumer technology we use today: blobs of untethered plastic and aluminum that are sleek but sexless, with hidden seams and untouchable insides. If I know one thing for sure, it’s that my iPhone doesn’t want me prying it open. The smoothness of our devices goes hand in hand with the dematerialization of information. Wireless technology and cloud computing mean that data flies around us, shifting and accumulating like a swarm of invisible but omnipresent bees. Information, which has always wanted to be free, finally is: free from embodiment, free from form.
With data increasingly untethered from mass, our technology begins to retreat from visibility. Of course, the labor and materials by which our objects are produced have been obscured for as long as capital has existed. That space behind the curtain is Marx’s hidden abode of production, where workers toil and delicate consumers fear to tread. However, when it comes to the seamless objects we coexist with today, the object not only hides the labor that went into it: It hides itself. The decline of the plug and the rise of the Internet of Things means we no longer see the mechanisms by which our information flows and our world reproduces itself.
In this environment, objects take on an uncertain valence. What looks like an inert chunk of onyx-dark plastic turns out to be a Tesla key fob. What appears on first glance as a palm tree turns out to be a cell tower. These obscure objects are better suited than ever to be interpolated as tools of surveillance (even as we assume they’re here to serve us, the people who ostensibly own them). We regard the objects, and the objects regard us in return. In one of the early essays that evolved into his book Shard Cinema, Evan Calder Williams describes this phenomenon of disappearing objects and omnipresent data: “In other words, one faces the increasing prospect of all elements of the built world becoming gatherers, processors, or transmitters, especially in ways that are not immediately visible to those around them.” William Gibson himself acknowledged this transition to a data-saturated world, stating in an interview that “when I began to write, cyberspace was ‘the other place.’ But now, we’re in cyberspace, in some sense, all the time, and the other place is the lack of connectivity”.
When connectivity fails, when the wi-fi cuts out, or when the device breaks, technological objects recede into themselves, no longer agentive and now just inanimate lumps. The hole-less and closed-off nature of the wireless object, prompted by the tech company’s desire that we not mess with the insides or fix broken components, makes it near impossible to engage in the active care and feeding of our technology. It’s difficult to make kin with a hermetically sealed object. Wired technology displays more causality: plug goes in here, electricity flows from point A to B, screws get undone and casings pop off. Through repeated uses, a tactile and embodied relationship develops with the wired or mechanical device. The fingers learn what it feels like when two pieces snap together properly, and the ears instantly sense when the rattle of an engine sounds off. Using, cleaning, and checking in with the object become rituals of care that engender an embodied familiarity, perhaps resulting in a longer life for the object and a greater sense of responsibility towards the material world. But now: what does the AirPod want? What does it need? Maintenance becomes a case of wireless software updates, where we cross fingers and hope that the internet will resurrect our Things.
And so, instead of mechanics, we become magicians. Holding, stroking, gesturing towards seemingly inert objects in a way that brings them into being and generates action. As magicians of the mundane, we are limited in the spells we can cast. The incantatory rituals (“OK Google,” “Alexa, play Despacito”) and conjuring gestures (swipe, stroke, two-finger-pinch) are determined not through the work of occultists or generations of folk practice, but in the conference rooms and co-design labs of the tech company. We install app updates and yell at our speakers in an attempt to reclaim some agency, but it’s clear that our devices are receiving orders from above. Perversely, the rise of wearables, ubiquitous GPS, and smart home devices mean that our own bodies begin to take on a similar ontological status as mystifying and untethered data-producing machines. As we move, pulse, secrete, and communicate we now emit a steady stream of data that can be tracked, extracted, and sent elsewhere. Ostensibly we are able to use this data to for our own projects of self-optimization or realization, but ultimately the ubiquitous, non-consensual surveillance serves other masters.
As our ability to fix, alter, and engage with our objects becomes increasingly circumscribed, we face a doubling of alienation: estrangement from the labor that produced them, and now estrangement from the objects themselves. All that is solid melts into air: The role of physical proximity and connectivity give way to the new primacy of wireless data. To me, this is a loss. The dirty worlds of cyberpunk and the risky power exchange of cyborg couplings are often dysfunctional, but they reveal something vital and humane about the era of wired technology and plugging in. As the transition to wirelessness continues, we become increasingly unable to care for, or even to understand, the technology on which we rely.