A Love Letter To Wires
We were at my friends house when it happened. My son came out from his friend’s bedroom and said “I found it!” Sitting in his hands was a little black computer mouse I had bought him a few months before. He had had it for about a week and he had lost it. When we asked “Where was it?” We were told that it was buried in the folds of his friend’s bed. Of course it was, because that’s right where he said he looked again and again when he first lost it. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised as everyone I know who has children my son’s age will agree that eleven year old’s can’t begin to comprehend the idea of being thorough at anything. “Well, good, now you can use it again instead of stealing my mouse” I said. He had been using my old wired Microsoft Intellimouse for several months for his Minecraft machinations since he had lost the new one I bought him. “I can’t, I lost the thingie” he said. I groaned. The thing he was referring to was the little receiver that comes with every wireless mouse. It was supposed to stay lodged in his computer as I knew the wayward mouse would eventually show up. It was then, when I looked at the wired mouse he had been using for months, still tethered to the old laptop he played his games on and the poor orphaned wireless mouse sitting in his hands that I realized, I love wires. I also realized that wires, for me at least, can be an intensely emotional topic.
Why are wires such an emotional thing for me? They are strands of material that convey electromagnetic energy. It’s as simple as that. They are basic things. I think I love wires because they work. I also feel intensely protective of them because they are under attack from nearly every corner of our culture, from captains of industry to some of the highest elected officials in the land.
I think our opening story about my son is a great example of how they work, and they work well. My son had asked me for a wireless mouse, I think, in part, because he had been using a wired mouse and all of his friends had wireless mice. He’s at the age where he’s starting to be status conscious. So I went to Walmart and bought him a little Onn wireless mouse for about $10. As you know he was able to keep track of it for about a week. Because there was no wire physically connecting the device to the laptop, and because he’s an intensely distracted child, he lost it. Then over time, without my knowledge he lost the receiver making the mouse useless when we eventually found it. These weren’t my only frustrations as there are other issues at play. The wireless mouse needs to be powered by AA batteries, batteries that often get commondiered to replace the dead ones in video game controllers and eventually lost to the remote corners of our home. When you think about the structure of it all, including the transmitter, receiver, power, and greater risk associated with loss or damage, then you have to ask yourself, why would anyone want a wireless mouse, keyboard, printer, or any other computer peripheral?
It isn’t just desktops. Wires are under assault by our tech giants led by Apple. It started a few years back when the iPhone infamously dropped the beloved 3.5mm headphone jack from it’s line of phones. The headphone jack is a tech that’s been around for about one hundred and fifty years and works nearly flawlessly. The argument was that they were using the space formerly occupied by the jack to cram more technology and battery life into the phone. As the iPhone is ever the aspirational device for consumers and designers across the mobile industry, the competition quickly aped the jack removal for their premium phone designs. It turns out that the decision to drop the phone jack was only partially driven by enhancing the iphone design as Apple also released the original airpods at the same time. They were the first in a series of premium wireless headphones with some cool tricks and, in true apple fashion, started with stratospheric pricing of nearly $160. Kudos should go to Apple to create an environment where they could move their customers from using great sounding $10 wired headphones available from any big box retailer to a proprietary and expensive solution. From a business perspective it was a very savvy and successful move as evidenced that it was copied by the rest of the industry in short order. It also meant that if you owned an iphone or one of its competitors you were forced to buy some form of wireless headphones. I’m using a pair as I type this article because my higher end Pixel phone also dropped the phone jack. I use a dongle adapter to connect to my legacy car stereo when driving. Interestingly the larger sales volume mass market phones seem to be keeping the headphone jacks. My guess there is that the average consumer who buys phones that only cost a few hundred dollars can’t afford the comically expensive technology packed wireless headphones which are now colloquially known as buds.
Even if you can afford them, high cost and high tech doesn’t mean flawless operation. This is another area that speaks to why I love wires. I plug any phone with a stereo mini jack into my car’s AUX in port and it just works: Every. Single. Time. I can’t say as much for the wireless bluetooth connection between any buds I’ve used or between my devices and vehicles I use which have bluetooth receivers. There are dropouts, confusion as to what device should be connected, compression artifacts in the sound and a host of other issues relating to not having a wire.
Another wire that looks to be next on the literal chopping block by big tech is the power cable. As I write this Apple is moving towards inductive charging or charging without the plugs or wires. You simply lay your phone or airpods on a surface where it charges automatically. In a similar manner to eliminating audio cables, you have sacrifices that have to be made to shift to wireless charging. Specifically it has to do with the time it takes to charge the device. Inductive charging is much slower than a direct cable connection.
I think the biggest assault on wires was best articulated by our North Carolina senator Thom Tillis when he parroted the Republican Party line in response to questions about rural broadband. Broadband, if you’re not in the know, it’s a lot like the wealth distribution there are haves and have nots, and the gap is getting wider. If you’re in a rural environment the odds are that you have horrible broadband. The official numbers have been obfuscated by poor legislation. The best solution, one that’s only in very small little parts of rural America, is fiber optics. Like the other wires I’ve talked about, where it is run, it works phenomenally well. The natural solution, if you want to run broadband universally throughout the country, is to make sure everybody has access to fiber. The Republican position as articulated by Senator Tillis, not surprisingly, is to let the free market drive the process. When you get into the minutiae of it, they believe the new generation of low earth orbits satellite internet providers and 5G wireless service providers can meet the need and create a competitive environment covering America. To quote The Good senator, the Republican party wants to structure legislation to where the puck is going, not where it is. That’s a great sound bite and is, of course, patently false. Millimeter wave, the underpinnings of gigabit wireless, is notoriously finicky and completely unfit for rural broadband. LEO broadband satellites are a bit like wireless earbuds. The tech is theoretically good, but it has yet to be proven. Also there are barriers relating to cost and available bandwidth. With rural broadband, the wires just work and work well. We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to make sure that everybody has access to fiber. Wireless broadband internet should be positioned in a similar way to how cell service originally existed in relation to the land line phone system. It should be available but the tried and true wired solution should be the primary option.
The question needs to be asked why is there such a rush to eliminate wires everywhere. They work well, they’re relatively inexpensive, and everyone knows how to use them. I think one of the reasons is our love affair with the new. Cables and wires seem antiquated. Also, there is a thing called the WAF or wife acceptance factor.. This is a term used by consumer electronics retailers to describe a very common scenario where gadget loving men have their purchases moderated by their wives. The wife has to like it too or the guys typically can’t buy it. I guess they could, but they will suffer in their interpersonal relationship. In my experience, wives, more than husbands, hate cables. They like how things look and cables are messy. One look behind a desk with a lot of equipment on it or behind an entertainment center that’s loaded with AV equipment, and you will see what’s commonly referred to as a rat’s nest of cables. I have yet to meet a wife who was ok with that in their living rooms.
In a recent article I wrote I argued that we have to be on the lookout for the macro trends in life. One of these macro trends is that there is an all out assault on wires and I don’t see that stopping any time in the near future. I really wish we could just keep our wires. I say that because they just work better. Even in wireless first environments wired simply works better. For years, and it’s still mostly true today, if you needed good broadband in your house, the best solution was to run ethernet cable to whatever device needed the strong connection. The wireless routers, until the adoption of mesh networks, were unreliable. Even the mesh networks of today have issues that wired connections don’t have. Again, wired is just better even against the latest wiz bang technology.
For me, I’m going to hold out as long as I can. I may get some wireless buds, but I’ll always keep my wired earbuds and dongles in reserve. If I go wireless broadband, I’ll still keep a wireline provider as well. Ultimately until wireless solutions pass the “10X” test, I don’t want to mess with them. The 10X test is when some new tech isn’t just better than the tech it’s trying to replace, it’s ten times better. Many people would argue that the DVD was 10X better than the VCR and the iPhone was 10X better than the feature phones it replaced. I would agree with them. Right now nearly all wireless technology is simply not 10X better than my beloved cables are and until that happens, I won’t just have wires going from my phone to my car, or from my router to my PC, I’ll have them wrapped around my heart!
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