Following old leads: exploring the cable-mountain, and why I can’t throw mine away

“Today we have made the common charger a reality in Europe! European consumers were frustrated long with multiple chargers piling up with every new device. Now they will be able to use a single charger for all their portable electronics. We are proud that laptops, e-readers, earbuds, keyboards, computer mice, and portable navigation devices are also included in addition to smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers. We have also added provisions on wireless charging being the next evolution in the charging technology and improved information and labelling for consumers”.

Alex Agius Saliba, European Parliament Rapporteur (European Parliament News, 2022)

The summer starts with a provocation in June: “You need to get rid of all of those cables”.

July then brings the above birthday card and its accusatory meme.

August then brings annual leave and a negotiated list of jobs to be done. Clearing out the cables is item 4.

I ruminate. I clear out other stuff, but can’t bring myself to tacking the cable mountain. I ponder the reasons for this.

  1. Throwing these items away is a waste of rubber and copper.

The residue of illicit cable stripping or burning occasionally stumbled upon in dog walks reminds me of the value inherent within cabling, if sufficient metallic mass can be gathered together. My cables would not produce enough bounty to attract a scrap dealer. But this argument for inaction has become shaky. There’s a recycling site in my city that takes domestic cables, and sends them for reprocessing. So, Reason 1 is becoming untenable.

  1. I might need them

Here we touch on something primal. Being a competent adult is about being able to solve things, and to have the right tools for the job. In the recent BBC drama series Marriage, the husband of the couple (played by Sean Bean) is a shuffling, somewhat emasculated figure. He is unemployed, slightly lost in the world, and presented to the audience as largely impotent in his interactions. But there’s scene in Episode 2 where the family home’s router is playing up, causing major productivity challenges for his more in-the-world and active wife. He is called upon to fix the problem. He shuffles into his hallway and opens the door below his stairs and reaches in. He pulls out a plastic basket, full of cables. It is clear that this is his solutions store. He finds and fits a replacement cable. The router starts working again. His wife is relieved, and appreciative of the arcane magic that he has just performed. The cable basket returns to its under the stairs lair. The husband’s cable-hoard has proven its worth. It has also vanquished threats to its existence; for a while there will be no talk of the useless, tangled nest of electric string. The husband seems less emasculated for the remainder of the episode. There is a subtle air of competence to his shuffling.

  1. Throwing out a lead is a very final step

Sharing our lives with an ever-changing array of electronic equipment has empowered us but it has also shackled us. We are (or at least need to be) tethered to our devices, and their cables are those essential umbilical cords that feed power and data to our electric friends. To throw away cables is to alienate yourself from previous devices, to abandon the prospect of rebooting that outsourced memory unit from 10, 15, 20 years ago. It is a decision to kill, because it is a decision to not just unplug life-support but rather to pull the plug on a machine in suspended animation, to renounce its possibility of resurrection. Yes, I know that most of these devices will never be reactivated (giving little – if any – resumed companionship or glimpse-of-the-past if they were lead back to life). But the decision to thrown away a proprietary charger is a death knell, and thus a decision easier to defer indefinitely.

  1. Each lead is a talisman, acquired via a quest

With the power to breathe life back into a device, the humble charge or data lead takes on the demeanour of a key or talisman. Only the correct lead will reanimate the device, and finding the correct lead has quest-like properties. The unboxing of the newly purchased device will have been the first glimpse of the devices lead-key. The view of that element will have been unremarkable, but essential. The first act (the act of digital birth) is to power up and/or connect the device. And then in later life of that device there will perhaps have been a moment when a replacement lead was needed – triggering and online or on-the-high-street search for a replicant. The box of leads is the end stage of this questing – and in the pile is invested the effort and urgencies of the circumstances in which each lead was originally acquired. That each once had to be urgently hunted and recruited into essential projects of machine-interaction, has left a resonance within this pile. The cable-pile is a the trophy mound of former questing: this stuff was once so very important, and that residue remains, like the smouldering embers of a once-roaring open fire.

  1. The cable-pile is a material history of our industrial revolution

Azhar (2021) reminds us that the act of living through an industrial revolution looks very different to the contemporary participants than it does to historians looking back at it from a critical distance. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to live in a state of constant adaptation, and to habituate to that. To live through an Industrial Revolution is to be in the state of the slowly boiled frog – it takes effort to notice how far you (and your society) has travelled over recent years. The change is incremental, but adding those increments together leads to a big gap between the world and ways of ‘then’ and ‘now’. We can only cast off our acclimatisation – and notice change, by pausing to consider the accumulated, materialised debris of earlier increments; totems that mark out steps along the way and remind us of our journey. Old leads serve this function. Azhar also points out that a hallmark of our technological progression is a move towards interoperability. He illustrates this with text messaging on mobile phones – originally messages could only be sent within (rather than between) each provider’s network. The ability to send messages between networks was mandated by legislation and licensing. The cable-mound speaks of something similar: the oldest leads are fully proprietary – they are designed only to work with one originating device. The direction of travel has been towards common standards for cable design: USB mini, the micro, then ‘C’. In the case of mobile phones by 2009 there were 30 different chargers, but now most phones charge with one of three leads (USB micro, USB ‘C’ or Lightning). Already we see some devices being sold without cables, the expectation being that every household already has an ample supply of generic USB cables of the right type.

As Criddle (2021) notes the European Commission’s research estimates that disposed of and unused charging cables generate more than 11,000 tonnes of waste per year. As indicated by the epigram, there is now pressure for interoperability of cabling, with the European Parilament pressing for EU-wide legislation to mandate that all new mobile phones, tablets and cameras must only be designed to be powered and data-fed by a USB C cable, by 2024. Apple is presently fighting to preserve the existence of its proprietary ‘Firewire’ cable, but it seems only a matter of time before iPads and iPhones must themselves submit to the ubiquity of the USB C cable.

One day all leads will be USB C leads. One day I will throw away all of my other leads. But for now, I prefer to ruminate, rather than to eradicate.

References

Azhar, Azeem (2021) Exponential: Order and Chaos in an Age of Accelerating Technology Penguin.

Criddle, Cristina (2021) ‘EU rules to force USB-C chargers for all phones’, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-58665809, 23-9-22

European Parliament News (2022) ‘Deal on common charger: reducing hassle for consumers and curbing e-waste’, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220603IPR32196/deal-on-common-charger-reducing-hassle-for-consumers-and-curbing-e-waste, 7-6-22