This entry is part 14 of 39 in the series 40 years online

Cords suck.

The people of New England made this discovery at 1 am on December 12, 1986. That was when a single cable broke between White Plains, New York and Newark, New Jersey, knocking all of New England off the Internet. As incredible as it may sound today, back in 1986 all of New England’s 7 ARPANET connections ultimately ran through the same single cable. All it took was one cut, and an entire region went dark, as far as the network was concerned.

It doesn’t take an outage to discern this fundamental truth about life online: it’s better without an actual line. The requirement that we physically connect to the Internet through a cable, telephone or fibre-optic line has been one of the Internet’s most annoying demands, and one that we have taken great pains to dispense with. Thanks to wifi, Bluetooth and 3G, we can now do without the ugly cords. Sometimes.

Many devices plugged into one laptop use many cordsBut the inconvenience of plugging in goes far beyond the matter of how we connect to the network. We have to plug our our computers into our monitors, our phones into our computers, and our headsets into our phones. We’ve got syncing cables, USB cables, firewire cables. We have HDMI cables, DVI cables, and VGA cables, plus an endless supply of adapters to go with them, all of which are guaranteed to not actually work with the Mac and the projector you have in front of you. And of course, we’ve got power cords: endless, insatiable power cords.

Dozens of cables, and I can’t think of a single one that I’d miss if it suddenly became obsolete. I know this from experience: in my lifetime I have witnessed the obsolescence of many a cord. Goodbye, long curly cable that once connected my phone handset to the apparatus known as a rotary phone. Ciao, epic tangle of headphone cords: you’ve been replaced with a cordless model. Adios, mouse-with-a-USB-tail, and hola, cordless portable mouse and cordless gyroscopic mouse. Good riddance, corded TV remote, now replaced with a slender, cable-free rectangle (ok, 6 slender rectangles, but let’s not nitpick.)

An inventory of cords known and eliminated would be a great metric for tracking early adopter status. The dates by which each cord was retired would tell you a lot about how aggressively somebody pursues new technology: our household keyboards went wireless at least five years’ ago, but I am told that many people used corded keyboards as recently as today. You’d learn from volume, too: in a recent house cleanup we ended up purging (no exaggeration) 5 bankers’ boxes full of deprecated cables that ranged from power cords for long-since-deceased cellphones to extra USB and firewire cables (where “extra” is defined as more than the dozen in active use, plus a half-dozen spares).

As happy as I was to see those cords go, it was hard to part with them: the “what ifs” scenarios filled our hearts with dread. What if one of those cables was the long-sought-after connector that would let us finally attach our old videocamera to a computer and convert our collection of mini-dv tapes? What if our marriage broke up and we actually did need two different, his-and-her telephone patch cables? What if we go rid of our only extra USB-to-mini-USB cable and the world ended and we couldn’t replace it? I finally convinced myself that in these last two scenarios, at least, I’d have bigger problems than being short a cord or two.

But the emotional resonance of the cord divestment process made me realize that going cordless represents more than a unidimensional tech upgrade. So much of the time I spend waiting breathlessly for technology — and so much of the money and energy I put into pursuing it — amounts to a fantasy about getting away from the endless, relentless tethering. If I could just get a good cordless charging system I could dispense with the end-of-day ritual of plugging in a half-dozen iPads, iPhones and Macbooks. If I had a second battery I would’t be so dependent on Air Canada’s power outlets and could fly with other airlines. If every coffee shop had wifi I wouldn’t have to carry a syncing cable so that I can tether to my iPhone in a pinch. (Yes, I could use Bluetooth, but it conflicts with the headphones I used so I could get rid of that cord.) Heck, if the whole city had a high-speed wifi cloud I could stop tracking hotspots altogether.

Cordlessness is our future, as individual tech adopters and as an increasingly technologized society. And the future is scary: it’s full of unknowns, it’s full of change and it’s full of dangers. It’s enough to make you want to crawl into the safest, cosiest place you can find and stay there, rocking gently, until you know it’s all going to be ok.

Remember the last place you felt that safe? I’ll give you a hint: it had a cord.

Series Navigation<< Honoring the debt Canada’s connectivity owes to Chinese workersCore tenets of the social web >>