A Play of Power

I live as both the powerful and the powerless. I know what it feels like to give power and deny it.

Has any urge shaped the face of human civilization more than the quest for power and unearthing the means to it even as its understanding has alluded us? Power inspires worship for the sun as it brings flora and fauna to life and kills mercilessly even as it’s dying itself. Older than the sun itself, Power has dictated which elemental force succumbs and which one triumphs. Water took to land, eroding, shaping and moving it whichever way it wanted. Power changed the course of history through sheer physical impact as well, à la the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, and reversed the pecking order in the same with only those blessed with flight surviving catastrophe. Power’s intricate relationship with space gave birth to the concept of geographic demarcation and introduced us to the most brutal periods of war. And through many a coup d’état, Power has shifted to redefine the oppressor and the oppressed. Despite Power’s facile shape-shifting, both in form and in semantics, even a feeble attempt at understanding it has resulted in literally illuminating our lives. From the social sciences and economics to physics and mathematics, Power is an omnipresent force, endemic to us as social beings, even as it constantly redefines what force is in and of itself.

Identifying power and what it really means, both in acquiring it and being subservient to it, will challenge us until the end of humanity and beyond. But to see its permeating role in the technological landscape, we must examine our struggle in answering a few fundamental questions: How does power act? Is it fearlessly free or can we capture it? If so, how do we encapsulate it? How do we trap and use it for longer periods? Can we either have perpetual access to it or do without it altogether?

For our modern devices, competitive edge is built upon how long they can store power, isolated in their increasingly tiny bodies, before they need to become dependent on a ‘source of power’- a phrase as perplexing, complicated, mysterious and elusive as the nature of power itself. A new Pandora’s box faces us here. Words like sustainability, turbines, networks, mechanical conversion and perpetuity start looming around us. To gain access to this seemingly impenetrable tome, we must find an angle, a pathway if you will, that lets us slice into it. Take an object whose entire identity is defined and dictated by power: the charger.

Perfectly embodying the sentiment echoed in the first sentence of this essay, ‘chargers’ categorize a world of objects around us that serve no other purpose than to bring our technological/digital world to life. In themselves, they are useless. Deprived of an electricity source, they are devoid of even the semblance, the pretense of being powerful. Furthermore even their temporal power, acquired through the artificial, evaporates as soon as our devices have whetted their thirst, thus, vainly becoming omnipotent and self-sufficient until they have used up what they took. Certain types of chargers also hold power over only those devices that need them, reflecting the age old axiom of need in one creating power in another. Chargers become obsolete quickly and, despite being vessels for power, have a set expiration date dependent on what they power. A certain charger may power a certain device but the use of that device has power over the life of the charger.

The relationship between chargers and human beings is even more convoluted. Chargers tether our devices but we are, consequently, tethered to them as well. We just want to work and play with our devices- and yet we have to constantly remember to carry these peculiar little objects with us that weigh down our memories and bags, dictate our conversations when we are sharing them with other human beings, refuse to adapt to the different and new, exhibit unwavering fidelity towards the device and socket type they were paired with and, downright annoyingly, haven’t mastered the art of working effectively with their own parts- as evidenced by the lack of cooperation between the cord and the body in folding effectively and fitting neatly inside our bags. We have become unwilling participants in this conflicted relationship between the parts and the whole.

Speaking of form, chargers are designed to act as vessels for what they are really assisting in implementing- connecting our devices with electrical power. A cord on one side connects with the mysterious socket, delivers a form of power through its seemingly arbitrary length into a box, equally arcane, that transforms power into what can be consumed by our devices and sends it along another cord that attaches to our devices. They are called chargers but they are actually the converters, the transformers, the transporters of what actually charges our devices: power. Linguistically, it is amusing to note that the verbs ‘charges’ and ‘powers’ can be used interchangeably in the preceding sentence but ‘charger’ is the word we use for this ‘enabler of power’- and not ‘power-er’. In depriving its nomenclature of the adjective that would directly make it powerful, we have named it after the result of its function, further signifying its inherent impotence.