It is an article of faith that replacing cables with wireless protocols is good. Cables are messy inconveniences that tie themselves into inconvenient tangles. Wireless eliminates clutter, liberating us from the world of plugs and jacks. I agree with this — half of the time. The other half I spend mourning the time that the drive to wirelessness has siphoned out of my life.
If you call me at home, I’ll take the call on a wired phone. I’m typing these words on a USB keyboard, and if I need to pick a command off the Word ribbon, I’ll use a USB mouse. When I finish writing this story, my battery free, ethernet connected desktop PC will upload it through my cable modem.
Replacing any of this wired gear with its wireless equivalent would subject me to multiple battery-related nightmares. The interruptions would be a matter of when, not if. The call I take on my mobile phone might be interrupted at any moment when the battery goes dead. I might not be able to finish the sentence I’m now typing if the battery in a wireless keyboard or laptop went dead. A dead battery in a wireless mouse would limit my productivity to keyboard commands — good luck with that. Work is strictly a wired affair.
How does wireless fit into my life? It does, of course. Though I almost never use the mobile phone at home, barring the occasional text, it comes in handy when I’m on the bus, waiting for the doctor, or navigating the streets with Google Maps. Much of my casual computing — including not-so-casual shopping — happens on a wi-fi connected tablet, which is harder to type on than a PC, but also less drearily utilitarian. Even my home theater system, a bastion of bustling cables, uses wi-fi to connect both the smart TV and the Roku box to the home network.
Here I should note the distinction between wireless and battery-powered devices. They overlap but are not exactly the same thing. My smart TV, Roku box, and home network connect wirelessly but are not battery-powered. My mobile phone, tablets, and laptops are both wireless and battery-powered. For most wireless devices, battery power is the rule, not the exception. And the battery is the Achilles’ heel that undermines so many wireless devices.
I pay a price in human attention for every one of those battery-powered devices. Each must be carefully monitored and charged before the battery runs all the way down, which would shorten battery life. Currently I do this for four tablets, two laptops, a mobile phone, and the five music players that provide my bedtime music. The music players connect (by cable) to a battery-powered speaker because the single power outlet in my bedroom doesn’t reach the spot where I want the music to come from. I shave with a wireless razor and brush my teeth with an electric boothbrush.
That adds up to 15 devices, each of which has to be checked and charged. This soaks up time that might have been used for other, less annoying things. Like working, or reading, or listening to music, or talking to friends on my wired phone. In my living room are two jumbo surge suppressors serving as charging stations, one for my roommate, one for myself. We share a third one in the bedroom. They look hideous.
Draped over one of my desk lamps are the unavoidable charging cables: Micro-USB, USB-C, Lightning, the old 30-pin Apple cable, and the similar-looking 30-pin connector for my SanDisk Sansa music players (which looks similar but has different pin assignments). Two of each, just in case. They also look hideous, but if I concealed them in a drawer, I would be opening and closing that drawer several times a day, picking up a clump of cables, and painstakingly teasing out the one I need. The lamp hydra is the lesser of two evils.
I’ve heard that Martha Stewart maintains an entire room in her home for charging stations and devices. It sounds like a great idea. But we can’t all be Martha Stewart.
It could be worse. I know plenty of people who have two mobile phones in constant use. They use their phones for music, games, and other apps, inviting a call-interrupting battery crisis just about every day. If my commute depended on using a Bluetooth headset, I hate to contemplate how my workday would begin (or end) when the battery in that sucker went dead. Of the half-dozen pairs of quality headphones I own, exactly zero point zero are wireless.
I’m trying to hold the line at 15 devices, each one like a hungry upturned beak in a bird’s nest, each one heading inexorably toward possibly unaffordable battery replacement or full retirement. Sometimes I long for the pre-wireless devices they replaced. But try finding a decent corded men’s razor. My dental hygienist, who takes no prisoners, insists that the electric toothbrush is better for my teeth. I won’t be growing any new ones, so I follow her advice.
Some of this wireless clutter is self-inflicted, I guess, because I hate to impose a death sentence on a device that’s still working, however badly. Of the five music players, at least two are iPod nanos that survive for only a single hour of bedtime listening (the SanDisk players are still hale and hearty in their old age). Of the four tablets, only two are in constant use; the other two I’m methodically keeping alive with occasional e-book reading. I could get by on one laptop. Someday, conceivably, I might find another corded razor as good as the boxy Remington I used for decades.
Yes, I’ll get that number down to a dozen any day now. Then again, I might not. Who am I kidding? I’m a prisoner of the wireless era.