Rightly or wrongly, we tend to speak of science fiction authors as prophets: We’re delighted to find that Philip K. Dick inveighed against the internet of things half a century ago and terrified to learn that Octavia Butler somehow anticipated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in 1998. The richer stories, however, are often visions of the future that don’t quite come to fruition, especially when they go awry in unexpected ways. It’s all the more striking when the authors themselves are in a position to watch their own dreams dissolve.
Taking in Apple’s Wednesday press event, cyberpunk progenitor William Gibson had just such an opportunity. As industry analysts predicted, the company announced that it was eliminating the standard headphone jack on its next generation of iPhones, and pushing consumers toward its new wireless Airpods. Soon after, Gibson posted a tweet that read as at once bemused and mournful:
So "jacked in" is the next new anachronism in my early fiction #ThanksApple
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 8, 2016
In Gibson’s near future novels of the mid-’80s, the term jack in served as a euphemism for accessing his narrative universe’s immersive version of the internet. There’s something fantastical about the phrase, which opens up sometimes bizarre technological vistas, as when Gibson writes in the 1984 novel Neuromancer, “When Case jacked in, he opened his eyes to the familiar configuration of the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority’s Aztec pyramid of data.” Even at the time, “jacking in” was already vaguely anachronistic, referring back to telephone jacks (which would, to be fair, feed information to modems for years to come) instead of attempting to imagine some newer form of connective infrastructure.
Though Gibson’s work arguably helped shape the modern internet, his vision of the world was always a wired one, tied to an analog past, even as it looked forward to a digital future. Analog phones crop up regularly throughout Neuromancer, sonic bridges between yesterday and today—between the real and the virtual. Reading his early work now, those traces of old-fashioned technology can be jarring, but they’re also essential to his worldview, speaking to the earthy, gritty quality of his fiction. Peppering traces of recognizable technology into his narrative universe allowed him to ground his stories of improbably powerful computers, making them feel like they could be true.
It’s little wonder, then, that “jack in” found resonances well beyond Gibson’s own work. Perhaps most notably, it crops up in 1999’s The Matrix, which drew much of its vocabulary (down to its title) from Gibson’s vernacular. Lana and Lilly Wachowskis’ filmic universe offers us what may be our clearest vision of jacking in, with its characters literally plugging needle-like cables into ports on their bodies. The film also inherits Gibson’s preoccupation with midcentury telecommunications infrastructure: While there are a handful of cellphones in the film, the only way to escape the Matrix was to lift up a hardwired handset.
There is a lesson in such stories: Power cables and headphone cords may be irritating, but they also serve as tethers, helping bind us to a world that we can manage. Following their tangled paths, we intuit something about the currents—of information, of energy, of power in every sense—that course through them, even if we don’t fully understand what those pulsations mean. Though the prefix “cyber-” has roots in notions of control, it still suggests an incomprehensible electronic ether. In that sense, cords were cyber’s punk counterpoint: The knowledge that we still had to plug in assured us that we could always unplug if things got weird. A cord was punk because it was crummy—because it inevitably fell out, frayed, or failed—and because it was punk it held out a distant possibility of resistance.
In its attempt to free us from cables and wires—or at least pushing us toward such an inevitability—Apple hopes to bind us more fully into its own infrastructure. Tim Cook and his compatriots envision a world from which we can never disconnect, one in which we would float, drifting freely on seas of information. This is arguably the real rationale behind the company’s insistence on water resistance, for example. It wants to ensure that we will take our gadgets with us at all times, wherever we’re going, and that Apple will be able to filter and record our experiences for us as we wander.
Ultimately, then, the disappearance of cords is bound to be a story about control. A world without cords may be tidier or more convenient, but it’s also one in which we no longer direct the flow of energy, even in passing. In Gibson’s 1984, wires and cables were our pipeline to the future. In 2016, they’re an increasingly unwelcome shackle to the past. Apple’s ideal world is the tomorrow that we’re living in today. It may already be too late to jack out.