A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter
When I was in the fourth grade, a friend took a long plane trip. Plane trips in those days being remarkable, he brought back as a souvenir for me the headset he used for watching the movie. The headset was a pair of rubber tubes, like those for a stethoscope, which ended in rubbery earpieces something like giant earbuds. You stuffed the ends of the tubes into holes in the armrest of your seat, and sound traveled to your
Image from post by headfi.org forum user billibob_jvc
ears. Presumably there were speakers in the armrests – I don’t like to think they were sending the sound from a single speaker all over the plane.
Anyhow, okay – that’s how it worked. The personal speaker technology the average person then owned was a mono earpiece you used to listen to the game when your spouse dragged you to the orchestra (or to the late night rock ‘n’ roll station under the covers at night, if every single coming-of-age story of the fifties and sixties is to be believed), so if the airplanes wanted to basically shout through tubes, why not? That’s how they did it on steamships, right?
So naturally I wanted to take that little earphone I had and connect it to this cool headset my friend had brought, and I set out to figure out how.
You can imagine the madness from tech types – including my friend. Also my dad, my brother, everybody I knew who knew anything about sound, electricity, speakers, and so forth. “No, no no – this is an electric speaker. You can’t just connect it to these tubes – they’re totally different things. You just can’t do that.”
I was in fourth grade, so for a while I believed them. But one rainy day I took out a tiny plastic funnel I had from somewhere and cut off the end. I Scotch-taped the two plastic tubes into that end. I traced the wide end of the funnel
onto a piece of cardboard that I then cut out, then cut a hole in its center just smaller than the earpiece, then taped the whole thing over the wide end of the funnel. I jammed the earpiece into that, turned on the radio and – you know. Such delight. I heard music.
Nothing more than a commonplace kludge that any engineering student would have thought of in a second, and I hadn’t thought about it for years. (One plastic tube was smaller than the other, by the way, so one ear was always a bit softer; I never found a solution to that problem.)
Then last month I bought a new phone. (How many modern stories pivot on that line?) Did I have any voicemails I wanted to save? Contacts would instantly transfer, and photos and videos I could transfer through my computer. The voicemails, though, resided on some particular field of vapor in the cloud and would be lost. So I listened – and yes, I did. One night I was traveling and my two boys wanted to say goodnight, and I’d been hearing “message … saved … to the archives … for … 21 … days” every few weeks for a couple years now.
So I tried to forward. No soap – nobody at the phone store could do it, and nobody at the help center could do it either. I couldn’t save it as a sound file.
Fine – I’m in a stinking phone store. One of you geniuses please pull out your smart phone and record this as I play it on speakerphone and save it for me, okay? No soap – a store full of phone salespeople with smartphones in their pockets and nobody could find a simple recording app. (I was buying an iPhone; that comes with one and it’s easy to find.) Seriously – they were ready to shrug and give up. So I said, okay – videotape it. Who cares about the video? Geniuses looked at me like I was from Venus, but they let me borrow a phone and do that. Which I did.
“Okay, now shoot me the file.” No soap. Too big for the gmail account, and the corporate account wouldn’t let the guy
who finally helped me out send an attachment. “Okay,” I said. “Upload the stinking thing to YouTube.” Again with the from-another-planet thing, but the guy – his name was Mike and I do not want you to think he was not helpful because he truly was – seemed almost stunned. “I wouldn’t have thought of that,” he said, and pressed a few buttons. Up it went, and there we were. Well, almost – he sent the link to my cell phone with one digit off, so I never got it, and the number I had for him turned out to be the store phone so my texted cries for help were vanishing into the ether. More, the title and keywords I had with my own eyes seen him link to the video also vanished into the ether — I’m sorry, we’re supposed to say “into the Higgs field” now, right? — and when he finally sent me the actual link the video was private.
Voicemail, email, human messages. But finally, finally I got a link, the link was public, and I could listen, as I could have two weeks previously, to my two adorable boys and my delightful wife tell me goodnight and that they love me. I scarcely need to tell you how important it is to be able to hear that now and again.
So, my point. This is something of a love letter to the kludge, though it’s more than that. I think this is actually a love letter to kludgethink. That is, just like the neighborhood full of stereo wizards and audio techheads in 1970 who couldn’t get past their volts and amps to imagine how you could transmit sound in a way that would have been second nature to a steamboat pilot, the smartphone people focused so intently on what any voicemail system SHOULD have been able to do and what every smartphone SHOULD have that they forgot to do what a fourth-grader would have eventually done by instinct: just get there somehow and solve the problem elegantly later. I’ve never upgraded a program without having to learn new kludges, and I’ve never bought a new piece of technology without having to figure out ways to trick it into doing things the old one did in its sleep. That’s okay – the new stuff is usually worth it. I mean, you’re reading this, right? And in a world of hyper connectivity where one G to the next takes about an hour and forty-five minutes and they no longer support the old technology and the guy who used to understand it retired three years ago, kludgethink is probably the most important kind of thinking we can learn.
Somewhere between the four-prong thing that used to connect the phone to the wall and Bluetooth, I’ve lost track of the number of different kinds of plugs I’ve had to use to connect one thing to another thing. Still I remember that earpiece-cardboard-funnel-tube interface with love. I wish I still had it, but I’m glad I’ve got what it taught me. Yours for more kludgethink.