March 28, 2017

STANTON | Pass Me the Aux

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Monopolies will ruin all that is good in America. Apple Inc. – once that hallowed American ideal of what two dudes can accomplish with some ingenuity and a two-car garage – will repackage all your hopes and dreams, then sell them back to you. Of course you’ll buy it, because opening a Mac at a coffee shop suggests to others that you’re a creative mastermind one breakthrough away from writing the century’s next great novel, while a PC labels you a corporate hack. I write this, obviously, as a fellow drone caught in Apple’s matrix, knowing all too well that I’ll someday purchase one of those face-sized phones and continue to wallow in self-aware, consumerist guilt.

This is all old news, and dorm-room philosophy at that. It is also old news that Apple – either as a flex of monopolistic power, or an attempt at gauging just how much they can bully their customer base without losing business – has decided to phase out the traditional headphone jack. The 3.5-millimeter port on every device you’ve owned since buying that portable CD player to crank Millennium? Soon to go the way of the Backstreet Boys. The phrase, “Pass me the aux”? Meaningless.

Until recently, I had come to terms with the fate of the aux cord. All things must pass, and wireless ear buds probably should have taken over by now. This Zen-like acceptance of the changing times, however, disintegrated the moment I first laid eyes on the abomination destined to replace old-school headphones. Somehow, they look exactly like a worse version of Apple’s classic default earbuds, which featured the ability to cause pain in both ears and fall right out at any sudden motion. The new model, though, is a true work of nightmarish expressionism for its insistence on plugging right into your phone’s power jack. Again, this is old news, and third-party companies will undoubtedly develop better, cheaper earbuds that work with the new iPhone. Still, it’s difficult to look at a physical pair of these things and not think that they’re disrupting the proper order of the universe. Rarely do aesthetics feel wrong, but these have a bizarre sort of asymmetry that recalls my childhood fear of CatDog.

Unsurprisingly, a lot of people empathize with this gut reaction, as Apple’s announcement last September – and subsequent release of the iPhone 7, sans headphone jack – threw the world of music and tech blogs into immediate chaos. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (AKA “Woz”, AKA “Seth Rogen”) said the tech company was about to “tick off a lot of people.” Pigeons and Planes posted an obituary for the aux cord, citing “planned obsolescence” as its cause of death. The Guardian published an editorial speaking against Apple’s decision, only for Genius users like “Stephen Pringle” to annotate said article with insults about the author’s intelligence.

On the other hand, many responded to Apple’s announcement with ambivalence, or even a “good riddance.” The 3.5-mm port, in its earliest iterations, dates back more than a hundred years, and its sound quality will eventually seem grossly lo-fi in hindsight. All of this technical chatter, though, ignores the social component of the aux cord. If nothing else, that universal port was something of a social equalizer.

In California, kids become eligible for their driver’s licenses at 16, but cannot immediately drive with other people in the car, unless they happen to be relatives or legal adults. At 17, these provisions no longer apply, and the driver is now said to “have their year.” The law, I imagine, intends to prevent young drivers from getting distracted while operating a motor vehicle, but it mostly creates the perfect opportunity for low-stakes teenage rebellion. Growing up there, it became something of a ritual that when the oldest person in a friend group got their license, they’d immediately pile kids in the back of whatever vehicle their parents allowed them to drive.

Of course, the aux cord was there every step of the way, and variations on “pass me the aux” became a staple expression of teenage carpooling. If your car only had a tape deck, odds are that an aux cord dangled awkwardly out the front of it, attached to a cheap plastic cassette that could filter MP3s into the stereo. Lo-fi or not, the aux cord remains the most broadly functional means of playing tunes. It’s universal precisely because it’s outdated, and works with any range of devices – old or new, Apple or not – in every part of the world. For that reason, the best Bluetooth speaker can’t even put a scratch on the aux cord’s legacy.

For a monopoly that has slowly taken over every element of our daily lives for the last 30 years, it’s a little surprising that it took Apple this long to pull a roadside execution on the aux cord. Yes, I understand that they have already made adapters to use old-school headphones on the new iPhone (Because what’s one more purchase?). And perhaps I’m just nostalgic for the days of MP3s, of collecting music rather than allowing Spotify to reduce my (super unique and unpredictable) tastes into a soulless algorithm. Mostly, though, I’m just sad to retire the phrase, “Pass me the aux.”

Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Really Terrible, and Such Small Portions! runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.