Once upon a time, my house was littered with cat 5 cables—those oversized-phone-cord-like things that connect computers to Ethernet networks. Challenged by family and visitors, I once argued that you could never have too many cat 5 cables. I came to regret that, of course, as wireless networks made the cables obsolete.
At different moments, different unremarkable technical objects seem to evoke that same feeling: that one can’t have too many. These days, the things that seem to turn up all over the place—lurking in pockets of different bags, filling drawers, and junk boxes, dropped down the back of desks—are USB flash drives.
They’re everywhere. There is almost certainly one within ten feet of you right now. I seem to acquire them unceasingly—they’re handed out as promotional tchotchkes, used to provide meeting minutes and conference proceedings, and presented in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and configurations. They have become inescapable elements of the contemporary technological landscape.
There are two deep ironies in this profusion.
The first is that the world is more interconnected and more irradiated than at any point in history, and yet it appears that the only reliable way to get a file quickly from one computer to another is to use a flash drive—to rely on what computer enthusiasts used to jokingly refer to as “sneakernet.” Pretty much any laptop you buy has three or four different high-speed networking technologies built into it, and yet the flash drive beats them all as a way to share files. If you don’t believe me, just ask two people at your next meeting to connect their computers together and copy a file from one to the other. Really, it’s hilarious. Transferring files over thousands of miles is easy; moving them two feet is almost impossibly difficult. (Even the “AirDrop” feature in newer versions of Apple’s operating systems—perhaps the best job anyone’s done so far of solving this problem—is strangely finicky and requires you to have just the right devices.)