The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The wireless future ties us down more than ever

Phil Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide marketing at Apple, shows the Apple AirPods during an event in San Francisco in September. (Reuters/Beck Diefenbach)

I have come across a surprising problem with my wireless AirPods, and it's made me stop traveling with them. It's not any performance defect. They work well. And when I'm running with them or barreling through an airport with my carry-on, I silently thank them because I never get tangled — a surprisingly common problem for us klutzes of the world.

The problem arises, however, when I get to my destination. As I add more cordless, smart and rechargeable stuff to my life, I've run more into a mundane but real issue: I still have too many cords to deal with when it's time to charge them.

And there's no good solution.

Apple’s AirPods may be a bit ahead of their time

The issue really undercuts the whole “freedom from cords” promise inherent in wireless tech, especially when traveling. For most trips I usually pack two phones, a laptop or tablet, a smartwatch or fitness tracker, a spare battery pack, wireless headphones — and a power strip. Even if I have a device that can charge wirelessly, I still need to plug in the wireless charger.

It's gotten to the point where I even have a dedicated cord bag that's now almost more necessary than my toiletry kit. I can easily buy cheap toothpaste; I can't say the same for my laptop charger. If I travel with someone who shares my room, it can become a small-scale version of “Survivor” to see who gets to charge when and where. (The lamp stands no chance of staying plugged in then.)

I admit this may be the most first-world of problems. And I realize my life as a tech reporter exacerbates it. But I'm not alone, based on the number of lamps I find unplugged when I check into new rooms.

Ditching the iPhone headphone jack is annoying for everyone except Apple

The problem is worse for those staying or living in a charming older building, where there may only be one outlet in each room. After all, when Art Deco was the style, people wound their watches — they didn't charge them.

This is all a classic example of technology moving faster than the the world can keep up. In the rush to make things convenient, gadget makers forgot that they needed to take everyone else along with them.

So while the wireless future we've been promised is so close, it's tethered to the reality that every “wireless thing” still needs a wire to charge. It's hard to think of a solution, apart from having every gadget formatted to charge wirelessly and to having every coffee shop, hotel, motel and grandparent's house fitted with wireless charging pads.

It's another version of the problem facing contactless payments: The technology is there. It works. You never know if the store you're at has it.

This can only get worse as the tech industry tries to sell  us on smart shirts, smart toothbrushes, smart belts, smart jewelry, smart wallets, and health and fitness gadgets to help us track our posture, our calories and our gait.

How Google and Levi’s smart jacket shows what’s coming next for wearables

Some of these gadgets will come with batteries that negate the need to charge. Some of those batteries will be replaceable. Others may not, which leads to a whole different problem of having to buy a new, relatively expensive doodad every time your old one runs out of juice.

In essence, our tech is now asking us to trade one cord for another — and the new one can be even more of a hassle. I only occasionally snag my arm on my headphone cord when I run. I'll always have to charge my wireless headphones.

For now, when I'm traveling somewhere likely to be short on outlets, I'll opt to pack my analog watch or a pair of wireless headphones that also have an audio cable — just to free up some space. I lose some features, sure, but at least I know my stuff will be ready when I need it.

Plus, I won't have to sit in the dark all evening to know what time it is in the morning.