Robot or Not? #259 May 1, 2023


Don’t anthromorphize ports. They hate that.

Listen to this episode (8 minutes)
00:00 00:00

Download file (6 M)

Show Notes

Jason: John, listener Chris wants to know about plugs.

He writes, “I’ve been taught that computer cables and ports are gendered to identify each side of the connection. The male end refers to the tab or protuberance and the female end is the cavity that receives the tab. For example, in the Lightning connection on Apple products, the cable is the male end and the devices contain the female end, except for the general one, Apple Pencil, which has a male end on it and came packaged with an adapter.” Lots of adapters out there these days.

What do you think about this? And I will throw in an alternate, which is: I often in my writing about tech will refer to ports and jacks instead of using gender terms about it. I don’t know how you feel about all of that, but sometimes you do need to explain this. And then there’s the added complexity of USB-C, which also came up, which is the idea that at USB-C there’s like a protuberance inside the port that the cable goes around. And so there’s a question of what that even is.

John: Yeah, so using, you know, it’s extremely gender normative to try to use male and female terms for computer ports. And it really doesn’t make much sense and also sort of reveals a kind of preoccupation with sexual intercourse that is not relevant to the technology world.

Like, of all the things that you might use as an analogy for a thing that is a hole and a thing that goes into the hole, you know, the minds of humans, because we’re so driven by our reproductive drive to pass on our genes or whatever, goes right to sexual intercourse and then of course goes right to gender normative and say, “And therefore I’m going to say the thing that goes in is necessarily male, and the thing that it goes into is necessarily female.”

So it is problematic on multiple levels and representative of sort of the most base lizard brain kind of, you know, evolutionary—not going to say evolutionary garbage because without it we wouldn’t be where we are—but concerns of a lower life form, let’s say, because lots of living beings have a drive to reproduce. If we didn’t, they wouldn’t be around, because you kind of need a drive to reproduce to reproduce, and if you don’t reproduce you’re not around anymore.

And we have that too in spades, but it is not the appropriate analogy for a more enlightened species that understands that the gender binary and gender normative things doesn’t reflect the world as it is. It is a vast simplification that is not useful, and it is harmful to perpetuate that by saying, “This analogy is so useful and so well understood and so obviously true that we were going to apply it to the technology world, therefore reinforcing the idea that this is obvious and true and any deviation from it is incorrect.”

So I don’t use those terms either. Setting that aside, what do you use to call them?

Plug, socket, you know, that works reasonably well. Plug, jack works reasonably well. Again, the power plugs that we use to, you know, they’re in the walls of our homes that we plug things in to get electricity. We don’t call that the male and the female end. We call it as an outlet and, you know, and a plug or a socket and a plug. Those terms already exist and they exactly describe what we’re saying. There is a thing with a hole and there is a thing that goes into the hole and there’s no need for any kind of sex organ analogy whatsoever in that, let alone a gendered sex organ analogy. It’s like just garbage on top of garbage, right?

As for a USB-C, where, for people who don’t know, if you’ve looked at the USB-C, like the hole where a USB-C plug goes into, if you look inside that hole, it’s really dark in there, but if you look in there, you see there’s something in there. There’s basically like a little tongue. Again, there are more biology analogies, but like there is a little thing sticking out inside the hole. And when you take a USB-C plug and you plug it into there, that little thing that’s sticking out inside the hole goes inside the plug.

Still, I would say that that is the socket and the part that goes into it is the plug because what we mostly care about is, you know, which thing that we could see can we no longer see because it is covered by the other. We can’t see the thing that the little tongue thing that’s inside there, right? It’s just it’s too dark in there and it’s very small and it’s hard to see. So it’s not as if by enshrouding that in the USB-C plug we are further hiding it. It was already kind of hidden.

Practically speaking, technology-wise, it’s actually one of the advantages that USB-C has over Lightning, believe it or not. The Lightning connector on our phones, it’s a solid metal, well not really solid, but anyway, it’s a… effectively a solid rectangular thing that goes into a hole.

And if you look at the plug end of a Lightning cable, you’ll see a bunch of electrical contacts, and you’ll see the little, you know, the rectangular thing that the electrical contacts are in. And you’ll see two little dimples in the side of that, and those dimples are for springy metal bits inside the hole to sort of clamp into. So you push those springy metal bits out of the way, and then when you get it all the way in, those springy metal bits go into the little holes and sort of give a way to hold the plug inside the socket, right?

In USB-C, the springy metal bits that perform a similar function are inside the cable, not inside the socket. And that is a better design for longevity, because if those springy metal bits get tired, wear out, get looser over time, if they’re in the cable, you just throw out the cable and get a new one. But if they’re in the device, there’s nothing you can do except for get a new port, which is much harder than getting a new cable.

So if you ever keep a laptop long enough, and if laptops had, or a phone for that matter, had, you know, a Lightning connector, that the springy bits slowly got looser and looser, then there’s nothing you can do about it except for bring it in and get… if you’re lucky, if the connector is on a module on the logic board, you can get that module replaced.

But in USB-C, you just throw out the cable. So I think having the springy bits in the cable is actually a better design.

And you may think, “Oh, but what about the little tongue thingy? Isn’t it going to crack off inside the hole?”

It’s so hard for anything to get in there. When you stick the USB-C plug in there, it’s so well contained that even if you, like, yank the USB-C cable, you’re more likely to break the cable or the connector before you’ll break off that little tongue thing. So I think USB-C is actually a pretty well-designed connector, and it does have advantages over Lightning.

Jason: And like I said, I try to avoid those gender terms whenever I can, right? I mean, I also try to avoid the whole, like, “This is a sexy piece of technology.” It’s like, “No, it’s not. It’s not. It’s just not. Don’t.”

John: I think the definition of sexy has stretched itself far enough to say the desire for reproduction that you feel so strongly, this is attractive in a way that is similar to the strength of that desire, even though we both know that you don’t actually want to, hopefully, have sex with this piece of technology.

Jason: Yeah, I’m never going to refer to a laptop as sexy. It’s just not going to happen. But I do try to do the— I mean, like I said, I end up doing a lot of port and jack kind of stuff, where it’s like the Lightning— the Apple Pencil 1 has a Lightning jack on it. It goes in the Lightning port. That’s it.

John: I mean, to give people a better idea of how absurd it is, male and female being like doubly— like two layers of— like I said, one is we have to use a sex analogy, and two is now we have to gender it as well, right?

If you think that is all reasonable to do, just call it, like, the penis connector and the vagina socket or something.

And then some of you are like, “I’m not going to say those words. That’s ridiculous.”

Like, yeah, it is ridiculous, but you’re basically saying that when you say the male and female port, that’s the analogy you’re using. So if you wouldn’t use the actual words, probably reconsider that analogy.