Discover more from Desk Notes by Charles Schifano
The Power Struggle
After writing 51 new essays so far this year, it is time to take a short break—to recharge a bit, for a little introspection, to work on some longer and exciting projects for the coming months. Taking some deliberate time away does ideally improve the work, and that’s my intention in these last weeks of August. But, first, here’s a short issue from last year that seems just right for this week. I will return in September with what’s sure to be a breathless, frenzied need to publish.
The purpose of life, it seems abundantly clear, is to charge your devices. To always find an outlet, to always possess the right adaptor, to never lose power—it is your modern duty, akin to how the slyest of our primate forebears fashioned tools for their prey. And just as our ancestors are defined by their tools, we’re defined by our batteries. History has certainly led to this very moment: after a cosmic explosion punctuated the beginning of time, space, and matter, after all the darkness and the expansion and the cooling, after eons of fussy, toiling single-celled organisms, after the primordial sludge gave rise to plants and dinosaurs and reptiles and, eventually, early hominids, the wick had been lit: civilization is self-evidently organized around the extraction, production, distribution, and management of batteries. Dismiss your trivial concerns, your familial and solitary pursuits, as they come secondary to the more noble goal of keeping all the batteries charged.
To maintain a full battery on all the screens that comprise a mature life today is a moral obligation. My phone died is only said—we’ve all somehow, spontaneously, decided—by scoundrels and cheats and by those giving us unsubtle hints. Thus the morning commences with a glance at countless batteries and quick calculations. What will make it through the day? Can the phone last until tonight? We scurry from plug to plug, checking the phone and laptop and headset and watch and book and toothbrush and razor and even, for some, the house key and the car, as if we’re measuring water supplies before heading off into the desert.
Simply stroll around an airport to observe our remarkable, obsessive focus on maintaining a full charge. Airports, in the distant, long-forgotten past, it is worth remembering, did have majestic qualities. If you were a mere person, an airport was where you went to redefine yourself as a passenger, to be reborn as a traveler, a grand voyager, your eyes aimed on the horizon—it was the departure point for adventure and intrigue and spontaneous encounters. Today, thankfully, airport terminals are constructed principally for the charging of batteries, with a spattering of empty planes and late passengers in the background—notice all the little huddles of anxious, fidgety people around each treasured power source, akin to how hunter-gatherers circled around a fire. In the airport the ultimate test of intelligence is your capacity to scavenge for an outlet after all the flights have been canceled.
Now some readers might be too young to have witnessed another upward climb in civilization, but, during a much darker period in history, people asked bartenders—trust me here—to make drinks, rather than simply to charge their phones. And in libraries—these were labyrinthine, cavernous places, where we kept row upon row of printed books—there were always lengthy wood tables, but they were always exposed, plain, nude to the world, without an outlet in sight. Nevertheless, whenever I drift to the past, my memories impressionistic, fragmented, even I find it hard to believe that society ever escaped the pure barbarism of trains without outlets.
How curious it is that nearly every person on earth, in this very moment, has at least a bit of silvery-white lithium within reach. Forget about the trifling quirk that lithium is both highly reactive and highly flammable, as it is, much more importantly, the lightest of the metals, and therefore most suitable for a journey in your pocket. And there’s a deliciousness in knowing that our batteries are the excrement of supernovas, scraped from the earth’s crust, found in brine pools and hot springs. We extract then crush then electrify then assemble that shiny, malleable lithium until it becomes a battery, primed for insertion into our most cherished possessions.
To power a human—it is worth comparing—requires a more arduous process. We are, unfortunately, a slave to our appetites, and demand a constant influx of calories, nutrients, water, and sleep, just to persist in a rather meager stasis. Yet the chemical bonds in lithium batteries have a much higher potential energy than the calories in even our most succulent of plants, and there’s no photosynthesis, cultivation, consumption, and digestion involved. So with nearly twenty percent of our calories sent needlessly to the brain, perhaps the best pursuit, the most environmental option, in a world of batteries that demand charging, isn’t to switch off lights or conserve fuel—it is to close your eyes.
The moral commandments are clear. Carry those charging cables. Don’t forget a power bank. Bring a spare adaptor. Few pursuits in life match the idyllic, wondrous fantasy of the eternal charge—a dreamworld where every device is always powered. It is a world where all the lights perpetually shine and where all the screens perpetually flash and where there’s no halt to the beeps and pings and chirps and all that’s so vital to life just continues to hum.