On Ubiquity

I have a friend, an architect, who comes to stay with me sometimes. Whenever he drops by he brings with him a host of jokes, directed almost entirely toward the books I tend to collect. I’ll be in the kitchen, heating up the kettle, and I’ll hear him shout from the living room, “I think I know what you’re missing: a book about books.” He’s funny, I’ll give him that, but he’s also right. I have a doe-eyed affinity for titles that reflect some sort of sociopathic oeuvre. To that end I’ve ended up with a library of anthropological volumes, from histories of teapots to dissertations on the structure of rope—making me out to be an extraterrestrial just becoming acquainted with human life. And although they are often instructive reads, perhaps I am more drawn to this type of catalog because it forces me to reflect on the nature of ubiquity, or what it really means when something is embedded so deeply into our lives that it is both entirely present and entirely unseen.

The cable tie is one such item. It is a malleable plastic ribbon, one that my father’s garage carries in spades thanks to its plethora of uses. One end is bulbous, with a small mouth into which the other end feeds. Little jagged teeth on the tail engage with a cocked little tongue, and the ouroboros is complete, impossible to separate save with a pair of sharp scissors. They are notoriously useful, particularly because they are flexible, simple, servient things whose purpose is fully dictated by outside circumstance.

Cable ties exist because cables exist—it really is that simple. They are a connection for a connection. Not unlike Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”1, if we are looking for meaning in a cable tie, it would be fair to say that we are questioning the wrong thing. They hold no inherent meaning, their significance is entirely determined by the context into which they’re drafted. The better question might be: what is being bound, and why?

The Ty-Rap

Peering underneath the belly of any aircraft one would find a river of wires—tightly bundled arteries that give their static tonnage the gift of flight. These cables carry everything from the desperate pulses that animate the caution light to the neuronic signals that differentiate the movements of an inboard flap from an outboard one. At a glance they have the complexity of Technicolor muscle tissue. If the miracle of a 450 ton bullet speeding through the air with 500-odd humans inside it isn’t astounding enough, imagine the endeavor undertaken by the deft, if not near-fatigued, mechanics who are left the intricate task of organizing and coupling the conduits that facilitate this marvel of engineering.

At the outset this task involved the hand-knotting of hundreds of waxed, braided nylon cords, each demanding specific care depending on the quantity and placement of the cables. Airplane mechanics used knotting techniques that rivaled even the most adept weaver’s dexterity. As with most hand-worked, hard-learned skills, at some point the physical toll of the undertaking inspires some innovative simplification of the procedure; often to either salvage the sanity of the operator or expedite the process altogether.

In the case of aircrafts, the need stemmed from a rather undesirable malady called ‘hamburger hands’. The story goes that Maurus Logan, an engineer for the electrical connections manufacturer Thomas & Betts, was touring a Boeing production facility in the free hours following a delayed flight when he noticed the calloused and blistered hands of the airplane mechanics. Their ‘hamburger hands’2, as an undated T&B promotional catalog describes them (so-called thanks to their unfortunate resemblance to ground beef), inspired him to find a simpler solution for the bundling and organization of the cables. Logan’s response was a lightweight, looping plastic strap which twisted to lock. It was promptly submitted for patent in 1958 and cemented as the Ty-Rap®: the original cable tie. Over the next decade, with diligent collaboration by many, the Ty-Rap’s twisting feature evolved into the self-feeding plastic cable tie we know today, albeit with a metal barb securing the fastener—a feature relegated to only the highest echelon of cable ties, still manufactured by T&B.

The Flex-Cuf

As any company looking to diversify their gains is wont to do, Thomas & Betts sought to expand their grip from the aerospace market in the late 1960s by offering cable ties for wider commercial use. While the history here is murky at best, a trip through the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 861 reveals that T&B trademarked the name Flex-Cuf® in 1968 for a restraining tie, intended for use by law enforcement.3 A larger version of the nylon Ty-Rap, the Flex-Cuf was effectively a long cable tie sold in a curved bundle, specifically designed to fit inside a policeman’s cap.

The timing here is significant: 1968 was a particularly turbulent time in US history. It was the year that saw Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated, the Black Panther Party hunted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the highest amount of Vietnam War casualties, and thousands of anti-war and civil rights advocates brutalized by police forces across the nation. The previous year race riots had swept Newark, New Jersey—the neighboring city to Elizabeth, NJ, where T&B had its headquarters.

The irony of a mechanism developed to save hands becoming a tool for binding them is obvious. Accounts of the misuse of cable tie restraints on civilians are widespread, from Black Lives Matter protestors to bewildered Afghan villagers rounded up by the khaki covered soldiers we see on prime time news—skin and nerve damage often being the end result. In short, plastic hand cuffs may allow for rapid apprehension, but they require a level of care that their expedited use undermines.

Patents after patents followed the Flex-Cuf. Competing companies began rubbing shoulders over intellectual property, like first-time salsa dancers careful not to step on each other’s toes. Eventually the field became crowded with names like Safariland, Jersey Tactical, and Armament Systems & Procedures. Each attempted to evoke its own conspicuous blend of strength, virility, and power; each became sought-after by domestic and international police forces alike.

The Internet

With the advent of the internet (an entire universe that we often forget is wholly composed of wiring) the use of cable ties continued to expand. Effectively, anywhere there is a linear body in need of binding, a cable tie can be found. As the infrastructure of the internet has grown, football fields of land have been dedicated to server farms and data centers which indiscriminately facilitate whole office ecosystems, late-night purchases of slippers, and saccharine emails sent by jet-lagged travelers from empty hotel bars.

An online tour of a Microsoft data center—a proxy for proper anthropological research in the age of quarantine—reveals hundreds, if not thousands, of neatly bundled wires, thinning and thickening en masse with their cable tie compressions pinching them just right; not tight enough to cause damage but enough to maintain control. It is evident that these systems would be as susceptible to entanglement as the mess of cables we know all too well on the receiving end—that rat’s nest that technicians furtively burrow behind our home routers. If I squint my eyes, the busy organization reminds me of swarms of salmon swimming upstream, the kind you find pictured in an airplane seatback travel magazine.

The sounds that these structures produce can be inescapable, their armies of cooling fans firing at a constant, unbridled rate. In Arizona, where many server farms are located due to the favorable climate conditions and wide swaths of available land, the hum hovers over neighborhoods like a blanket, a constant reminder of the displaced cost of the internet.

In Life

This type of fastening is not restricted to cabling, of course. Cable ties have even found their way into healthcare. Made from a dizzying array of unpronounceable polymers or sterile alloys, surgical cable ties have seen many uses: as sutures for grisly wounds, bone binders for fractured horse ribs, or as the starring component in gastric banding, where they compress the stomachs of those who struggle with obesity. Further research reveals reports of biologists attempting to use them in the tagging of sharks (unsuccessfully) and birds (successfully). One has to wonder what the Cape Verde Shearwater must think, a geolocator Ty-Rap’d to a PVC ring dangling from its twiggy appendage, as it flies carelessly—tethered to some kind of order it cannot fathom.

In the course of all this, I came across a rather morbid report entitled “An Unusual Method of Suicide”. It recounts the autopsy of a 40-year-old man found in his car just off a stretch of deserted highway, slumped over the steering wheel with a daisy chain of cable ties tightly bound around his neck, a pair of pliers surely used to tighten them lying on the floor, and a suicide note, addressed to his estranged wife, on the passenger seat. The report is not an isolated one. Many others with similarly macabre titles like "Ligature Strangulation Using Cable Ties" and "Cable Tie Suicide" detail comparable cases. When we talk about an object’s ubiquity this is what we often forget: if something becomes pervasive enough to end up in one’s junk drawer, it will play countless, at times desperate, roles in the lives of millions of others. There is likely an entirely different essay to be written about the use of everyday objects in the act of suicide—gymnastics bands and mussel forks among them—best left to someone with a considerably stronger stomach.

Order, Everywhere

Sliding into a glass of wine on a Tuesday night, I have a conversation with Robert Logan, Maurus's soft-spoken son. He relates stories of T&B salesmen sticking Ty-Raps through olives during three-martini client lunches; of mock sword fights at the offices, using weapons made from two cable ties—one looped into a U for the handle, and the other shooting through its eye to make the blade; and of Maurus on his deathbed, barely able to speak but still sketching better straws for the nurses to use. In my nightly scrambles to research this project, listening to him reminisce is a welcome moment of Zen.

Robert speaks of his father lovingly, a testament to a childhood spent with a man that hadn’t lost an ounce of his curiosity. He ribs me on my slip of the term ‘ziptie’, (which the reader will find subsequently absent from this essay) and reminds me that the recent NASA Mars rover, Perseverance, featured specially produced Ty-Rap cable ties. Our conversation tumbles through the better part of two hours, and I come out of it with a sense of renewed optimism. Robert’s charm has that stickiness that we associate with the best barbers and bartenders.

Inescapable as they are, cable ties only serve to augment our primitive urges: whether they be to order, to overpower, to explore, or to succumb. If they ultimately do anything, they compress. They do so gently, gruffly, tightly, or loosely at the behest of their employers. In steel, nylon, and polypropylene; in every imaginable color and hue. By way of their simple occupation they have become as ubiquitous as the paper clip despite their relative modernity, fundamental to the petty realities of everyday life.

What makes them interesting, perhaps more so than the competing hordes taking up entire shelves in hardware stores, is that they have eclipsed their original unseen use to such a degree. In his essay The Beauty of Miscellaneous Things, Soetsu Yanagi poses this when considering why commonplace goods are ignored: “It is said that someone living in proximity to a flowering garden grows insensitive to its fragrance.”4 In the case of cable ties, it could be said that our densely layered and interconnected world has become a flowering garden to which we are immune. Effectively, they too are landscape.

1 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, Basil Blackwell (Oxford, 1967), par. 43

2 "Ty-Rap® – Fastening Solutions", Thomas & Betts.

3 Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, Volume 861, TM 169 (1969)

4 Soetsu Yanagi, The Beauty of Everyday Things, Penguin Random House (London, 2019), pp. 32-33
Commissioned for U-JOINTS – A Taxonomy of Connections, an encyclopedic publication that looks at human history through its everyday details.

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