Dummy Jack

A modern fetish

When I received an invitation from hilobrow.com asking if I wanted to participate in one of its occasional Project:Object series, I knew immediately the identity of the object I’d want to write about: a little dummy jack made of plastic and metal.

The Hilobrow endeavor originated as Significant Objects, which its founders, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, have described as “a literary and anthropological experiment.” For each round of Project:Object, participants write about some item of interest to them, according to some theme. James Hannaham wrote about Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band’s 1978 album, Meets King Pennett, for a series on Political Objects. Annalee Newitz wrote about a remnant of a car bomb for a series on Illicit Objects. Ten years ago, William Gibson wrote about a military-industrial ashtray. The current series is Fetishes.

The essays are very short, around 500 words, so I’m not going to quote much of mine here. It begins “Sometime around the turn of the millennium I was plagued by a very turn-of-the-millennium hassle: laptops that made unwelcome sounds when turned on.” The full piece is at hilobrow.com.

This dummy jack object was in my possession when the first Significant Object series rolled out, and in some deep lizard brain pocket of my memory, it was already associated with the endeavor when I got the invitation. As I note in the essay, I have been incapable of sorting out why the Realistic tape recorder the jack originally accompanied came with it in the first place, what purpose it once served. I did reach out to some engineering-profession friends, and we didn’t arrive at any useful conclusions, except to the extent that the absence of an explanation burnished the object’s aura of mystery, which reinforced its value to me as a fetish.

I had recalled one old friend, the incredibly talented Jorge Colombo, used to employ a makeshift such object, forged from snipped headphones, to keep water out of his iPhone when drawing illustrations on his screen in inclement weather, so I asked him about the practice via email. He quickly replied:

You are all correct about the dummy jacks, great memory. Rendered unnecessary once Apple move headset orifices to iPhone bottoms (before that the main problem was shooting photos in the rain) but I still have some.

And he shared this photo of his collection:

I was fully aware that the dummy jack as a concept has an understood purpose: making a connection or interrupting a signal without introducing a new signal. Shortly after I submitted my Hilobrow Project:Object essay for publication, I happened to obtain a new (to me) module for my synthesizer, and I was reminded me of this utility. A detailed survey of the device’s functionality included two references to means by which a dummy cable (which is to say, a cable used as a dummy jack, in that half of it isn’t plugged into anything) can have an impact on the circuitry. For example:

Tip: if you want an inverted copy of a signal–such as a gate stream–but you want it in the positive voltage domain (0-5v), use these same patch approaches, but insert a dummy cable in LEFT to defeat the -5V offset. Voila!

Voila, indeed.

In any case, I love the Project:Object series, and it was a thrill to participate. There are 25 contributors in all for the Fetish series, and these include Kenneth Goldsmith, Beth Lisick, and Shawn Wolfe. Read the introduction and check out the full index at hilobrow.com.

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