Apple’s cigarettes: AirPods as happy ritual

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Apple's AirPods. Courtesy of Apple.

I’ve owned Apple’s AirPods for nine months. They’re great.

Sure, I might have a few complaints, but in general, AirPods are sheer delight; I love the feeling of freedom they provide. I love that I no longer snag cords on every doorknob. I love that I can put in a single AirPod when stereo sound doesn’t matter. I love that I don’t waste time rewrapping cables over again and again. I love that I can leave the AirPods in when I’m not listening, then forget they’re even there.

But the pleasure of AirPods isn’t just about their convenience. More than that, they’re fun—fun in a way that wired headphones never were. There’s something visceral and addictive about handling them—a ritual that makes me want to use them.

They remind me of cigarettes in that way. Now, I’ve never smoked, but from what I can tell, half of smoking’s pleasure is this series of mini-experiences that make up the habit. You feel the reassuring shape of the pack in your pocket. Slip it out and flip it over in your hand. Tap it on your palm a few times. Slide out the individual smoke, feeling that slight friction as it escapes the pack. Roll it back and forth between your fingers. Raise it to your mouth and hold it lightly between your lips. Cup your hands to shield away the wind. Strike the lighter and feeling the flame’s radiated heat. Hear the tobacco crackle as the cigarette ignites.

And the ritual goes on: the first few puffs, flicking the ashes, holding the smoke in your mouth, stubbing out the butt. It’s this sequence of “nanogestures” that (I’m guessing) become automatic and reassuring. It’s addictive not just because of the nicotine, but because it’s tactile and repeatable.

AirPods boast their own set of habitual nanogestures. For me, the case lives in a dedicated pocket in my favorite pants. I feel for their shape beneath the fabric. Retrieve the case and turn it over in my palm like a glossy worry stone. Thumb the lid and feel the magnet give way. Nudge the AirPod to jar it free from its alcove. Pinch and lift, feeling that slight friction as the stem slides free. Spin the AirPod between my fingertips and align it to my ear. Settle it into its place by feel alone. Hear that happy little hum when the Bluetooth connects. Get that satisfying SNAP as the case is thumbed closed. Then repeat the whole process in reverse when I’m done listening.

Tactile, repeatable, pleasurable. The AirPods ritual became familiar almost as soon as I started using them. But—unlike wired headphones, which were always a chore—the AirPods routine has never grown tiresome, even after nine months of use and thousands of repetitions. ■