Technology moves at an extraordinary pace. We do a hundred things a day that, even 20 years ago, would have featured only in the dreams of the truly insane. Once upon a time, the idea of a doorbell that could connect to the internet or a bedside speaker that did your bidding would have felt more like punchlines to silly jokes about nerds than incredibly common, fairly affordable devices.
But is livestreaming your earwax to your phone a step too far?
You can now buy a personal otoscope that broadcasts the inside of your ear to your phone, and has a little scrapey shovel attached to it that you can use to gently rake the wax out of your ear canal. It’s called the Spade, it costs a hundred bucks and it seemed futuristic and exciting enough — transmitting data from within your head, even if it’s gross data, is kind of rad — to give a go.
Earwax is, of course, disgusting. (Don’t look it up on Wikipedia, you’ll hurl.) While it serves an extremely useful purpose, keeping your ear canal clean and lubricated to enable good hearing, it’s not an appealing material. There’s no earwax equivalent of when some people look really good sweaty. Nobody’s Instagramming pictures of their ears with dark brown icebergs of gunk protruding from them, teetering threateningly like a large boot about to topple from a high shelf.
It’s gross stuff, but the way we normally deal with it, using Q-tips, is positively fucking medieval. As Yu-Tung Wong of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center writes: “Using a cotton swab like a plunger in the ear canal pushes earwax deeper and deeper in. One problem is that if you push the wax deeper inside, there’s no way for the wax to get swept out of the ear. Also, cotton swabs can cause punctured ear drums and hearing loss. In severe cases, the cotton swab can damage many sensitive structures behind the ear canal and cause complete deafness, prolonged vertigo with nausea and vomiting, loss of taste function and even facial paralysis.”
A Q-tip, or cotton swab, is basically a stick with a rag on each end, like Romans used to wipe their asses with or Bart Simpson dreamed of. They’re packaged laden with warnings about not putting them in your ear, but every cotton-swab manufacturer knows, within their heart of hearts, where their product is going. (Also, never look up cotton swabs on Wikipedia, you’ll end up completely covered in throwup, it’s horrendous.)
The Spade Ear Cleaner Review
The Spade is nice-looking, pleasantly weighty and pretty easy to figure out, even if a significant amount of the promo material, such as the customer comment, “Highly recommended if you find cleaning ears satisfying, I keep it at my work like a desk toy lol,” could easily make a perfectly reasonable person chunder explosively in disgust. If you’re going to shove something into the side of your head in order to scoop detritus out of it, it feels like you could do a lot worse.
Livestreaming the inside of your ear is, it has to be said, also pretty gross. It’s a reminder that for all our airs and graces, the human body is pretty much a pile of different kinds of tubes and different kinds of slime. Plus, if you have unkempt sideburns and scruffy lockdown hair, it can all feel a bit… anus-y? Really hairy, doglike anus-y? There is a video of a Spade user popping a blackhead inside their ear that did well on the r/Popping subreddit and is entirely revolting, pus being prodded and teased into violently erupting out of a blocked pore deep inside the user’s fuckin’ skull like a hellish custardy serpent. Don’t watch it.
It’s a bit of a rude awakening, looking inside yourself in this way. The skin inside your ear is just different — greasier, sebum-y, with a sort of membrane over it akin to that between the shell and white of a hard-boiled egg. Imagine covering the back of your hand in a thin layer of Elmer’s Glue and letting it dry, then poking it with one of the tines of a plastic fork. It’s fully gross but weirdly compelling, and it’s hard not to feel like, if you just went a little bit further, perhaps you’d get a look at your brain.
“It’s quite a unique experience, especially the first time,” says Mehul Patel, founder of Axel Glade, makers of the Spade. “The first time people use the Spade is also the first time most people get a look directly inside their ear. It takes a good four or five times to get used to it.”
Patel explains that earwax scrapers are a lot more common in Asian countries than the West, and that there’s more to having a live feed of the inside of your ear than de-waxing. “The primary value proposition is being able to look inside your ear and be informed about what’s going on in there,” he says. “We have heard from customers who found cysts, and parents of non-verbal children with disabilities who have been better able to troubleshoot what was causing them pain.”
While it’s not for everyone, the Spade feels less and less absurd as a product the longer you use it. “A Q-tip that connects to the internet” sounds silly, but there are much dumber uses for technology than making sure your body is working as it should be — with the amount of effort people put into how they look, paying a bit of attention to what’s going on in some of the less-examined pipes isn’t ridiculous. It gets less and less gross as well, and quickly becomes almost like a game — realizing there’s nothing left to scrape out is genuinely disappointing.
As enjoyable as playing find-the-wax is, after a few minutes of using a small camera that streams straight to your phone and is literally designed to go into a hole in your body, you are inhuman if you don’t start idly wondering about sticking it up your bottom.
“We get hundreds of messages a day from people asking if they can use it there,” says Patel. “I hope nobody has, and would definitely not recommend it.”