For the uninitiated, he writes a technology column for the New York Times and this recent piece, entitled The Fading Sounds of Analog Technology, made me smile a bit wistfully, and a bit nostalgically.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and I'm interested in your thoughts on it.
"I’ve always loved the musical “Company,” a Broadway show by Stephen Sondheim that opened in 1970. It was about a 35-year-old Manhattan guy, still unmarried even though all of his best friends are married couples. The set, the tone and the score were all ultrachic, ultramodern, ultraurban. So urban and modern, in fact, that the first thing you hear as the show begins is a busy signal — in its day, the ultimate technological symbol of a fast-paced, full-up lifestyle.
But when I went to see the revival of the show in 2006, the busy signal was gone. Mr. Sondheim later told me that nobody knows what it is anymore.
I had to admit that he was right. When’s the last time you heard one? These days, voice mail (or just sending a text message) has almost completely eliminated the busy signal. Still, that left the opening number of “Company” stripped of the original idea — and a really clever one — that had inspired it!
Then there’s the record-scratch sound, still used frequently in ads and comic scenes to indicate someone’s train of thought going off the rails. Isn’t it weird that we still use that sound? For the most part, the last 20 years’ worth of viewers and listeners have never even heard that sound in real life! (In a 2008 NPR segment, the host asked some teenagers if they could identify the sound. They couldn’t. “I have no idea…. I know I saw it on TV.”)
And then there’s the rewind/fast-forward gibberish sounds — of TAPE. What will they do in the movies, now that random-access digital video formats deprive producers of that audience-cuing sound?
What about modem-dialing shrieks? Sure, we’re all thrilled to have always-on Internet connections. But wasn’t there something satisfying, something understandable, about that staticky call-and-response from our computers to the mother ship?
We’re losing the dial tone, too. Cellphones don’t have dial tones. Only landlines do, and those are rapidly disappearing. And without the dial tone, how will movie producers ever indicate that someone’s hung up on a character? (Even though that was an unrealistic depiction to begin with.)
Funny thing is, we’re replacing these sounds mainly with … nothing! What’s the sound of broadband? Of rewinding a CD?
The point, of course, is that as digital technology takes over, we’re losing the sounds of analog technologies. And sometimes that’s a real loss. Cash registers don’t go “ka-ching” anymore, either. But we still SAY “ka-ching,” and there’s your proof — sometimes, our culture simply cries out for a certain audio meme, a certain sonic cue that used to have real meaning.
Every now and then, in fact, you find a case where the old analog audio cue is so important, the manufacturer actually installs a recorded version of it — right into the otherwise silent digital device — because the sound has a purpose. Digital cameras, for example, play a digitized version of an analog shutter. I recently tested an electric motorcycle that plays a recording of a gas motorcycle, just so you don’t mow down unsuspecting citizens sharing the roadway with you.
I’m not going to play Andy Rooney here and bemoan the pace of technological progress. Something’s always lost when we move from one format to another; that’s just the way it goes.
At the same time, I’d like to commemorate the loss of those record scratches, busy signals, tape-rewinding chatters, and ka-chings. Maybe with a moment of silence."