[78-L] fwd: The Fading Sounds of Analog Technology

David Lennick dlennick at sympatico.ca
Fri Mar 4 07:51:27 PST 2011


The Fading Sounds of Analog Technology

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 ultra-chic, ultra-modern, ultra-urban. 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.

After a few repetitions of that insistent, one-note beep, the overture begins 
building off of its rhythm. The busy signal became a musical theme for the 
entire opening number.

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, voicemail (or just sending a text) 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-cueing 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 

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 


About Pogue’s Posts
David Pogue’s technology column has appeared each Thursday in The Times since 
2000. Each week, he also writes the Times e-mail column “From the Desk of David 
Pogue,” creates a short, funny Web video for NYTimes.com, and posts entries to 
his Times blog. In his other life, David is an Emmy-winning correspondent for 
CBS News, a frequent contributor to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” creator of the 
Missing Manual series of computer books, and father of three.

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