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Bleeping Beeping
by joseph   June 20, 2006

beeping I have never been convinced that modern life is in any way more stressful than prior modes of human existence: yes, being stuck in traffic while late for work is stressful, but so is being chased by a mastodon or watching all your loved ones die of plague. I think it legitimate, however, to assert that the technological landscape in which many of us live has led to a world of stressors that we are poorly equipped to handle. The example that always comes to mind, and which drives me up the ever-loving-motherfucking wall (... deep breath... sorry about that) is the beep.

Let's hone in on that one little annoying auditory signal that is the beep. Do an experiment. If you're a PC user, unplug your speakers or disable your sound card and then open up a dialog box in Microsoft Office and then try to open another one without closing the first. Do this over and over and over again. If you live with others, count how long it takes them to come and seek out the source of that gawd-awful little internal speaker beep. Let the battery run down on your smoke detector and see how long you can live with its long-intervaled chirp before going mad. What's that? Never bothered you for a minute? Okay, try this: go to the ATM and be that person who takes for... ev... er... to take their debit card out of the machine, while meantimes the machine is emitting this piercing little cough of a tone that, while ostensibly patiently reminding you of your remaining task, is actually punishing everyone else around you. See how you fare with your fellow citizens then.

We all have our particular annoyances at modern life. For some, this is interpersonal and social alienation, diffusion of community, ecological destruction... for me, it's the beep.

I have been accused of being paranoid and dogmatic in my denunciation of the Society of the Beep in which I find myself, and which I suppose that many urbanites and large numbers of suburban, exurban and ruralites all find themselves. That is, a world in which ATMs, garbage trucks, traffic signals, even human beings, find it necessary and (I can only imagine) highly satisfying to emit the obnoxious squirt of audible disapproval that is the beep.

The beep is not help. The beep is not assistance. The beep only tells you that you must do something, but it is up to you to figure out what to do, and it is indiscriminate. The truck backing up in the alleyway four blocks away is in no immediate danger of crushing your skull, but the relentless "eeee eeee eeee" assaults you nonetheless. It is the aural equivalent of being poked by an old woman standing behind you in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There are any number of possibilities to merit this poking, but it is up to you, the pokee, to ferret out the exact thing that you must now do to get it to stop.

Historically, the beep has not always been with us. A hundred years ago, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which one would be beeped at, and yet it has infiltrated the fabric of our consciousness to the point where people feel no need to say things like "Excuse me" but presume that they can simply say "Beep beeeeep" like some kind of anthropomorphized Hyundai while trying to get their carts past us in the grocery store.

Is this inevitable? Trucks beep when backing up to avoid crushing small children (and the associated lawsuits). ATMs beep at you so that you won't leave your card to be destroyed (again... idiot). Walk signals at many intersections beep for the benefit of the hearing impaired. It is difficult to argue that these are all bullshit functions and should be abolished, but I think we can take a cue from the cell phone industry. Why all these individualized ring tones? What's wrong with a simple beep? The landscape of cell phone ring tones has changed drastically over the last couple of years, and increasingly even the standard rings on phones have become more melodic and less grating (there are, of course, exceptions). Why can't ATMs let loose with some chimes or glockenspiel to remind you to take your card? Who wouldn't love a garbage truck which played Juvenile's Back That Ass Up while going in reverse?

We seem to pay a lot of attention to the visual landscape and (at least in our own corner of the globe) seem oft-concerned with protecting our views and the sanctity of the visual field. But we pay no heed to the micropollution of the sonic landscape. Certain features of that pollution such as the coughing roar of gasoline engines are unavoidable, at least right now, but other components, such as the ubiquitous and multi-faceted beep, are easily fixed with a little ingenuity. We are a tool-using species, but in the beep we have only come up with a hammer without a handle--ostensibly it accomplishes the job intended, but ultimately it is cumbersome and useless. Granted, if all the pedestrian intersections started playing Aerosmith's Walk This Way when the light turned, it might eventually get annoying, but I think it's at least a start.


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