The Rebirth of the Ringtone

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In the early cell phone days, the ringtone was king. It mattered what tone you used and the better phones were distinguished from the lamer phones by their ability to transcend the tinny tones of MIDI. Your ringtone was a statement of who you were, and so people paid to make sure their identities were accurately represented in song.

Then, the ringtone started to go away. I can't peg exactly when it happened, but nearly everyone I know (which I recognize is a small subset of humanity) switched to vibrate. Particularly as texting began to explode in the middle of the decade, it no longer made sense to have a phone constantly dinging every time someone sent you an LOL.

I rarely hear a phone ring these days. Hell, I'm lucky if I catch a stray beep. Only those without much experience in the wireless world continue to derive pleasure from hearing "Achy Breaky Heart" every time an acquaintance calls. A phone on vibrate gives you a slight informational advantage over the people around you, but at the cost of your public identification with a kind of music. Somehow, putting your phone on vibrate seemed politely self-interested, not just plain sneaky.

But I think audio is coming back as a way of communicating with our devices. If everyone starts talking to their phones, I at least get to switch back on my ringer and play the Ying Yang Twins as loud as I want.

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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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