Modem dialup by John Pemberton
Of all the noises that my children will not understand, the one that is nearest to my heart is not from a song or a television show or a jingle. It's the sound of a modem connecting with another modem across the repurposed telephone infrastructure. It was the noise of being part of the beginning of the Internet.
I heard that sound again this week on Brendan Chillcut's simple and wondrous site: The Museum of Endangered Sounds. It takes technological objects and lets you relive the noises they made: Tetris, the Windows 95 startup chime, that Nokia ringtone, television static. The site archives not just the intentional sounds -- ringtones, etc -- but the incidental ones, like the mechanical noise a VHS tape made when it entered the VCR or the way a portable CD player sounded when it skipped. If you grew up at a certain time, these sounds are like technoaural nostalgia whippets. One minute, you're browsing the Internet in 2012, the next you're on a bus headed up I-5 to an 8th grade football game against Castle Rock in 1995.
The noises our technologies make, as much as any music, are the soundtrack to an era. Soundscapes are not static; completely new sets of frequencies arrive, old things go. Locomotives rumbled their way through the landscapes of 19th century New England, interrupting Nathaniel Hawthorne-types' reveries in Sleepy Hollows. A city used to be synonymous with the sound of horse hooves and the clatter of carriages on the stone streets. Imagine the people who first heard the clicks of a bike wheel or the vroom of a car engine. It's no accident that early films featuring industrial work often include shots of steam whistles, even though in many (say, Metropolis) we can't hear that whistle.