Machines that insinuate themselves into their surroundings, quietly monitoring your behavior, are troubling, but as far as I’m concerned, those that bombard you with reminders of their presence are just as bad.
My wife and I recently moved, giving us an excuse to replace our appliances. In the process, we have noticed that designers seem to equate modernity with electronic alerts. Our days are now punctuated by a constant chorus of aggressive beeps, chirps and tweets, many of which serve no real purpose other than to let us know that the appliances are still there.
At daybreak, the baby monitor strikes up the opening bars of this symphony of annoying tones. When my wife switches off the monitor in the baby’s room, the remote speaker issues a staccato passage of penetrating tweets, forcing me to get up to silence it.
The kitchen, however, is the locus of strident appliances. All of the microwave’s buttons answer me with a beep. When the program is done, a series of beeps issues forth, in perpetuity, until the door is opened. The washing machine is the same, issuing a steady stream of pings, stopping only when it is powered off (and the baby has been woken).
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One of the worst offenders is the new electric kettle, which announces every action with a shrill peep: one irritating peep as it’s turned on, and no fewer than three penetrating peeps that the water has boiled. But the sounds that accompany its removal from, and return to, the base are inexplicable.
Alex Lobos, an assistant professor of industrial design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said these new aural cues replace the older ones, such as ticking timers, dinging bells and, in the case of dishwashers, gushing water.
“As appliances become more electronic and more efficient, they can run silent,” said Lobos, who has worked as a designer for General Electric and studied sound design. “The challenge is that you then lose a lot of contextual information.”
The solution, then, was to add alerts. “Designers chose frequencies that everyone would pay attention to,” he said. “But they are now realizing that they don’t make you react in a nice way: They can feel more like a threat or like something bad is happening.”
But relief is in sight. The trend now, Lobos said, is for designers to program appliances with soothing sounds, like music. Or better still, to make them totally silent.