Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noises Off: Sounds in the Newsroom?

I contemplated posting this on Typosphere, but I try to keep the really grumpy/cynical stuff out of the way. I don't know if you've seen the piece, but it's bouncing around my "typewriter" newsfeed just about as fast as the Hanx Writer story did:

The Times' newsroom set to ring with the sounds of typewriters once more

And with a little digging, one finds a tweeted pic of one of the speakers in question.


On the one hand, I can actually see some benefit. My kids and I all find it easier to work with some kind of background noise going on. I got into the habit in college of packing my trusty Walkman, a couple of cassettes and some spare batteries and camping out in the library to recopy notes. (My wife is the lone dissenter in the house, and can't so much as read with the radio on.) Public typing aficionados in the 'sphere have reported favorable responses to the sound, too. ("I haven't heard one of those in years.") As a kind of productivity susurration, perhaps the recorded drone of a flotilla of typewriters will have the intended effect.

But what is the intended effect here? It feels more like cheap manipulation to me, like the old saw about piping in the scent of vanilla at amusement parks. It's like a sensory trick, isn't it? Wouldn't this get old after a while? Unless the sounds are truly randomized, I can see this being something of an aural assault. I hope that it's not just a single sound effect layered and looped upon itself, like an early Steve Reich tape composition. There is a point at which a wave of noise can be too much. Even I had to stop every now and then and flip the cassette over.

What nobody's pointing out, though, is that this is being played in a newspaper office. Not exactly the best place to work right now, given that the readership is almost certainly carrying around the latest news on a device in their pockets. A very, dark cynical part of me says: if they play it loud enough, they can't hear progress coming.

I will be the first to confess that there is certainly a lot of romance in the sounds of a typewriter, and as any type-in attendee can avow, a roomful is even more special. I don't know if piped-in sounds have the same impact, but if they do, I hope all the divisions at the Times get to choose their legacy-tech background music, otherwise the Times' web team will be stuck listening to the harmonies of a hundred screeching modems.


Richard P said...

Yeah, I'm skeptical too, though it's charming that this was even tried as an experiment.

There's a nice little interview on NPR with the reporter who tweeted the photo of the speaker. He says he likes the sound, although you can never be sure whether an English gentleman is being sincere or simply civil.

Ted said...

I'm of the opinion that it might just work. It apparently increases in tempo as deadlines draw near, and one would assume that might trigger something in the brain to "work faster". I'd be curious to see how it works out.

PS: as for Reich, about the only thing I can stand of his is "Music for 18 Musicians", which has been my "going to sleep" soundtrack every night for the past decade:

Michael Clemens said...

@Ted: I can say with great confidence that there's nothing quite as haunting as driving across a plains state in the dark of night, listening to the "Different Trains" suite. It is very much a non-sleep piece (and excellent.)

Ted said...

I don't think I've heard that one. I shall search around (:

MTCoalhopper said...

My girlfriend, a certifiable product of her generation, can not do college homework without also playing a video game while watching online videos. (She sets her laptop next to my dual-monitor desktop.) There is no question about younger folks being unable to function without background noise.

However, she turns all the distractions off if when I'm typing. It's the sound of a creative process, and it seems to encourage her to focus. Somebody else must have figured this out, too.

However... I've noticed that cats and dogs don't often react when an animal on the TV meows or barks. It's not real to them. I suspect that some humans might be smart enough to distinguish between "typewriter sound effects" and the real thing.

On the other hand, what if a reporter, in that newsroom, were using a real typewriter? The fake, ambient noise would conceal the authentic sound of someone actually being productive. (:

Cheryl (Strikethru) said...

I think this is a classic example of Marshall McLuhan's claim that we "march backwards into the future" by clinging to tech nostalgia. When typewriters were in newsrooms and making a huge noise, no one would have pointed out that noise as inspiring or productive -- as opposed to what? Typewriters reigned for almost a century as the only way to produce copy quickly. There was nothing romantic about it. They were the airbooks of 1950. I suppose in 2080 we will ask people to swipe their thumbs and stare at small rectangles to inspire creative thought in homage to our romantic feelings about the early days of mobile tech.