BOB GARFIELD: They say that smell is the most evocative sense, but a team of Virginia Commonwealth University students would disagree. They’re a design team that calls themselves Brendan Chilcutt, and their creation is called the Museum of Endangered Sounds, a website that catalogs the incidental noises made by old technologies. In their mission statement, which they attribute to Chilcutt, they say they launched the site to, quote, “Preserve the sounds made famous by my favorite old technologies and electronics equipment.” They warn the reader, “If you don’t understand my passion and the significance of my work, you probably never will.”
OTM producer PJ Vogt understands. We asked him to explain why he gets verklempt when he hears the chirps of 1990s technology.
PJ VOGT: For people born before, say, 1985, there’s a universe of outdated technologies to feel nostalgic toward. It’s a cliché to list them but let’s just do it anyway: The crackle of vinyl, [CRACKLING] the hiss of FM radio, [HISSING], the ring of an old phone [OLD-FASHIONED TELEPHONE RING]. It’s sort of like at some point we all got together as a culture and agreed that these would be our audio shorthand for a bygone world. When a movie scene starts with a stylus on a record -
Seventy-three men sailed up from the San Francisco Bay…
PJ VOGT: - we know whatever happens next takes place in a better, more Golden Age. But let’s say, hypothetically, that you were born around 1985. [RECORD SCRATCH] Here’s the sound that actually fills me with genuine achy longing.
[MODEM CONNECTING SOUNDS]
That’s a 56K modem making a connection. As soon as I hear it, I remember sitting in my parents’ attic dialing and redialing, trying to get a connection through AOL’s constantly overloaded service. I remember feeling that teenage anxiety of missing out, sure that whatever my friends were talking about online was vital and important. The modem sound gives me all of that. The difference is, unlike a vinyl hiss, a modem sounds awful! It’s not pretty or warm or musical. It’s an electronic jangle.
And most of the sounds of nineties technology are like that. Windows 95 [CHIMES] chimes away with all the majesty of a drunk lounge pianist, [DRIVE HUM] disk drives hum a film score of office tedium and old video games [BEEPING/BLEEPING] beep and bloop relentless and obnoxious. For me, that’s what’s transfixing about a Museum of Endangered Sounds. Not that they’re pretty, but that they’re ugly. [CACAPHONY OF SOUNDS] It’s a testament to our ability as human beings to fall in love with anything, no matter how noisy. There’s nothing we can’t miss when it’s gone.