THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Pushing Back Silence

by Stephanie Hayes

Illustration by Casey Friedman

published September 19, 2014


“Imagine a world where we never again hear the symphonic startup of a Windows 95 machine.

And when the entire world has adopted devices with sleek, silent touch interfaces, where will we turn for the sound of fingers striking QWERTY keypads?”

- Brendan Chilcutt, creator and curator of the Museum of Endangered Sounds

In 2012, Brendan Chilcutt launched the Museum of Endangered Sounds, a virtual museum dedicated to preserving the bleeps and beeps of old technologies. The no-frills website currently houses 33 sounds, including the tick-tick-whir of an old rotary phone, the fuzzy sound of TV snow, and the desperate bleeps of a Tamagotchi. Scroll down and you’ll find a photo of Chilcutt, whose oversized glasses and eerily alert expression recall the subject of Chuck Close’s hyperrealistic portrait Mark, an iconic image of the nerd; it’s a visual hook into an aural universe.

“And tell me,” Chilcutt implores, in the website's lyrical blurb, “who will play my Gameboy when I’m gone?”

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The museum’s geek mascot is just a front. The site was actually started by three friends— Marybeth Ledesma, Greg Elwood, and Phil Hadad—who met while studying at Virginia Commonwealth University. The aforementioned mug is actually that of Jeff McDonald, a creative technologist named in Forbes’ “2014 30 Under 30: Marketing and Advertising” list, who agreed to pose for the photo. “It’s more fitting if there’s a quirky curator behind the Museum,” Ledesma told The Indy, via email. “This geeky crusader taking on a completely impossible task and really dedicating himself to it. It's a fun story,” added Hadad. The idea for the museum emerged during a car ride, the three friends all typing on their cell phones. The clacking keys of Ledesma’s Blackberry alerted the others to the silence of their own iPhone keypads. Later on, they test drove a car whose engine turned on silently, at the click of the button. Technology’s trademark sounds, they realized, were being traded in for silence.

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It may have begun as a joke, but the site struck a serious chord with multiple generations, and the trio was inundated with suggestions of sounds to add to the site. Generation X’ers wrote in about including the soft crackle-pop of a stylus touching vinyl and the mechanical din of a dot matrix printer. Gen Y’ers offered recordings of a dial-up modem and of a Nintendo 64 cartridge being sucked into the womb of a console. Many accompanied their requests with stories, “explaining how the sound was present in their childhood, reminded them of a family member or time in their life, or was tied to a feeling of frustration or pleasure,” recounted Ledesma. Some even sent in their own recordings. The website received 4 million hits on a single day in April 2012, following some media coverage by The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and NPR, among others. Today, the page view tally stands at around 15 million.

Although Chilcutt’s passion for Pacman is fictional, the museum does tap into a societal issue that is current and very real: we’re progressing through technology faster than we can preserve the sounds of these devices. When it comes to the shrill cries of a 1994 Nokia or the monotone voice of a Furby, the loss of old audio might not seem so grave—some might even consider the silence of touchscreen tablets a welcome change after years of hammering away at laptop keys. Or perhaps the loss just hasn’t quite struck us, as the contrived nostalgia (read: “vintage” obsession) of companies like Urban Outfitters and Instagram ensures that antiquated technologies live on in a visual form. At Urban Outfitters alone, you can buy an iPhone case that looks like a cassette tape, a Nintendo Gameboy Tee, and a Fujifilm INSTAX Instant Smartphone Printer that gives digital photographs a Polaroid-esque glaze. Meanwhile, apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic offer a range of filters that mimic the faded look of Polaroid photographs or pictures from a Kodak Brownie. We’ve been quick to embrace the visual aesthetic of “vintage” technologies when offered in the form of new products, while letting the aural component of these devices slip away. It seems our society privileges convenience over nostalgia, and, since the clacking keys of a typewriter and the whirring of a Polaroid camera are related to their inefficiency as technologies, we’ve gladly replaced them with faster, less cumbersome, and quieter devices.

But technological sounds aren’t the only ones we’re losing. One-of-a-kind recordings of famous voices and early forays into musical recording are at an even greater risk of being lost forever. Due to a lack of funding for proper preservation facilities, these unique recordings are routinely left in humid and moist conditions that dramatically shorten their lifespans. And as the pace of technological progress amps ever upwards, as the machines needed to read old media move further and further into obsolescence, it becomes increasingly harder to save this audio, so closely tied to our cultural memory.

Recordings of now-lost languages are also threatened by this march ever onwards. By 2100, National Geographic estimates that over half of the 7000 languages currently spoken on earth—many of them still unrecorded—will have died out. The failure to preserve such sound means the death of not just nouns, verbs, adjectives, and a specific syntax, but of a store of knowledge about certain cultures, history, the environment, and the workings of the human brain. Admittedly, the loss of sound is abstract and hard to comprehend.While our society privileges the visual in snapshots and descriptions, sounds are dynamic and tough to pin down, always reliant on action. Yet, on a historical level, they add a crucial texture to their respective time periods. Imagine watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech without audio and trying to comprehend its full force.

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“Hear my voice: Alexander Graham Bell.” In 2013, we heard Bell for the first time.

The recording is fuzzy and static-filled, but the words are spoken with clarity and pride. Recorded on wax-and-cardboard disc in 1885, the 10-second snippet is one of the earliest sound experiments in recorded history and the only known recording of the man who invented the very device that has enabled our disembodied voices to float across the world for centuries: the telephone.

Bell’s voice was resurrected by Image Reconstruct Erase Noise Etcetera—or, more affectionately, IRENE—a new scanning technology developed by physicist Carl Haber of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. By scanning the surface of 2D media and playing audio from the resulting image, IRENE reconstructs sound from media without making contact. This touch-free process means sound can be extracted from rare, old, or fragile records that would be morphed or even shattered by the touch of a stylus. IRENE has even been used to digitally reassemble audio contained within broken discs, such as an orchestral recording from the 1940s, which had shattered into six shellacked pieces. Since its completion in 2012, IRENE has saved numerous sounds, including the first known recording of the human voice (a Frenchman crooning “Au Clair de la Lune,” in 1860), an eerie recording of the earliest talking doll singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” and a 1912 recording of the last surviving member of the now gone Yahi tribe of Northern California, recounting the tale of “Wood Duck."

IRENE won Haber a MacArthur Fellowship and, according to The Boston Globe, was heralded as a “game-changer” by Tom Rieger of the Library of Congress’s Office of Strategic Initiatives. But it isn’t enough. The technology cost around $200,000 to develop, and, as a result, is used selectively and sparingly. As Rieger told The Indy in an email, IRENE is a “last resort technology, available when nothing else can work and when the recording is considered important enough to justify the cost.” When asked what constitutes a valuable recording, Rieger explained that the Library of Congress “[does] not make the judgment call on what is important.” He added: “As far as who decides what is important, some things are obvious, other materials that get to go on IRENE are for their research potential in working with new formats. Often it is the case of who has funding available.”

While some groups fund the use of IRENE for personal or research purposes, funding for wider sound preservation projects is not forthcoming. A 2012 report by the Library of Congress, entitled “The National Preservation Plan,” explains that this is largely due to the legal barriers governing public access to recordings, which leave governments little incentive to invest in saving them. “Preserved sound can only benefit the public if it is made available for listening,” the paper acknowledges. Yet, “few historical recordings can be made available online legally because of idiosyncrasies in the US copyright law.” Recordings produced before February 15, 1972, are not under Federal copyright protection and are instead subject to “a complex network of disparate state laws.” Identifying and locating the owner of such “orphan works,” the report explains, is often difficult. The plan proposes a few avenues for improving public access, but acknowledges that, “Some recommendations can be achieved in the near future. Long-term initiatives may take a generation.”

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The Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation is the size of approximately 34 football fields and contains 120 linear miles of shelving—many of which are in need of ongoing preservation. Each year the library digitally preserves about 15,000 recordings and acquires between 50,000 and 100,000 more, Gene DeAnna of the LOC told NPR in May of 2014. Those untended records have an estimated 15 to 20 years before degradation or the challenges of acquiring the necessary equipment to read these devices make preservation too difficult or expensive, according to a bleak 2012 report by the LOC entitled “National Recording Preservation Plan.” As we continue to move through technological devices at ever-increasing speeds, the sound preservation pile will grow in turn. Sound preservation is a race against time, and we’re stuck on a backwards-moving treadmill.

The fragility of today’s data storing devices only adds to the struggle. Right now, we can copy a file with the click of a button and store entire libraries of music in a device the size of a thumbnail. The vast capacity of these devices and the ease of their use belie their weakness. In a 1996 essay entitled “Preservation in the Digital Age,” Paul Conway, the Head of the Preservation Department of the Yale University Library, shows that there is a direct relationship between the recency of a medium and its fragility. Papyrus fragments from 4500 years ago, although fragile, are still legible, he explains. Yet, versions of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published in 1851, are now deteriorating and hard to read, thanks to the wood pulp and acidic compounds added to paper of the time to keep up with industry demand. Digital recordings fare far worse, as confirmed by a 2011 paper by Barry Lunt entitled “How Long is Long-Term Data Storage?” Magnetic tape, as used in cassette VHS videocassettes, has a life expectancy of between 10 and 50 years, while recordable CDs and DVDs are expected to survive between one and 25 years. We can hold one terabyte of data in a USB drive (that’s 57,000 copies of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”), but its life expectancy is shorter than that of a $100 banknote.

This glaring oversight, while shocking, is not without a history. A New York Times article from 1990, entitled “Lost on Earth: Wealth of Data Found in Space,” details NASA’s failure to catalogue and preserve digital records of 30 years of space missions. According to the article, NASA’s system (or lack thereof ) was so poor that “extracting useful information [would] require years of ingenious detective work.” Many of their tapes were unlabeled, others were damaged by heat and water, and others still were in good condition but could only be read by machinery “so outdated that little of the necessary hardware remain[ed].” The article’s accompanying photograph showed a woman sitting beside shelf after shelf of steel-canistered computer tapes, holding a pencil and, presumably, cataloguing them one by one. NASA had managed to send astronauts safely to the moon and back, but had neglected to develop a viable system for preserving the records of what they found there. NASA’s linear narrative of progress—“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”—was threatened by their failure to document the past.

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The default iPhone text tone, the melodious start-up of a Macbook, and the even, instructive voice of Siri—we can already predict the sounds that will be lost next. And if the struggles of NASA and the Library of Congress can teach us anything, it’s that we shouldn’t simply focus on preserving the past, but on preserving the present. The lightning pace of technological change means that today’s sounds are, essentially, already endangered. As technology cannibalistically devours itself with the release of each new device or model, we’re facing loss under the guise of progress.

This realization demands a selfish question: if the sounds of our society are stored in the least durable formats and the weakest media yet, what memory will be left of our generation? If history is to rhyme with itself, the iconic voices, languages, and technological noises of our time may only survive as graphics on trendy consumer items: a T-shirt featuring a screen-printed image of an SLR camera or a phone case made to resemble a “vintage” iPhone 5. Preserved in this form, sounds, objects, and voices of varying significance would come to assume equal value.

In the spirit of Chilcutt: imagine a world where iCloud and Spotify and Dropbox have been superseded and few records of our society survive. Which noises and memories will be preserved and which will be forgotten? Where will our grandchildren’s grandchildren go to gain a true sense of our time and the sounds that defined it? And where, I beg of you, will they go for a Barack Obama rendition of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” pieced together from snippets of the President’s formal speeches?