Thursday, September 01, 2005

On beeps

One of the first things I have noticed about our new Paris apartment is the beeps. First, there is the sound of the beeps themselves, which, like the police sirens in every country, have their own distinctive dissonance for attracting attention. Every culture of course has its own ideas about the types of noises that are obnoxious enough to attract your attention but not so offensive as to cause the violent dismemberment and subsequent return of the offending appliance.

Next, there is the sheer number of things that are equipped to beep at you, and here are some real cross-cultural surprises. For example, I never knew that a stovetop had matters to convey of sufficient gravity that they be equipped with their own pesky noisemakers. In fact, it appears that almost every device that can get access to a steady stream of electrons in France has been given the capacity to divert some of those electrons to attract your immediate attention.

Finally, and now we are getting to the subject of monumental design hubris, there is the matter of how long each device feels compelled to make its pleas for immediate attention. For reasons which can only relate to the monumental egos of the machine’s designers (my device will be the most important device in its owner’s life!) almost every machine in our apartment demands that you perform some act of obeisance (push a button, open a door) before it will sink back into the mute silence which is the preferred state of any machine.

Were these machine designers neglected as children? Is there any other explanation for microwaves, stoves and washing machines that beep plaintively until their owner comes over and gives them the man-machine equivalent of a hug just for doing what they were supposed to do?