Greater quiet has long been a major focus of consumer product engineering. Cars, computers, air conditioners, and almost any other gadget imaginable has been analyzed and refined in the name of drawing less attention to its operation.
Even my fancy new tea kettle (a wedding gift), which naturally has to whistle, features a lovely, train-emulating, duotone Hohner harmonica for a mouth.
As Karin Bijsterveld, Emily Thompson, and others have suggested, quieter technologies were a class-conscious response to an industrial-era love affair with noise. Whereas in the pre-Model T era the elite announced their status by being among the few who could move around town in engine-powered vehicles, by the early-20th century the roads were saturated. Traffic noise thus became uncouth, a marker of inefficient engineering and middle-class aesthetics, and the rich retreated to quieter alternatives. (Including the luxury car, with its hermetic interiority.)
Class-inflected desire for silent machinery has continued more or less unabated for the last century. So it was surprising to read, in an article from the New York Times published earlier this month, that some hybrid car companies are designing artificial sounds for next year’s models. Apparently, these companies have received complaints that their near-silent engines are a safety hazard, particularly for those less able to gauge traffic visually, such as children and the blind. As the article says about these vehicles, “they aren’t noisy enough.” A video from the British car company Lotus explains (and dramatizes) how the problem of silence is being addressed by its own engineers.
Fake speakers under the hood, with hyperbolic vroom-vroom noises designed by Hollywood sound engineers, join artificial shutter sounds on digital cameras in the category of sounds that had to be designed anew after their antecedents became obsolete. Only after engineering away the mechanical necessity of the source noises did we realize that those noises had also come to serve other critical functions in public space. For instance, warning us that two-ton motor vehicles were hurtling our way. The artificial camera click was created, in case you don’t remember the story, to thwart surreptitious picture-taking in locker rooms and the like. There are apparently certain dangers, to oneself and others, to being excessively unobtrusive.
Meanwhile, the silenced sounds of engines almost certainly promise to return, like ringtones, as customizations. That could get strange; look for future posts in this space on that subject.