This isn’t just another post-work rant about colleagues and their noisy phones. It may have started out like that but the more I think about it, the more I think that I’m onto something. Anyway, it didn’t really start with colleagues. It started with my microwave.
My microwave, like most, has an audio alert function that lets me know when whatever I asked it to heat is done. Or rather, when the time I set it to work for is up. The particular alert pattern employed by Bosch in my microwave is that of a short, high-pitched beep that sounds once every two seconds for about a minute. In a small apartment, it can get quite annoying. The other day I thought to myself how nice it would be if I could disable this function. Then I reconsidered: why have that function at all? Can I not come back to the machine after a minute or two? What does it say about modern humanity that if I heat a cup of tea for 80 seconds, I need to be urgently notified when the heating process is complete?
Because the truth is that it’s not just microwaves. Washing machines play alien melodies to alert us that their noisy spin cycles have just ended. TVs have beeping sounds built-in to say machine “Hello!” when you switch them on. More and more home appliances are getting bells and whistles as built-in features.
Of course, it all started with the phone. Phones had a bell built-in that rang to let you know when someone was calling. This was because phones were generally fixed to a wall or a desk and their owner might well be in another room when they received a call. So it’s understandable that when the first portable phones were manufactured, their designers didn’t think twice about including a ringing function: it was seen as an integral part of the device. And so it has remained: the ringtone is still one of the most basic features phones have, showing up even on app-free ‘feature phones’ by default.
Then, in 1996, Motorola introduced the StarTAC, the first hugely successful cellphone to include a vibrating call alert. And it made perfect sense. Because whether on your desk or in your pocket, a vibrating alert is just as effective as a ringtone but far less irritating to other people. And that’s really the point: ringtones are so tacky and annoying.
So why didn’t the ringtone die out then? I think the answer is that they had wormed their way into a set of default features on phones, and no one gave them a second thought. As with most terrible decisions, no one actually decided to let ringtones live on: everyone just assumed they would. And so they did.
Nowadays all mobile devices, even iPads, have audio alerts for calls and messages and appointments – despite the fact that we’re constantly checking in on them anyway. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll miss an email on my tablet because my phone already vibrated to tell me about it. And if it’s a super important call I’m waiting for, I should just dedicate some time to waiting for that call.
In an age when we’re already giving our devices more than enough attention, we no longer need to equip them with the means to make an irritating noise whenever we receive a message or call. Most of the time, we can survive without immediate notification that an email has come in and besides, vibrating alerts are enough to warn us about important calls.