BISSEX: Hush Little PC, Don't Say a Word

People enamored of computers are forced by their devotion to maintain a dual consciousness. On the one hand, they accept the limits of their machines: they shuffle windows on too-small screens; they type instead of speaking; they wiggle the mouse instead of pointing a finger. At the same time, they forget these compromises almost as soon as they are made. It's hard to be in awe of your computer (and awe is, almost by definition, part of the technophile mindset) if you dwell on limitations.As a small example of this kind of forgetting, consider the sounds that computers emit while we use them. Not the beeps or the clicking of keys, but the buzzing fans, the whirring hard drives. The aggregated noise that we only notice when it stops. The Hum.Unless you are the kind of person who sits around all day thinking about this sort of thing (that is to say, unless you are like me) the Hum may seem like a small thing. Certainly it is something that most people have little practical reason to dwell on. Are we going to ask the salesperson for a machine that is "just like this one, only completely silent"?Still, some people do find ways to avoid the Hum. Recently my brother-in-law Steve was showing me his old Amiga computer, which he still uses to write plays in his basement studio. Steve told me that he prefers using this machine for writing because it is silent. No fan, no hard disk drive. Just him and the blinking cursor. It whirrs and clunks when he periodically saves his work to disk, but such moments are breathers anyway.This quietness is typical of computers from the mid-'80s and before, which generally had neither fans (these simpler computers used less power, and therefore generated less heat, than today's machines) nor hard drives (which were still very expensive).In the corner of my office, I have an old Macintosh from 1984 -- the first year they were made. One of the notable features of this machine is that it is utterly silent when the disk drive is not spinning. I find this very conducive to writing, and in fact that is the machine's purpose.Not everyone wants a silent computer. In an office environment, a certain amount of Hum is helpful in drowning out voices and other distracting noises. And, taking this strategy from defense to offense, some office workers delight in equipping their computers to make sound effects with every click of the mouse. Starting a program, closing a window, inserting a disk, every action is accompanied by a "boing" or a "thwap" or a "quack," or perhaps a sound bite from the Simpsons.There are limits to our habitual tolerance, even with machines that aren't shouting "D'Oh!" every five minutes. Some models from now-defunct Power Computing, for example, developed a reputation for being noisy, irritatingly noisy. Apparently our acceptance of the Hum is revokable. The noisy PowerComputing machines crossed a line.The old Hum-less computers have their own quirks, too. When they are not being silent, for instance, old Macintosh computers sing. Their peculiar disk formatting scheme requires the drive motor to spin at different speeds depending on how far it is from the disk's center. As the drive head moves from track to track, the discrete changes in drive speed cause the machine to emit a warbly melody. This tune sounds chaotic at first, but over time it becomes familiar. My girlfriend Lisa used to use one of these machines, and one day I caught her humming along as the machine started up.Maybe total silence isn't the ultimate goal, then. Perhaps it would be nice to have machines that encourage us to Hum back.***Sites in my SightsIf you want to drown out the drone of your computer, or just want to wage war on silence, you can visit online sound archives to load up on creative alternatives to "beep" for Windows (URL) or the Macintosh (URL). If you'd like sounds that are a little more sustained, feast your ears on the samples and full-length songs available from real live bands at the Internet Underground Music Archive ('t Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingSpeaking of silence and music, while censorship is a great concern online the censorship of popular music gets relatively little play in online discussions. For good information from the front lines and suggestions on what to do, check out this information-packed page (


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