What Do You Think?

Too Many Grrrnnttts and Fwheeeeps?

By Kathiann M. Kowalski

From the moment your cell phone alarm goes off in the morning (twheep-twheep, twheep-twheep) until the computer shuts down at night (shusssssssstttppp. . .kklluuummppp), electronic sounds surround us.

“Sound is very powerful at grabbing your attention,” says Philip Smith at The Ohio State University’s Institute for Ergonomics. Thus, many sounds act as alerts. The microwave’s ding means that lunch is ready. The clothes dryer’s buzz means that the laundry is done. And a blaring smoke alarm says, “Get out fast!”

Electronic sounds also provide useful feedback. A digital camera’s kkkshupp confirms that you’ve taken a picture. A touch-tone phone’s different phweeps say that you’ve dialed a number.

Sounds probably help us learn how to work complicated new gadgets. “Because of language, probably, humans get really tied into paying attention to sound and how sound interacts with objects in the world,” says psychologist Justin Halberda at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD. In studies, for example, young children do better at keeping track of objects when unique sounds are linked to them. “So that pairing between sound and object definitely engages attention and engages learning from a very young age,” says Halberda.

Sounds also make devices more personalized and humanlike. When early cell phones chreeped, no one knew whose phone it was. Now different ring tones tell whether it’s your cell phone going off, and even who’s calling. And the wide range of tunes lets phones reflect people’s personalities.

Too many sounds can cause problems, though. If users can’t sort out when to pay attention, says Smith, “the designer loses control.”

Optimally, says electrical engineer Albert Titus at the University at Buffalo. Titus says, engineers will include off switches, adjustable volume, and other controls. For example, kids’ toys shouldn’t dddaawwmmmm nonstop or get stuck on a single w-w-w-w-word.

Of course, people need to know when to use the Off switch. No one wants to hear a cell phone during a concert or at a fine restaurant.

Even at home, too much electronic noise builds stress. Sound adds to the intensity of using computers, video games, and other devices. “They’re not natural sounds, and because of that, they are more intrusive,” says psychologist Larry Rosen at California State University at Dominguez Hills. When young people get caught up in instant messaging, e-mail, gaming, and other computer work, they can wind up feeling jumpy, tingly, or hyper. “What’s left over is a really heightened nervous system,” says Rosen.

The question is, what electronic noises do you love or loathe? E-mail [email protected], and tell us what you think.