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May 22nd
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The Next Big Thing

sven_davis2I finally got around to sorting through a box of old electronics in my garage. Maybe you have one too, a purgatory for devices that have been replaced by the latest and greatest but seem too valuable to throw away. There they wait, unloved and trussed up in their own cords, like a geek’s version of Toy Story 3.

“I should probably keep this as a backup,” we think, blowing dust off a chirpy phone cradle modem. The box is full of sounds going extinct. Aren’t you going to miss that Windows 95 startup sound? Or dialing that rotary phone?: Zzzzik! Cla cla cla cla cla cla. Wait, is that a dot matrix printer? Those things sounded like bees trying to sting a live microphone to death.

My box had about fifty pounds of recording hardware that has since been replaced by cheap computer software that weighs nothing. Beneath that was a jumble of obsolete cables, and then, at the bottom, encased in a patterned plastic designed to vaguely remind a mostly blind person of wood, was my first answering machine. From the ’80s.

It operated with two cassette tapes, one to play the outgoing message and another to record the incoming. I plugged it in, and it started in with the mechanical percussion solo I’d heard hundreds of times before. Both tape drives clicked, clacked and whirred, preparing the system to take a call. I was surprised by the vividness of the memories those sounds brought to mind, a mental clip show of the places I’d lived and the people I’d lived with.

This surprised me because I’m not, by nature, a very nostalgic person, and generally speaking my memory is so bad I could hide my own Easter eggs and not find them. I look through my high school yearbooks and I hardly recognize anybody, so I’ve never bothered with reunions. Hoping the tape wasn’t too old and brittle, I pressed play, and the wayback machine sprang into action.

Clack! Whirrrrrrr ... Clack whirr clack. And then there was Bob, leaving a message using his best Ronald Reagan voice, from back in the day when everybody did Reagan. Then two messages for my housemate, and then more for me. Each voice took me back to what must have been the early ’90s, and they invoked memories the way no photo ever has. Two bittersweet messages were from friends who have since passed away, one was from a guy I’d rather not have remembered but immediately Googled anyway (he’s now a PR guy), and I was surprised at how my mother’s voice had changed over time. I popped in another tape stored with the machine, which was full of messages from right after the big ’89 earthquake. Since my housemates and I had recorded a funny outgoing message assuring everybody we were all fine but needed your financial support for the “replace the pint glasses foundation,” most of the messages started out with the caller chuckling.

Imagine hearing your family and friends from 20 years ago laugh again. That’s real treasure. Some of those people hardly laugh now, ever (I told them to avoid corporate life, but noooooo). I was having multiple flashbacks, recalling things I didn’t know my brain had even stored. One of the callers, I remembered, owed me money and technically still does. I should go under hypnosis, maybe I’ll recall enough old debts for the session to pay for itself.

I don’t know how many people have strong memory triggers related to sounds compared to images, because that would involve research. I do know that I’m more aware of sounds around me than most people, which, as super powers go, generally sucks. It’s handy if you’re a deer in the forest, sensing the twig snap beneath a crouching mountain lion, but being a modern human it means being cursed to notice the incessant racket of refrigerators, whistling air ducts, and people with the sniffles. My kind should band together into little audio-sensitive groups, aural sects if you will, to share techniques for archiving voices and day-to-day sounds the way others collect pictures. We could lobby to get sound files better accommodated on Facebook, and make voice mail from smart phones easy to archive as sound files (they’re not, at least not on an iPhone). And maybe, just maybe, we could outlaw leaf blowers. And corduroy clothing. Swish swish.

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