We–writers, curators, designers, users–give huge amounts of attention to the look and feel of objects, articulated through industrial and interface design and preserved in museums, books, and other lasting media. Sound, on the other hand, seems too conspicuous to even get a shout-out.
“Visuals dominate in our life. Sound seems to play a secondary role. We wanted to break that habit. Normally you collect paintings, graphics, classics of product design or sculptures and put them into exhibitions and museums,” write Daniel Chun and Jan Derksen in their press kit. “But very few curate sound.”
Chun and Derksen are the German duo behind Conserve the Sound, an online archive of sounds that are “endangered” in our world. For the most part, that means technology sounds, but interpreted broadly to include early handicraft like metal butter churns alongside Sony Walkmen. Founded in 2012, the site is a rich library of photos and MP3s, culled from attics and industrial museums alike, that document the noise of user experience: The clean clicking of Ettore Sottsass’s 1960s Olivetti typewriter, the buzz of a Braun razor, the hollow thunking of Jony Ive’s late 1990s iBook laptop. If you grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, many of the entries will seem more like antique novelties than familiar memory objects. But when you do come across one from your time (for me, it was an ugly but no less functional early ’00s Polaroid), it’s fascinatingly familiar.
The duo–who own an eponymous media agency, Chunderksen–argue that sound “branding” is becoming more important. In the early days of smartphone design, Apple designed fake leather stitching and paper textures into early versions of iOS to help people understand how to use its apps; the company also added audio skeuomorphs like the click of a film camera in its camera app. But for younger users, the sound is meaningless–and eventually, the original meaning behind it will fade from our collective memory, leaving the noise as a kind of audio logo that “sounds” like a particular app or operating system, not an old mechanical camera.
Sooner or later, the sounds that emanate from technology will be entirely artificial, untethered to the mechanical parts and gears that used to shape the user experience. And then, users will have to navigate over to Conserve the Sound to hear what the world sounded like before microprocessors and touch screens.