Sound of Extinction

This episode was written & produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows.

When was the last time you heard a dial-up modem? A dot matrix printer? A CD dropping into its plastic tray? Did you know it would be the last time? We talk to Rick Adams, a British reporter, about the impact of Big Ben being silenced for repairs next year and Madeline Ashby, a futurist, who has some pretty wild ideas of what sounds we’re about to lose... and have already lost but haven’t realized it yet. 

Madeline Ashby
Rick Adams
Julian Berry

Music used in this Episode

"London Rap Song" by English Through Music
"Zeta! (Instrumental)" by Ramova
"Drum and Bass Boutique" by Daniel J. Schmidt
"Blue Skies" by Matthew S. McCullough
"Lullaby" by Matthew S. McCullough

Check out Defacto Sound, the studios that produced Twenty Thousand Hertz, hosted by Dallas Taylor.

Become a monthly contributor at 20k.org/donate.

View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound you’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz...the stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I’m Dallas Taylor. This is story behind the sounds that have come and gone.

[old automoible honks SFX]

There are all kinds of sounds that used to be common most of us just don’t hear in modern times...

Horses clopping by pulling carriages [horse clopping SFX]

The steam train coming through town [steam train SFX]

Telegraphs [telegraph SFX]

Automobile engines sputtering to life [automobile engines SFX]

Picking up the phone, on your wall in your kitchen [dial tone SFX]. You hold it to your ear and hear a dial tone. Most people just have cell phones nowadays, but it used to be you had to have a dial tone [dial tone SFX]. And if there wasn’t a dial tone, that meant that someone else was on the line. And you had to wait to make your call.

Then there’s the dot matrix printer [dot matrix printer SFX]. It was so loud and took so incredibly long just to make one sheet, but at least you had a hard copy of your work? And ripping the perforation off the edges, [ripping SFX] ugh.

Remember the dial-up modem? It used to be that we plug our computers into a phone line and call the internet? Or, however that worked. It took forever and had this sound [dial up SFX].

Or that whirl of winding a cassette tape in your walkman [walkman winding SFX]

And what about that plastic on plastic click of carefully laying the CD onto the tray [CD click SFX]. When was the last time you put a CD in? Did you know it would be the last time?

Let’s go back a bit, and take a trip across the Atlantic.

["Welcome to London" flight attendant clip]

We found this old recording of Big Ben. For those who don’t know exactly what Big Ben is, here’s a quick tutorial.

[Big Ben song]

Now that you know, check out this old recording of Big Ben. Which is not a person, not a clock, not a tower, it’s a bell, ding dong.

[Old Big Ben recording]

That was 1890.

[Continue old Big Ben recording]

Rick: It's a time machine and it's beautiful and I love that about audio. It conjures up such beautiful imagery. I've always said and always believe that the pictures are better in audio, they just are.

That’s Rick Adams.

Rick: I’m a broadcaster, producer, writer, performer. So when I heard the recording, it was chilling and exciting and uplifting because just thinking about the fascination with this sound began over one hundred and fifty years ago.

For the past century and a half the bell has rung well over one million times. Just think about that, Jack the Ripper and David Bowie heard this bell daily at some point in their lives. And now they’re set to be silenced for several months next year for major renovations.

Rick: When I heard they were going to stop the chimes I just really thought “Wow, this is going to hugely impact London life”. Big Ben is docked neatly on top of the house of the parliament where everybody shouts to each other [arguing crowd with Big Ben chiming in the background SFX]. It seems like this quiet, beautiful device that reminds everybody that time is pressing on and you'd better make a decision soon. Otherwise, life will pass you by because it's been there like the sentinel looking down upon all of us in the Elizabeth Tower.

Elizabeth Tower was finished in 1859. The great bell, eventually named Big Ben, was hung shortly after. At one point the striker had to be replaced, but it then rang continuously until World War 1 [zeppelin's flying SFX] when it was silenced for two years to hide it from German zeppelins at night.

After that, there were only two other times that it was silenced. Both times for repairs.

Rick: It's a massive beautiful machine, but somehow it doesn't feel like a machine. It feels like this beating heart of the British nation because the sound’s are so iconic. It’s going to be weird to think that Londoners and people who work in London aren’t going to hear those familiar chimes.

Thankfully, they’ll only be gone for a short time, but it makes you realize that so many things you take for granted can change before you realize it’s happening.

Madeline: We are always sort of inhabiting a world of sounds that can go away at any time.

And I want to know what kind of impact losing all these sounds has on us. So I reached out to…

Madeline: Madeline Ashby, I’m a Science Fiction writer and a futurist. I often write stories for companies and organizations that want to know the future of a given thing. They give me a technology or a platform or something they’ve developed and they ask me to write about the human cost of it.

The human cost of design and of innovation means sort of taking into account how people will actually use a device, or technology, or a platform. That’s sort of like being able to say well, we have phones that can take pictures [camera click SFX], so naturally those phones might be used to take pictures that parents don’t want their kids taking.

It’s sort of seeing the unseen uses of technologies. Like the famous saying, “The street finds its own uses for things.” One of my jobs is to find out what the street will use certain things for.

I asked her, what’s the biggest lost in terms of sounds that we’ve experienced? And she said…

Madeline: The sound of silence. We are so used to being socially connected through the internet and through other technologies that we’re never alone. So we very rarely actually hear the sound of silence any longer.

It’s like light population, expect with sound. Today it’s very hard to find a place that is completely quiet. How this constant noise might be affecting us, we’ll find out after the break.

[music out]


[music in]

True silence is becoming harder and harder to find. What does that mean for us as humans?

Madeline: It’s possible that we are overloaded in ways that we not only didn't predict but which we are only just now beginning to understand, biologically. Similar to the blue light pollution problem where if you look at blue light before going to bed might be harder to sleep, I think that it's possible that the amount of sound that we are exposed to [montage of everyday sounds] in an ambient way really might be having a detrimental impact on things like attention, or focus, or even just settling down for sleep or mood.

I think that there are serious consequences biologically to something like for example the open office plan.

[Office SFX]

It’s true that a lot of office employees are now expected to work inside wide open loft type spaces. They’re suppose to be good for productivity and sharing information. And really, what an open office plan is good for...

Madeline: It's really good for extroverts, it's really great for surveillance and mutually assured surveillance. And it's great at spreading sound.

Which is to say, that is it terrible for quiet.

Madeline: I think that people will seek out silence and I think you see that now in sort of the mindfulness movement. that's already sort of on the rise people are sort of seeking that out and are also seeking out things like ASMR, ASMR videos.

[Ambient SFX]

ASMR, the for uninitiated, is autonomous sensory meridian response. It’s when you experience a relaxing euphoria connected with a tingling in your head and neck. It’s specifically suppose to be induced by audio and/or visual stimulation and there are well over five million videos featuring the tag ASMR on Youtube alone.

Madeline: That are very quiet and the sound of quiet is really important in developing a sense of peace and relaxation and stimulating that part of your brain.

[ASMR Clip]


With the introduction of new technologies, we’re more connected than ever before.

Madeline: Our soundscape does change over time and one of the one of the ways and that changes is that our use of language changes over time. The cadence of our speech is different now than it was 100 years ago. One of the things that you hear now, more than you ever heard, are A women's voices and B cursing. As culture changes we speak differently and as our media changes, we speak differently. So not only are there more sort of sounds from media like the sound of a television blaring…[television SFX]

or the sound of someone watching something on online...

[online video SFX]

Madeline: The sound of a videogame playing in the background. [video game SFX]

or the sound of of the constant pinging text messages...

[text SFX]

Madeline: Those are sounds that are now part of our ambiance. But there's also the way that we speak that is influenced by the content of that media or that develops from media. One of the most interesting things that I've noticed is that our speech now is influenced by the Internet. So what was a meme that you read with your eyes can come out through your mouth, through your speech.

[people speaking meme's montage]

you might have read those things online and then suddenly they're coming out in your speech. So it's possible that we can have our speech change over time that's a change in sound. And I think that yeah I think that changes in sound can be that that dramatic.

Over the next 30 years what we’re gonna see is a continued trend toward layers of intimacy in terms of direct communication and contact as privacy goes away.

I think that what you're going to see are sort of more and more localized networks of of groups of people who find more private ways to contact each other and in ways that that re-create intimacy over great distance.

So, in-ear buds or in-ear microphones or bone phones or something like that for select groups of people. Leaving mics always on as a as a sign of intimacy. The sounds that we stand to lose currently via technologies are sort of rougher sounds, the sounds of audio clipping for example [audio clipping SFX]. The sounds of something brushing a microphone [micrphone brushing SFX], as microphones get smaller and answer more malleable and as they get more ambient we’re just gonna lose out on the technologies that change how sound actually sounds.

Just listen. What do you hear right now? Outside of your earbuds, or car stereo, or wherever you’re listening to this.

Over the next ten to twenty years there’s a good chance that some of those sounds you just heard will be majorly different or gone altogether. But, on the bright side, they could be replaced with all kinds of new fun sounds. Maybe they’ll come from your friendly robot assistant [robot assistant SFX], or your trusty robot dog [robot bark SFX]. Maybe your inevitable robot overloads [robot SFX]. But really, who knows what we'll be hearing over the next decade. I can tell you what it probably won’t be, silence.

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com. This episode was produced by Miellyn Fitzwater Barrows and me. With help from Sam Schneble and Stephanie Wilkes. It was sound designed and mixed by Kenneth Gilbert and Colin DeVarney.

Kenneth was also the ASMR host you heard earlier. We hope he doesn't leave us for Youtube. Special thanks to Rick Adams and Madeline Ashby, as well as English through Music for letting us use their track London Rap Song. Check them out at englishthroughmusic.es.

Our artwork is by Mast and our website by Pocketknife. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show please subscribe, leave a review, tell a friend, give us a like on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Thanks for listening.

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