Speak, Machine, Speak!

There is a revolution taking place in the world of marketing. Consumers are tired of the best efforts of the designer and the brander. They find tedious our efforts to anticipate the terms and phrases they want to hear. In the words of that old Talking Heads song, consumers want us to “stop making sense.”

The glow and lure of the machine (photo: James Kamo).

Let me introduce you to the Coke machine in the basement of Building 6 at MIT. I was standing there the other day trying to get a bottle of Dasani at the break. I could hear the coins go in. And then there was that long pause, the one that makes you think, “Damn, this thing is not going to…” And then there is this great rumbling sound as the plastic bottle pachinkos its way through the machine and into the opening. Sometimes I try to picture the mechanics of a sound, but finally I give up. The mysteries of a Coke machine are impenetrable, knowledge too terrible for the likes of this anthropologist.

This is a wonderful sound because it's low and rumbly. But I especially like it because it's accidental. It just happens to be the sound a plastic bottle makes as it tumbles through a Coke machine. Call it a “found sound.”

No one designed this sound. This isn't like the car door closing sound that Detroit builds into cars to persuade us that we have bought wisely, that our automobile is a paragon of quality and workmanship.

No, the Coke machine is a little like my dishwater. It gives off a sound in spite of itself. In the case of the dishwater, the sound is tumbling, but not rumbling. It sort of swooshes, an ocean in a box.

(Dude, those saucers are surfing!)

The keypad of my ThinkPad makes a sort of plastic rustle and the hard drive makes a high-pitched scream. The first makes me feel super-productive. The second reminds me that everything I do on the keyboard depends on a mortal hard drive. Other sounds I don't like: the noise candy wrappers give off in a movie theater. These suspend my suspension of disbelief. Not all found sound is a blessing.

The charm of found sounds is that they are not designed. They just happen. No one thought to make them. No one was trying to anticipate what a middle-aged anthropologist wants to hear from his Coke machine, dishwasher or ThinkPad. And this is charming because these objects become a kind of whiteboard. I don't have to shift anyone's meanings to attach my own.

And this is what I am proposing, that we make more things in the object world speak but signify nothing. Because, as I say, consumers are tired of our best efforts in the area of meaning management. Part of the problem is the continued tyranny of KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) regime marketing. No meanings are always better than moronic ones.

But some designerly meanings are the work of a virtuoso. (I am the husband of a designer, so I know some of these paragons first hand.) Their meanings are welcome. They make objects more interesting, more vocal (positively scintillating), more companionable (positively chummy), more evocative and musical. I merely wish to say that there is a place in a design brief for “no meanings.” We should leave a place for the object owner or companionable to insert their own work.

You know, like those great signs in Mexico City that say disponible (available). Because, as it turns out, Shakespeare's Lear was wrong: something comes of nothing, after all. Nothing speaks! Sorry—the marketer forgets himself—make that: nothing speaks like nothing!