Artifacts of Simpler Times

The other day, Shamus Young made an interesting point on his blog about the so called “TV snow” – the visual distortion effect that is still very frequently used in movies or on TV:

When was the last time anyone saw real, actual broadcast snow? In the US we went all digital a few years ago, and a vast majority of the population was using cable long before that. I don’t know when, but at some point televisions defaulted to showing a blue screen when it was set to a dead channel, instead of blasting you in the face with full-volume white noise. (Always hated that when channel-surfing at night.)

The point is, it’s entirely possible that among the ten million or so people that have watched this video, some are probably teenagers who have never seen actual broadcast snow and might not even understand where it comes from.

Also: Remember having to adjust the timing on a TV to keep the image from “rolling”? That vanished at the end of the 70′s for me, and I don’t see any references to it in popular culture. I see people ironically using old TV test patterns (or parodies of such) from the 50′s, but the process of fiddling with the vertical alignment on a TV seems to have faded from memory.

This is a very good observation. We see the snow effect on TV all the time – in the movies it is sort of the default, go-to “this display is dead” indicator. A lot of online shows, as well as TV shows inspired by online stuff (like Seth Green’s Robot Chicken) use it as a transition effect which is usually deemed “cooler” than traditional wipes and fades. But we almost never see it in real life these days. It is a technological anachronism that has somehow entrenched itself in our culture. And it is not the only one. If you think about it, there are actually quite a few similar anachronisms that still function in our culture and consciousness even though their sources faded down the memory line.

The best example of this is probably the floppy disk. Floppies have not been useful for a long time now. Most of my students have never actually encountered them in real life. Every semester I bring a floppy disk to class and ask students if they have ever seen one. Most never did, except maybe on TV. Few that actually held one in their hand, never owned or even seen a computer into which it could be plugged in. But all of them instantly recognize it because it is the universal “save” icon. In fact, the floppy icon is slowly becoming detached from the hardware it symbolizes and is mutating into an abstract symbol for writing something to disk, only vaguely related to an ancient piece of hardware. Like the TV snow, it transcended it’s own meaning and instead became a symbol.

Some of the anachronisms functioning in our culture are sekumorphic in nature. For example, most digital cameras are configured to emit a loud distinctive “click” of a shutter aperture. My iPhone for example not only makes that sound, but also displays sekumorphic shutter iris closing down to indicate a picture being taken. In reality the shutter in my camera is infinitely faster, and makes almost no sound inside the phone enclosure – but seeing how people like to have an audible and visual feedback that indicates a picture was taken, we built it back in. Our cameras now have a built-in speaker to make a shutter sound.

We have software that puts pictures into Polaroid style frames, even though Polaroids fell out of use. We have touch screen keyboards that emit typewriters sounds even though they are completely quiet. We have digital clocks that “tick” and alarm clocks that emulate the ringing pattern of a mechanical ones (with bells and a ringing hammer). Hell, people often will go to great lengths to install a “fart cannon” on their modern, very quiet cars to make them loud and obnoxious like automobiles of the past decades.

Why do we do this? Why do we hold on to the silly artifacts of the bygone years? Is it just nostalgia? Or is it a coping mechanism that lets us get over our fear of change. Are people more likely to adopt to new technologies if they are made to look, sound and behave like the stuff they were used to?

If yes, then what about strange phenomenons like the “gun cocking sound”? You know what I’m talking about, right? Every action movie has a scene where a hero (or a villain) draws a gun, and pulls back the hammer back with their thumb, generating an instantly recognizable sound effect. More often than not, the gun being cocked this way is an automatic pistol in which such an action is either unnecessary or actually impossible due to the way the gun is constructed. This gesture was popularized by old Westerns, in which old revolvers had to be manually cocked this way. But despite the fact new guns do not work that way, we still see and hear it in the modern action movies.

It is not sekumorphism – it is a meme. Audiences came to expect it. People see a gun and they expect to see that motion and hear that sound, just like they expect camera to make a shutter click, keyboard to make a typewriter noise and an alarm clock or telephone to “ring” rather than to play a “ring-tone”. These things are not as much as sekumorphic crutches, as they are brain bugs. They are part of our audio-visual vocabulary. In movies, the shutter sound is enough to convey an idea that a picture is taken, and the gunk-cocking sound is enough to indicate the protagonist is held at a gun-point. It is a conceptual short-hand.

The new generations may not be aware of the origins of these sounds – they may have never used a floppy, or a camera with a shutter that actually clicks. But they grow up in a world in which these sounds and visual cues exist as abstract symbols. They instinctively learn the meaning of these sounds, and grow to expect their devices to emit them – often without realizing why.

I believe we will see more of these as more and more of our technologies fade and get replaced. I suspect that in a few decades digital artifacts (like pixelation, bleeding, crossfading etc..) will become as iconic as the TV snow and the vertical rolling that we see on TV all the time now. Hell, maybe someone will even come out with a solid state hard drive that vibrates and makes grinding noises just like a magnetic one. Who knows…

It is an interesting phenomenon to watch – I wonder what strange artifacts, sounds and visual cues will be preserved by our culture and which will fade into oblivion. What do you think?

Also, can you name other anachronistic visual or audible cues and effects that we use today, even though they are no longer a thing that exists in the real world? Did I miss any big ones? Let me know in the comments.

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13 Responses to Artifacts of Simpler Times

  1. more examples?

    imploding image of a screen/computer you just shut down (like when old CRTs still projected electron beams while powering off)
    clicking of the direction indicator blinker inside your car (if we already talk about cars: here in europe manual shifting is still the only thing anybody buys)

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Not quite the same thing, but diagrammatic drawings of a TV set normally include the “rabbit ear” antennae that haven’t been on an actual TV for however long. Makes for a more recognisable image than a featureless rectangle but isn’t exactly reality-accurate.

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  3. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    I remember reading at one point that some digital TVs actually had a snow/noise animation loop embedded in the firmware. According to the (possible) myth, people would hook their TV up, go to a channel, see the blank screen, and assume that the TV was broken. Showing snow demonstrated (in the same way it demonstrates in analog TV) that the device itself was functioning fine, but the input just wasn’t there.

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  4. @ Nathan:
    Well.. that crappy samsung-TFT-screen at work shows snow… even thoug it’s only inputs are DVI and VGA.

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  5. Silviu ROMANIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Recently I saw some kids playing, they were making a train. With choo-choo sounds and arm movements, you know, like the pistons and rods connecting the wheels. Maybe a diesel is just more difficult to imitate.

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  6. Lots of good examples! Your description of future generations continuing to mimic these old technologies reminds me of the monkey thought experiment.

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  7. Roland Bitterli Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    As far as I know, mobile phone manufacturers (and possibly digital cameras too) are required to build in a sound when you take a picture. It is supposed to make it difficult to “sneak” a picture without anybody realising. I don’t know where I have this from but knowing the quality of products coming out of law school when technology is concerned I would not be surprised if this was actually true…

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  8. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    How about scanlines in emulators? One can even emulate the density of scanlines (!) in emulators. I wonder who actually plays Genesis games with horizontal scan lines all over the computer screen. Nostalgia? Perhaps. Practical? Hell no!

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  9. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Roland Bitterli:

    required to build in a sound when you take a picture. It is supposed to make it difficult to “sneak” a picture without anybody realising

    But on my iPhone, if I were to mute it, it no longer makes the “camera snap” sound when taking a picture.

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  10. Roland Bitterli Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @ Mart:
    ok, so it seems to be a myth then (I kind of liked it though…). I haven’t got an iPhone and on my old nokia I could not mute it. The only explanation I found on the vast internet for this was the one I repeated above.

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  11. Morghan Safari Linux says:

    The Windows error noise. I’ve heard it pop up quite a few times already, kinda like the “You’ve got mail!” Voice from AOL, there’s also the Nokia ringtone that keeps popping up in movies and TV even when it’s obvious the phone isn’t a Nokia.

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  12. MacHala CZECH REPUBLIC Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Very good observations overall…

    @ Roland Bitterli:
    It’s not really a myth, at least in Japan there is such law, currently there is pending proposal for similar law in South Korea and even in the USA there was a draft of bill concerning this which was probably never actually proposed (I’m not familiar with proper terminology) –

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  13. JuEeHa FINLAND Links Linux says:

    How old are your students? I am 14 and I still use floppy disks. Well I do collect old computers but everyone in my class has used floppy disk at least once. My family also had wired telephone until 2009 and we still have our CRT TV. (Not as our main television. For that we have some years old rear projection TV)

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