Monday, June 12, 2006

My ears are 18

My mother sent me a link to the NYT article about "teen-only" ringtones, lamenting that she had listened to the audio file and couldn't hear a thing. The idea here is that kids have made ringtones out of a noise, called "Mosquito," that was originally developed to disperse loitering youngsters. Kids can hear it, adults can't. I tried to reassure Mom that I'd actually heard it was a hoax, since I had read on Boing Boing that cell phone speakers couldn't make that sound. Cory had expressed admiration: "I had similar doubts -- which suggests that these kids have done something even more subversive than creating an adult-proof ringtone: they've convinced adults that there's an inaudible sound that they can all hear" -- and like Cory, I kind of wanted the story to be one of psychological, rather than technological, ingenuity. But it turns out that piezoelectric speakers can handily reproduce the "Mosquito" tone, so the story is plausible. And besides, I can hear the thing.

It's pretty horrible, actually. As I described it to Mom, "imagine someone playing a kicky rhythm on the blackboard with their nails." Actually, if anyone remembers the high-pitched squeal made by a roomful of Apple II-es, it's much like that -- and that noise used to drive me out of the computer lab. Which raises some questions. The NYT article claims that presbycusis, the natural aging-related hearing loss that makes adults immune to "Mosquito," starts in "early middle age." In other words, I should be able to hear this awful thing. So why was it ever economically feasible to blast it from speakers outside stores? Sure, you'd do away with teenage loiterers, but is that really worth losing all of your customers under 40? It's not the brightest of choices for a teen-only ringtone, either. I had a lot of middle-aged teachers, but a fair number of young ones, too... and if your teacher can hear your ringtone AND finds it exceedingly unpleasant, you are not exactly ahead of the game.

In any case, while I was sad to lose my story of psychological warfare, the technological ingenuity is actually quite admirable. It's a nice example of turning a weakness into a strength; if someone is going to exploit your ability to hear high-pitched noises, use high-pitched noises to keep your activities secret. And it indicates that the real difference between kids and adults isn't presbycusis -- it's techie know-how.

3 Comments:

Lynne said...

jesus, that's a horrible sound.

i can't hear it well - i would be surprise if i hadn't given myself at least a bit of hearing loss after 3 years in a noisy gamelan - but i was only willing to turn up my speakers just until i barely heard it and then i immediately hit the "back" button. so maybe i can hear it well enough. i don't entirely understand how someone could identify that the sound is coming from their phone and not just from some electronics or, you know, a mosquito, but maybe those teens hear it even better. but ugh how is it worth the torture?? that takes some serious determination to circumvent authority!

6/13/2006 11:48 AM  
jess said...

I know, right? And the idea that anybody was playing it outside their stores... I'd never be able to go in!

I can stand it better than I could stand the Apple II-e "thinking" noise, so maybe I'm getting old. But I remember that noise, which not everybody could hear, drove me absolutely batshit. I can't imagine finding it economically feasible to blast a sound like that outside a store, or psychologically feasible to have it as your ring tone.

6/13/2006 12:43 PM  
Anonymous said...

Frankly I love it. I'm 15 and I don't really mind the sound. Infact I'd say the fact that no parents i know or teachers at my school can hear it makes me love it! I hope one day they learn how t o put messages into the same frequency so that only we can hear it!

But I have a question. I heard that people who can't hear it also can't hear the sound that comes from other electronics eg. lights. I can hear this and was wondering if anyone else can?

12/06/2006 6:02 AM  

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