The Secret Bhodisattvas of Consumer

The Secret Bhodisattvas of Consumer Production

Ask any urban resident to sing the car alarm song, and they’ll all do the same thing:

(Chorus, repeat)

I wonder who developed the sound chip, which seems to have been used by every car alarm manufacturer across every model line. It’ either a testament to the perfection of that particular alarm signal, or a sign of how little importance manufacturers put on the actual pattern of the noise. The quick, immediate uptake of the ubiquitous car alarm song seems to point to the latter: I can’t remember any period of genetic competition between different alarm noises, can you?

Anyhow, it’s fun to think about the industrial designers that have left their mark on the world, people who can walk into any hotel lobby and see a plastic palm tree they designed. People who have covered the world, literally, in their particular pattern of acoustic tile. Which they may have sketched out in a hurry before leaving early on a Friday afternoon. There’s a school of Buddhist thought that the fate of the world lies in the hands of seven individuals, but that those seven don’t know who they are. Who knows when your seat-cover-fabric project will end up in passenger planes fifty years from now?

I was remended of the secret bodhisattvas of consumer production by the LED announcement screen on the Amtrak train this morning. The car lost power, and the sign reverted to demo mode: “Introducing [pause] Beta-Brite! [pause] With… [snowfall of pixels] state-of-the-art [rainbow wipe] display technology!” The demo was the exact same one that came with the LED sign I purchased for the Oriental World Martial Arts Studio in Richmond, Indiana in 1992. Like the car alarm chip, the Beta-Brite demo had obviously been burned into the ROM of every sign manufactured since, including this brand-new one mounted in a 2002-vintage Amtrak car. “No Sm0king!” said the sign, a curl of red LED smoke wiggling from behind the circle-and-slash that made the “O”. Next, a car smashed into a martini glass, and a five-pixel stick figure cartwheeled through the windshield. “Please: [another snowfall] Don’t drink and drive!”

How long will some of these ROM patterns live? Unlike plastic palms or seat-cover fabric, ROMs are just patterns, and have the theoretical ability to live forever. (Okay, unlike seat-cover fabric; plastic palms can live forever.) Unless your beta-brite sign demo features the Twin Towers, will it still be used in new LED signs twenty-five, fifty years from now? News radio stations still play recorded noises of teletype machines behind their announcements, because everybody knows that teletypes are the Sound of News. Will the Nokia ring live forever? The Car Alarm song may be replaced by voice chips (“Stand back, citizen! This vehicle is transmitting your retinal pattern to the Homeland Security department!”), but I’m guessing that some small, unimportant things will live forever. What forgotten designers will be immortalized?

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