Something for the Weekend, Sir? It was a quiet morning at the office. The early risers among the team were settling gently at their desks and discreetly going about their business. All that could be heard was the swish of papers, the soft clicking of mice and several varieties of birdsong.
Birdsong? I thought I might be suffering the effects of the previous late night, since a windowless, air-conditioned office in central London is not the most likely place to perceive avian conversation. Did I really hear it? I strained to listen. Nothing.
And then... Chirrrp. Chirrrp. Weet.
This time it was followed by a giggle and an apology from one of my colleagues. She had been asked to review a book about back-garden ornithology and it came with a bound-in gadget that produced 100 audio samples of birdsong.
Naturally, she was a thorough tester and could do no less than test each of the 100 samples to find out if they worked correctly; some had to be checked several times, just to be sure.
That means the rest of us had to sit through several hundred cheeps, craws and twit-twoos for the next hour. And to be honest, it was lovely. Call me a closet Bill Oddie if you like, but it was a revelation to hear birds chirping to each other without some twat hammering, drilling or mowing in the background.
It was also a revelation because up until this moment, I have always assumed that publications that make audible noises are hateful little things. Nor do I believe I am alone in holding this opinion. People will happily allow video to play and animations to pop up when they bop about the interwebs, but woe betide any website that stoops so low as to start playing an audio file without receiving prior permission in carbon triplicate, verified by the Bank of Norway and countersigned by the Pope.
It might have something to do with the fact that you can shut off a video quickly, or at least you feel that you can, or at the very least you can put your hand in front of the screen or just look away. With audio, web interfaces are not always terribly generous in making it easy to identify where the "Stop It You Noisy Bastard" button is.
But looking away while an audio stream kicks in doesn’t seem to help, and sticking my fingers in my ears while the unexpected din blasts out the system speakers never seems to calm my work colleagues. In fact, they look even crosser with me than if I’d done nothing to abate the noise at all. Ungrateful bunch.
The sheep goes 'baa', the dad goes 'whaaa...'
Yeah here comes the rooster, yeah, (you know he ain't gonna die)*
Indeed the aforementioned book of birdsong was a far cry from the audio-enhanced Old MacDonald story book HLW and I bought for my daughter when she was little. Any doting parent will know what I’m talking about: a hardback book with a colourful thick strip down the right-hand side with buttons that play tinny sounds relevant to certain passages in the story. Kids love them but parents hate them - which is possibly why kids love them.
Tinny is not the word: I can barely begin to describe the jarring cacophony produced by this harmless-looking toy. It was like having a circular saw fitted with spinning knives being thrust into your ear and pulled out through your nose. I seriously doubt the gushing educational claims made of audio-enhanced books, although I suppose a copy of our Old MacDonald could have inspired Clive Barker to write Hellraiser.
My wife and I tried "accidentally" sitting, treading and jumping on the notoriously repetitive and obsessive stock-checking farmer’s electronic menagerie, but they kept on rattling the windows with their high-decibel mooing and clucking. I tried to prise open the case to remove the battery but it seemed to have been moulded from seamless kevlar. As we explained patiently to our little toddler at the time, nothing on God’s Earth was going to shut the fucking thing up.
In the end, we persuaded her that she’d outgrown nursery rhymes and consigned the evil gift to waste collection. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I think I can still hear it calling me with a ghostly baa baa here, baa baa there from six feet under a nearby landfill.
Where could I find this, er ... old McDonald?
Or maybe I’m still flashing back to early 1990s Soundgarden in which a nice man at the beginning of "Searching with My Good Eye Closed" cheerfully introduces the sounds of various farm animals, only to conclude with “The devil says...” followed by a raucously hideous unearthly howl.
Whether you press a button to trigger the noise or allow it to invade your aural space automatically, audio comes across much more intrusive and less easy to manage, even less *trustful*, than video. And heavy metal is a case in point. Remember the Judas Priest "backmasking" scare? For those of you whose gonads have yet to drop, Judas Priest was a popular British beat combo (dig it, man) who were accused of poisoning the minds of two gun-toting suicidal Sids in the US by supposedly recording subliminal audio messages in certain tracks which were said could only be deciphered by playing the record (yes, a gramophone LP, keep with the scene daddio) backwards.
As the band’s manager told Fortean Times some 20 years later, if they *had* bothered to insert a subliminal message in the album, it would have been something more along the lines of “Buy another five copies...”
So there we have it: audio is intrusive, untrustworthy AND potentially evil.
These things weigh upon my mind as I oversee the development of a commercial website that I acquired and plan to relaunch. Working through the checklist of minimum requirements (supports remote posting - tick; reflows to any screen size - tick; etc) I stumbled over how to enable accessibility.
For those of you unaware of such things, websites intended for the general public have an obligation to be accessible and usable by as many people as possible, including those with seeing and hearing difficulties.
I can ensure the visuals are zoomable and will even work with popular magnifying utilities pretty much by adhering to clean W3 principles but should I leave poor-sighted blighters to install and set up their own screen-readers?
There are nifty tricks we could incorporate with video that will raise our profile and increase visits among the hard of hearing, and even among the able-bodied. But if I do the same thing with embedded audio, we’ll become figures of hate and objects of bile.
Funny thing this, but hatred tends to make punters keep their wallets firmly in their pockets.
Irrational it may be, but people love it when video plays and hate it when audio does, and I can’t afford to dick around when money is on the line.
Should I leave audio well alone? I shall continue to ponder this conundrum as I depart on vacation armed with my vociferously silent ebooks. Your opinion is welcome.
See you in three weeks. ®
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. He believes audio is boring as well as insidious. He was persuaded to try an audiobook years ago but Charles Dance read with all the enthusiasm of a 14-year-old staring out of a school window while his classmates declined Latin verbs..
*Apols to Alice In Chains
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