You know it’s going to be a weird column when it begins with how I have a friend, and he has a new parrot. And yet, this is how we begin today. I have a friend, and he has a parrot. Meeting him for coffee this week was a strange experience. We were just sitting there, talking, when the phone rang with a message notification. Giving in to politeness, we both ignored the ring and continued talking. In the next five minutes, the phone rang five-six times. Neither of us was sure whose phone it was. When the seventh buzz came in, we decided that this might be urgent, and sheepishly fished out our phones. To our surprise, both our phones were without any notification.
We were staring at our phones when the notification sound buzzed again. We both looked around, wondering if there are invisible phones waking up to autonomy and taking over the world, when we realised where the noise was coming from. It was the parrot. She looked at us, that look that parrots have, and made the whistle sound that WhatsApp has naturalised in our everyday life. We both laughed, and the parrot, ruffling her feathers, continued to make more sounds, imitating updates, notifications and ring tones, all ending in a wonderful crescendo of phone vibrating on a glass table.
Amusing as the antics of the parrot were, what it reminded me of was the soundscape of the digital world that we live in. As our devices grow smaller, as the Internet of Everything makes smart computers out of everything, as the drones watch us, cameras control us, and the social web envelops us in its seductive embrace, we realise that the digital is disappearing. Additionally, even as we lose sight of the digital, we are also learning to naturalise the sounds of the digital.
From the gentle whirr of our laptop fans to the chirps and beeps that our phones make, reminding us of our incessant connectivity with the world; from the silent whoosh of mails being sent and messages being received, to the push, pull, and swipe of our fingers dancing on virtual keyboards — the digital soundscape is ubiquitous and jarring, but familiar and reassuring.
For those of us who went online in the ’90s, we still remember that Martian chirruping of the modem as we dialled in to our connections, and the midi sounds that our machines made as they parsed data to render them into visuals on our heated up monitors. From those cacophonous days of machines speaking to each other, we have come a long way where they now speak to us. Fresh from the encounters with the parrot, who doesn’t produce or mimic any human sounds but has mastered the repertoire of digital resonances, I was suddenly aware of the quiet landscape in a Dutch train. The fairly crowded train was silent. Commuters were mostly hunched, peering over their phone, hiding the screen from public scrutiny.
In the cone of silence in that train, though, over the rattling of the wheels, and occasional buzz of electricity that passed overhead, you could hear a quiet orchestra of sounds. People were silent but the devices were continually speaking. Keypads jerked to haptic touch; phones vibrated with new connections; chirps, chirrups, beeps and whooshes emerged at regular intervals, games blared out victory tunes, music trickled out of the noise cancellation headphones, and all around, the world sang, spoke and glowed in the soft undulation of the digital. Once in a while, the strange silence of a hundred people all crammed together was punctuated by a phone call, where the speaker made an apologetic face and whispered into the phone, trying not to be too loud. A couple of times when they were loud, saying the most prosaic things like “I am on the train” and “I will be home in 20 minutes”, people looked around in impatience, rolling their eyes, condemning the human noise that was infiltrating their digital bubbles.
I came home. In the evening, as is usually my routine, I sat down with a book, curled up on my couch. And I was caught with an overwhelming urge to hear a human voice. It was too late in the night, though, to make a random phone call. So, I started an app that simulates a coffee environment, a mixture of unintelligible conversations interspersed with the sounds of digital machines, and then feeling comforted, I sat down to read, alone, connected only to the voices in my head.