Computers in Movies, Part 1: Computers making sounds computers don't make...

Anyone who's watched TV or a movie with me knows that this is one of my favorite pet peeves: Computers in movies and on TV constantly make sounds that computers don't make! Go ahead, check it out - watch anything where someone looks up something in a database, programs a system, analyzes an image, yadda yadda yadda. ("24" is a great place to go to find a good mix of all of these.) I guarantee that with every onscreen action - text coming up (usually scrolling onscreen in a way that it doesn't, by the way), images appearing, windows opening, passwords being accepted or access denied - there are bleeps, bloops, chirps, and squinks that don't happen in real life. It's enough to drive any PC poweruser nuts.

But, as usual on this blog, there's more to discover here. Putting my personal rant aside, let's notice that this isn't an isolated incident; it's ubiquitous, which suggests that there just might be a good reason for it. And here's a theory:

Computers are interactive experiences, where our expectations are closely guided by our own actions; we type and click to input, and then we're naturally tuned in to the expected output. TV and movies, on the other hand, are passive experiences, where we expect things to announce themselves sufficiently to gain our finicky attention. When we're watching a computer being used on TV, it's still a passive experience for us - after all, we're not the ones typing, clicking, and inputting. So, the computer within the movie needs an artificial way to command that attention - and the way to do that, much to my (and anyone else's?) chagrin, is with gratuitously added sound, scrolling text, great big blinking "ACCESS DENIED" signs, and so on.

And it works! Our attention is grabbed, as a mundane computing task magically becomes an cinematic event worthy of white knuckles and breathless suspense. Nobody complains about the extra sounds (except me) - but imagine how annoying it'd be to have those bleeps and chirps on your real computer. Eesh.

Tune in to the next post for Computers in Movies, Part 2: Systems designed for suspense...

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