Music for microwaves

20.42, Thursday 6 Apr 2023

I once used a microwave oven that was unlike any microwave oven I’ve used since. This was 30 years ago and the microwave was already old at the time.

It didn’t have a rotating plate inside. So there was no motor and actually I don’t remember any noise at all. There may have been a tiny window in the door – but my memory is fuzzy, and honestly I don’t even remember there being a light.

But I do recall that it was dressed identically to all the other, regular kitchen cabinets. Just inset into the units, the only difference being the box inside and inconspicuous controls outside.

It was eery. You would open the door, put your plate in, turn a mechanical dial which was sprung so you could feel the force in it turning, but it was just like any regular kitchen timer, close the door – and wait. In silence. Then you would open the door and the food would be hot.

A magic trick!

I am kinda reminded of the crystal chamber in the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II (1980) which Superman stands in to have his powers removed/restored.

Or - in a more mundane fashion - an airing cupboard, which is like a regular cupboard only it is magic in that it dries your clothes slowly.

My microwave today feels more believable because it has the appearance that it is working. It rotates inside! There is a light! It hums and buzzes! Heating food is effortful!

BUT – I wonder how much of that is essential (yes you need rotation to avoid localised pockets of superheated O-H bonds that explode when you mix the food) - VERSUS - a bit performative maybe? It’s noisy because it stops the microwave being uncanny.

I have the same feeling with electric cars:

EVs are quiet. Teslas have their Pedestrian Warning System so that, well, pedestrians are warned, and generally there are electric vehicle warning sounds (Wikipedia).

Hyundai provides synthetic audio feedback mimicking the sound of an idling internal combustion engine – which, in addition to being tediously skeuomorphic, feels like a terrible missed opportunity.

And I’m sure I’ve stood near some EVs that have a more tuneful approach? Which is more like it.

See because the performative bit is the point.

Actual and apparent have to go hand in hand. Like: coronations. A prince becomes king and now has the power to CHOP OFF YOUR HEAD. This transition could happen privately, but the appearance has to match what has just happened in magnitude otherwise it would feel weird. So there’s a big song and dance about it. (The virtual is real, as previously discussed.)

Or like: porches. You were on the street and now you’re in my house. Yes you need to take your boots off and change down the gears to velocity-match the different vibe, and that transition takes room, but aside from that – it would just feel wrong to have a regular door instead of a fancy front door.

So my food gets hot! This hulk of metal and wheels actually moves! As much as I am tickled by the magic of it happening in silence, momentous acts do need to be performed and witness so that, deep down, we believe them.

It’s a missed opportunity though, that’s all I’m saying.

Because my microwave could sing!

If the mechanism were quieter (which it surely could be) then my microwave could belt out a three minute aria while my supper magically heats!

My car could sound like a burbling brook with the audible but uninterpretable sound of a crowd of fae-folk chattering and singing with increasing intensity.

As my phone charges, it could be whispering a deep and slow Philip Glass composition.

All of which would do the same job.

Yet we don’t do this.

I am desperately trying not to say “hey and generative AI could do this!” – because, yes, AI makes the composition of quote-creative-unquote works cheap.

But AI is the instrument. There is still the question of the composer. Somebody needs to decide and prompt exactly what music my electric vehicle should perform.

Though I do feel like generative AI will mean that decoration, ornament and filigree becomes cheap again? And maybe we’ll move into an aesthetic in which our furniture, white goods, and accessories superficially resemble the busy-busy arts and crafts era - but actually it’s because, well, it costs almost nothing to do (it’s just software) and it makes the object look NEW.

Exactly like, in the early 2000s, everything had blue LEDs. Yes it was kinda because blue LEDs had just been commercialised so it was a good signifier of “this is the newest kit” - but also it’s because things need lights, and blue LEDs happened to be cheaper to produce than red or green ones…

Which still leaves us with the question of the composer.

Could we buy ambient tunes for the outside of our cars like we used to buy ringtones for our phones?

Will we have a weekly Billboard chart of hits for kitchen appliances?

Look I want to download, install and play Brian Eno’s Music for Microwave Ovens, every time I heat the leftovers, is that too much to ask.

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