I recently made a cameo encore performance as combine operator while Aaron attended the one of several thousand school events stretching before him as a dutiful father. During that brief stint in what should have been a familiar task, I was plagued by a problem that dates back to the late 1950s—as most of my issues seem to.
The combine kept trying to tell me something important, I sensed. It beeped, chimed, buzzed, dinged, jingled and wailed seemingly at random. A cacophony of supposedly helpful cues had me looking for fires, cliffs and space invaders. To be fair, written advisories also appeared if you happened to look at the right screen (out of seven possible).
I finally realized what was going on: Timmy was in a well. Again. TV flashback: Late 1950s, before the world was in color. Rural ranch/farm. The Boy. His generically bland parents. His dog, Lassie (perversely always played by a male dog).
Plots during the first 10 “Boy and His Dog” seasons were similar: The boy (Jeff or Timmy) got into some sort of trouble. Lassie then dashed off to get help or rushed in to save her master’s life herself. After being reunited with family and breathing a sigh of relief, the boy received a light lecture on why he should not have done what he had done. In 2004, June Lockhart described the show as “a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial.”
The climactic scene almost always centered on Lassie barking at the parent(s) to communicate what weekly disaster had befallen the boy. The dialogue was predictable:
Lassie: Bark. Bark. Bark.
Parent: What is it, girl?
Lassie (adding details): Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark.
Parent: What? Timmy’s in a well? Is that it?
If it hadn’t been on TV, I would have been skeptical. But as a youngster whose canine specialized in dragging raccoon carcasses under the front porch, the ability of a dog to communicate important warnings with simple sounds struck me as nearly miraculous.
Meanwhile, back in 2014, another faithful companion was similarly trying to communicate important information, but it all sounded like “Bark. Bark.” The combine is not the only mechanoid struggling for contact. Ovens, dishwashers, dryers and, incessantly, phones drown us in urgent tones, melodies and beeps. This communication barely worked when the only alert was our smoke detector. Today, the odds of remembering calypso music means to add the fabric softener, not rotate your tires, are approaching zero.
With the outstanding success of Apple’s Siri and the Australian guy in TomTom, I think it’s time more device makers let us choose voice alerts. For example, if Kathleen Turner (Jessica Rabbit) were to murmur, “The unloading auger is out,” my full attention would be gotten, held and only reluctantly shifted.
If Jack Nicholson’s voice snarled, “Too far left, idiot,” self-preservation instincts alone would steer the planter smartly, I bet. Imagine the voice of HAL (2001 Space Odyssey) creepily instructing, “I can’t let you do that, John” when I tried to engage the grain cart auger at full rpms or set the oven for rinse-and-hold. If Gates McFadden (Beverly Crusher) purred: “The laundry is dry. Please remove and fold it,” I would. Remove it, I mean—let’s not ask for miracles.
In fact, the best idea I’ve heard for a ringtone is the owner’s voice exclaiming loudly: “John’s phone! John’s phone! Answer the phone, John!” For sure, nobody around you would have to check to see if it’s theirs.
We are wasting our time looking down wells when the water softener just needs salt. Here’s what really gets me about this communication failure: I can’t buy a toy for a grandchild that doesn’t have voice interaction and often full orchestra accompaniment. Big toys should too!