Not long ago in an office building in Toronto, every desk was outfitted with a new telephone. But what should have been a welcome upgrade fast turned into a source of frustration. The high-tech phones, employees found out, didn’t have a regular ringer. The default ring tone was an eerie sound like you’d hear on The X-Files, “Wahh, wahh, wahhh.” The other options were worse: a detached woman’s voice asking repeatedly, “Are you there? Are you there?”; a Jamaican steel drum ditty; saxophone scales; chirping birds and crickets; and pinball machine noises. One employee, so distracted by the cacophony of ringers going off around her, exclaimed from within her cubicle, “I can’t take it! I feel like I’m working at an arcade.”
A ring tone Armageddon has been fought; the familiar “rrrring!” has just about gone extinct, supplanted by polyphonic renditions of our favourite songs, movie quotes, and quotidian sound effects. Over the last decade, as the assortment of ringers has broadened, so has their penetration, from cellphones to BlackBerrys to land lines at home and work. “Call it throwing on a party dress,” announced AT&T in 2006 when it tried out a plethora of ring tones on its mainline phones—“the trusty old land line has plenty of youthful moves of its own.” Just like that, the dowdy old gal was stuffed into a pair of liquid leggings and told to shake it.
The lament for the classic ringer is reaching a crescendo. “Please, please, if anyone can help,” wrote one traditionalist in a chat room, “I can find every hip hop and pop song ever made, toilets flushing, chainsaws, race cars, babies crying, but not a normal ring.” When no one offered help, the poster conceded defeat: “I officially have a ‘When I was a young man, cellphones made normal rings’ story to aggravate my children with.”
Of course, some phones feature tones that are supposed to sound like the vintage ringer. But connoisseurs insist those options are offensive—so shrill they make a joke of good old ring tones. (Suspicious observers believe that phone companies have made them so awful as a subversive way of encouraging people to download other ring tones.) That’s why the founders of the website soundslikeaphone.com have recorded authentic ringers at the Darvel Telephone Museum in Scotland. For every ring tone downloaded, a portion of the profit goes toward the museum.
Even the ring tone’s original purpose—to alert us that someone is calling—is secondary now. In fact, “it’s irrelevant,” says Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan. He calls ring tones “identity management devices,” meaning that they are used primarily to express individuality. There are religious ring tones and “sing tones,” which are karaoke recordings. Environmentalists can download the calls of endangered species from the U.S. Center for Biological Diversity website. “Ring tone artist”—a musician who invents phone sounds—is a bona fide job. There’s even a push to include ring tone creation into IT curricula in U.K. schools. Ring tones, says Schneider, can be good for society: “It gives individuals a choice and restores individual agency.”
But there’s a duplicitous side, too: “mosquito” tones ring at a frequency most people over 30 can’t hear; students use them in class. Porn ringers sound like orgasms, and riot tones contain clips of political speeches. You can download coughing and sneezing tones so that if your phone rings in church or at a meeting you can fake a cold symptom and escape in time to take the call. In Indonesia, a popular ring tone recently was a song chanted by one of the Bali bombers before his execution: the lyrics condemn Jews and Americans as the enemies of Islam.
The old-fashioned ring tone is, by these standards, boring. Lest we romanticize it too much, Aynsley MacFarlane, site manager of the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, N.S., reminds us that the inventor of the telephone was annoyed by the traditional ringer. Bell famously kept only one phone, and it was hidden in his office. “He saw the telephone as a service, if you need help or whatever, but not as something that would interfere with the day-to-day,” she says.
A recent survey showed that ringing phones are one of the biggest nuisances at work. Schneider thinks that irritating ring tones may actually benefit employees. “If it’s a horrid noise you’d want to get the phone off the hook as quickly as you can,” he says. “Just stop the noise.” Please, just make it stop.