Take It Up a Tone


I've just caught up with one of the cleverest pieces I've read in months, Louis Menand's "Talk of the Town" article in the June 26 New Yorker about cell-phone ring tones and what they say about aging ears.

It seems there's a certain sound that can't be heard by most of those over 20. As Menand explained it, "the tone is derived from something called the Mosquito, a device invented by a Welsh security firm for the noble purpose of driving hooligans, yobs, scamps, ne'er-do-wells, scapegraces, ruffians, tosspots and bravos away from places where grownups are attempting to ply an honest trade. The device emits a 17-kilohertz buzz, a pitch that is too high for older ears to register but, as we learn from additional reporting by the Times, is 'ear-splitting' for younger people. A person or persons unknown have produced a copy of the Mosquito buzz for use as a cell-phone ring tone, evidently with the idea that it will enable students to receive notification of new text messages while sitting in class, without the knowledge of the teacher."

Menand — being Menand — added a layer of meaning to this development that no other commentator thought of. As he noted, the story's real interest lies elsewhere. The news can't just be that students are putting one over on teachers because this has been going on since ancient Greece. Nor is the real news that technology is undoing "the fabric of trust and respect on which civil society depends," which is something we've known for a while.

Rather, this item has more to do with the discovery of yet another way of making middle-aged people feel that they're losing it. "The public concern over natural hearing loss — the Times explains that the medical term is 'presbycusis' — is part of a trend that started when Bob Dole told the nation that he had trouble getting an erection. Now television commercials inform us that 30 million American men may have trouble getting an erection. Wow. And these are big, friendly, touch-football-playing guys, with George Clooney smiles and luscious, adoring, patient wives. Decay is everywhere discussed, though it is always, weirdly, disguised. Young women with luminous skin explain the importance of fighting premature wrinkling. Thirty is the new 40. We know that this is just anxiety manufactured to sell products, but it does have an impact. People worry about being old before they get old. Americans are living longer but, somehow, aging sooner."

But is the diminution of our powers so bad? Is it so terrible that we can't hear someone else's cell?

"The point is," wrote Menand, "mental and physical development never stops, no matter how old you are, and development is one of the things that make it interesting to be a being. We imagine that we change our opinions or our personalities or our taste in music as we ripen, often feeling that we are betraying our younger selves. Really, though, our bodies just change, and that is what changes our views, our temperament, and our tolerance for Billy Joel. We can't help it. The chemistry has altered."  


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