On April 27, 2017, an emergency meeting of the Secret Society of Auditory Control came to order.
It was a secret meeting that took place in the society’s secret boardroom at the tip top of one of New York City’s 274 skyscrapers. Eleven men and one woman gathered behind a heavy door made of African Blackwood. Only the simple outline of a small gold-plated bell positioned where a door knocker would be gave any indication of the work at hand.
All was quiet on one side of that door, but not on the other. The Secret Society of Auditory Control (which will, from this point, be referred to as the SSAC) was facing a crisis, perhaps the greatest of its five millenia history.
The twelve board members gathered around a polished mahogany table and sat in seats covered with the finest burgundy leather. Each had a nameplate positioned in front of their seat, their identity limited to only a Mr. or Mrs. and the first initial of their last name.
Around the room, paintings and photographs of moments in the society’s storied history decorated the walls. Framed shards of Asian pottery were all that remained of the earliest bell tied to the ancient origins of SSAC three thousand years Before Christ. Portraits of the society’s most renowned members – including Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Sigmund Freud – reminded the current membership of the prowess they had to match. In the center of the wall nearest the head of the table, behind the seat of the Chairman, was a bronze plaque bearing the society’s mission statement that had endured through the ages:
Creating order from chaos through sound.
The Chairman surveyed the room as he waited for Mr. J to return from his pre-meeting bathroom visit. Bathroom breaks were becoming more frequent as they aged. And how we have aged, the Chairman reflected, noting all the white hair, bald heads and thick glasses around the table. We were once a good-looking group, he thought and turned to a black and white photo on the wall from 1968. Twelve men and one woman in their late 20s and early 30s grinned back at him, brash and bold. They were the youngest Board appointed in the history of the SSAC.
His eyes roved over the other documents and photos on the wall as he contemplated the society’s history. He settled on one of his favorites, a small sketch of an antique gong said to have been done by da Vinci himself. We invented the gong back in the 500s. The 500s! he thought, awe quickening his pulse as it did when he reflected on the society’s history. And not just the invention, but the function – what is the point of invention without function? WE conditioned the Chinese peasants to come running when the gong sounded. And WE introduced it into Japanese sumo to start the match. WE brought it to Buddhism, to yoga.
He turned to a photo of Alexander Graham Bell with his first telephone. Ah yes. Bell – one of our most legendary members. Everyone in the SSAC had heard the stories of Bell’s experiments with the phonautograph and metal reeds in the 1870s. Though the tireless work of the committee to condition society’s response to the ring was less feted.
A great legacy to live up to, the Chairman had told the young board in 1968. And live up to it they did. The pings of the microwave oven, the bleeps of the digital alarm clock, the blip of the computer, countless beeps, dings and honks in cars. More recently, the tones aligned with Walk/Don’t Walk signs at intersections. And to correlate it all to society’s behavior. We truly have created order from chaos amid such a technology boom, the Chairman thought.
But now….but now…
His gaze shifted to a red silk cloth in the center of the table covering a small object and he sighed. But now we have a problem.
The door opened and Mr. J entered, bathroom visit complete. The Chairman took his place at the head of the table and banged the gavel (the gavel had been invented in the 1600s by the SSAC and conditioned by SSAC member Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert, the author of Robert’s Rules of Order ).
After dispensing with all the procedural preliminaries, the Chairman stood. He had not stood in a meeting since he turned 70 and that’s when the Board realized this extraordinary session was, indeed, an emergency. They set down their coffee cups and faced him.
He drew himself up as far as his creaking back would let him and began.
“We have been together for many years now – 49 to be exact. And look at all we have achieved.” He pointed his cane to each photo and painting on the wall as he extolled their accomplishments. The Board members smiled secret smiles and exchanged knowing glances as they recalled the challenges, all-nighters, fights and triumphs that accompanied each success.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our work – of us,” the Chairman said, gazing fondly at faces he knew better than those of his own family. “We are the Golden Age of sound and order. Take a moment to reflect upon what our work has done for society – the organization, the efficiency, the progress.”
After a satisfied moment of silence, he continued.
“But as the moon waxes and wanes, so too, do we. We are in a waning phase, my friends. We are aging, we can’t deny that,” he said, gesturing to his cane as the others murmured a low chuckle. “And with age, comes some inevitable mistakes, slowing down. The unfortunate incident with the credit card reader, for example.”
White and bald heads nodded. He was, of course, referring to the infernal angry blare that supermarket credit card readers had emitted to instruct customers to withdraw their card. Such a harsh sound for such an unalarming action did not correspond to the skillful work of the SSAC. It had occurred because Mr. M, who headed the project, had misplaced his hearing aid and declined to tell anyone. At the same time, a flu had struck the Testing Division and the device had not received the systematic reviews. The noise had rattled the nerves of supermarket checkers and customers and once the Board had discovered the problem, a team was quickly deployed to replace it with the gentle chime heard today.
“Nor,” the Chairman continued. “Have we recruited any new talent for several years. Of course, we have discussed this before –“
“AnglerX is getting everyone,” Mrs. W interrupted, snapping her glasses off her face. “We were close with Musk, but he said AnglerX’s focus on sustainability was important to him. I told you before that we need to –“
The members dissolved into argument, arguments that were becoming more frequent in recent years with AnglerX’s prominence. AnglerX was a secret society of millennials and GenXers that didn’t want to be called a secret society. They referred to themselves as a clandestine smart technology consortium aimed at flooding the world with smart devices.
The Chairman banged the gavel several times.
“Enough! AnglerX is our reason for meeting today, but recruitment is not. THIS is our problem.” He leaned over the table and pulled away the red silk cloth to reveal a sleek silver and black device - about the size of Mrs. W’s petite cigarette case - with a blue circle in the middle.
The members drew closer to the piece, adjusting their glasses.
“What is it?” Mr. S finally asked.
“This is the Smart Doorbell,” the Chairman said, and a collective gasp came from the Board. He glanced at his notes. “It connects to the home wireless network once mounted and will send alerts to the resident’s smart device when motion is detected or when someone presses the button. It has two-way talk functionality, infrared night vision and can stream live footage that can be checked on the app.”
Then finally, “But does it chime?” asked Mr. A.
“It does,” answered the Chairman. “If you buy the Smart Chime which,” he consulted his notes again. “Is a WiFi-connected chime.”
He stalked back and forth in front of the room.
“WHY DID WE NOT KNOW ABOUT THIS?” he bellowed.
“Mr. Chairman, your heart,” Mrs. W reminded him.
“186 years,” the Chairman stared around the group. “For 186 years, a visitor presses a button. It chimes in the home. The resident answers it. Do you know how much work we put into that? Joseph Henry is rolling in his grave.” The Board nodded at the mention of the doorbell’s inventor. But the Chairman had already moved on. “Now this. THIS,” he shook the Smart Doorbell over his head. “Conversations and video monitoring and a chime connected to – to – wifi.” The word dripped out his mouth with distaste. “Night vision. Security monitoring. On a doorbell? This is AnglerX. Those goddamn smartphones weren’t enough with their dings and their rings and chirps and songs binging and buzzing for every little thing. Do you see what’s happening? Where is the urgency? DON’T ANY OF YOU SEE?” He was practically pleading with them now. “Order from chaos through sound,” a crack echoed around the room as he hit the mission statement plaque with his cane. “It is disappearing everyday. AnglerX is filling the world with sounds – left and right, up and down. They’re not even real sounds! Have you watched the people? There is confusion in their eyes, tension in their movements. They are nervous and erratic, on edge, grabbing for their phones, looking wildly about with every sound, reactive, shouting, arguing. It’s chaos. The sounds are creating chaos. AND WHAT ARE WE DOING ABOUT IT? For five thousand years we have held society together with our carefully selected and coordinated sounds and conditioning programs. And now? NOW? The war is upon us, my friends. And let it come. I repeat – LET IT COME!”
He leaned on the table shaking, head down, sweat beading on his forehead.
And then – Ping!
A muffled but familiar electronic ding emerged from below the table. The members shifted their gazes nervously at each other.
The Chairman looked up slowly, ice in his eyes.
This time the sound came from inside another briefcase on the other side of the table.
“Why didn’t you silence it?” Mr. J whispered to Mr. G. “I thought I did,” he whispered back.
The Chairman was still leaning on the table, arms stiff.
“Get out,” he said, teeth clenched. “Every one of you carrying one of those –“ he couldn’t bring himself to say the word “smartphone.”
“Just get out.”
One by one the Board members filed out of the room until the Chairman stood alone. After a moment, he took a deep and shaky breath. Hands trembling, he opened cabinet in the back, pulled out a stack of cloths and began draping them over the photos and paintings one by one. This room would stand empty for many years before it was discovered, and he didn’t want the history faded and covered in dust when it was. He unplugged all the lamps. Finally, he opened the case of the grandfather clock that had been chiming for the society for centuries. He stopped the pendulum. The hands froze at 9:54. The clock fell silent.