Computers in movies and television have a knack for making a lot of unnecessary or uncommon noises. It seems as if producers think audiences won't believe a computer is doing anything unless it's making beeps and boops during the process. Extra points are awarded when the incessant beeping is accompanied by a text box with flashing letters or border. If a character zooms closer in a picture or a digital map, expect to hear accompanying beeps or whirls. This trope is most common in techno-thrillers, sci-fi or action plots. As this phenomenon is very common in older works, where the computers in question are often extremely outdated, there is generally a large overlap with Zeerust and Our Graphics Will Suck in the Future, although it is still far from being a Discredited Trope as of now.
In Real Life, results vary. Computers run quietly by default, with the most noise originating from motors such as the ones that control the machine's disk drives, or the ones powering its cooling fans. Those who spend significant amounts of time using their computers for work or play are often able to develop enough Machine Empathy for their machine to judge things like whether the processor is being overworked or whether a program is frozen or just reading from the harddrive simply by the pitch of the fan noise, the hums and squeaks of the harddrive motor, subtle static chirps audible through headphones, and the vibrations of the case.
Beyond that, any other noise is produced by playing an audio sample through the computer's sound system, although the meaning of it varies; a user can usually configure whether or not their computer should play a sound in response to specific events, ranging from mouse clicks and dropdown menus to application errors to friends logging in and out of IM. The only time you'll hear a computer's hardware beep these days is if something goes wrong on boot, like a RAM error; the different frequencies and arrangements of tones tell you what's wrong, if you're familiar with them.
A relative of the Extreme Graphical Representation and Viewer-Friendly Interface. Compare Pac-Man Fever, which applies to video games instead of computers.
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Humorously averted in Magical Pokaan: Aiko, the android character, emits realistic computer sounds, such as the noise of a hard disk spinning up and seeking when she wakes up or is deep in thought. In one episode her malfunctioning speech circuits make her voice skip and stutter in exactly the same manner audio playback can stutter on a malfunctioning or underpowered computer.
The main character in The Saint breaks into the leading actress' apartment and begins downloading information from her personal computer. The computer not only flips through the electronic notes on the desktop as they are siphoned onto the hero's external hard drive, but also scrolls down through the bottom of one of the pages, highlights a quote and beeps.
In Jurassic Park, after the protagonists basically reboot the entire park to get the power back up, the computers come on with a "System Ready" prompt and a blinking cursor. A blinking cursor that also beeps. This would get really annoying on a real computer. However, this was the only point where such a contrivance was used in the back-end systems, and was conceivably put in as a "The multi-billion-dollar theme park is ready to go, please get off your butt and get started" reminder for easily distracted computer operators. Or put in by Nedry in one of his less-destructive Jerk Ass moments.
There is a scene in Spider-Man where the school children are leaving the lab and the camera pans to a computer screen that shows a new species of spider has been created, accompanied with a lot of flashing and beeping.
Casino Royale is replete with computers that beep, click, and chirp as the characters go about saving and destroying the world. In one instance, James Bond is looking at a map on a computer, and every time he zooms in, the computer beeps then chirps.
Airplane II: The Sequel clearly fits this trope as on Moonbase Alpha Beta the commander almost goes insane because of the incessant "flashing and beeping" of the computers.
In Blade Runner the instrument Deckard uses to analyse the photographs he found is incapable of doing anything without some sort of sound effect; beeps, blips, quops, and mechanical-sounding chattering that may or may not have something to do with physically adjusting the optics or the photograph's position.
Most all computer consoles, terminals and mainframes on Nostromo in Alien make an array of beeping, whirring and other less identifiable noises, including sounding something akin to a dot matrix printer.
Parodied in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life with a very expensive piece of medical equipment that goes PING for no obviously apparent reason other than that hospitals need machines that go PING. It's wheeled in to impress a visiting manager.
In one scene in Drumline, the conductor uses a printer to print sheet music for the band. The printer is an inkjet. It makes the distinctive noise of a dot matrix printer.
In the first TRON movie, the computer Kevin Flynn used to hack into ENCOM was particularly noisy - it beeped each time he pressed a key, or when the cursor blinked. The workstations in ENCOM beeped for each row of text displayed from any system generated messages, and made a long buzz when the "End of Line" text was shown at the end of the whole message.
When Lisbeth in the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo uses her computer for hacking purposes, it makes an uncharacteristic beep every time she makes a keystroke. One would think that keyboard noises should be sufficient.
The computers in V for Vendetta do this, despite obviously being regular Apple computers.
Interestingly averted in The Matrix trilogy, a movie series that has computers out the virtual yin-yang. Shipboard scenes often revealed the click-click of operators on keyboards, with much Rapid-Fire Typing, but no sounds generated by them. The only computerish sounds are special-effects that represent the entrance, exit, or representation of the virtual objects or people in the Matrix—and this is only from the audience's point of view. One notable example of a dramatic scene where the computer utters nary a sound is the technically accurate use by a real-life UNIX exploit by Hackette Trinity to force-log in to a computer to give it a critical set of commands in The Matrix Reloaded. Sounds of the power grid are heard but no computer wind-down.
Live Action TV
In an episode of Smallville, Chloe highlighted a section of a picture on a computer. The computer, on its own, then highlighted a portion of that section and beeped. I'm not familiar with that kind of software.
"You seem to be searching for plot points! Would you like Word Assistant to help?"
"The program I used to hack the Pentagon with my iMac isn't compatible, what should I do?"
"Where has my list of Kryptovillains been saved?"
If you have the zoom/magnification tool selected, it does work in some graphics programs; GIMP is one, at least under Linux.
An egregious example occurs in an episode of NCIS featuring the Real Life freeware space simulator Celestia. The actual program has no sound effects at all.
Actually, almost every episode of NCIS (especially those after Tim McGee joins the regular cast) involves multiple uses of this trope. For example, in one of the first two seasons of NCIS, Tony and Kate boot up a victim's computer, only to have it tell them that the C: drive has been reformatted. The line that bears this message is green, blinking, and beeping, all at once.
In another episode McGee tells Tony shuting down a mainframe isn't a video game, cut to a a helpful countdown to the time remaining, announcements of the firewalls he has breached and soluiton is Gibbs shooting the computer to prevent it from sending its kill command, which would be acceptable if it wasn't that the only thing he shot was the monitor.
Star Trek: The Original Series. Working on the bridge of the original starship Enterprise would be enough to drive one Ax-Crazy. Other Trek series make computers noisier than their real-life counterparts, but it's waaay toned down.
This is really an example of Grandfather Clause—the computers in the original series beeped because it was a futuristic interpretation of the rather noisy computers of The Sixties (which really did have blinkenlights too). Later computers might have moved on to render this a Dead Horse Trope, but beeping computers are now so associated with Star Trek that it wouldn't be the same without them.
Also occurred in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The LCARS interface chirps, beeps or bleeps every time it shows a new word, plots a planet in a star chart or changes a value in a number-filled spreadsheet.
There is actually a point to this: Giving feedback to the user, since an absence of mechanical keys means you cannot "feel" anymore whether you actually pressed something.
With the tricorders you can actually get a good idea of what it's reading based on the particular whirs, beeps, and whistles. This is probably by design, as the tricorders have such tiny screens that they can't possibly show all the data the Everything Sensor collects.
Also afflicts Midsomer Murders, whenever there's a computer around. Thankfully, it's not that often.
The original Knight Rider has KITT emiting a characteristic sound whenever it lights its frontal scanner and enters "Surveillance Mode". The sound was so associated with KITT that the 2008 series carried the same sound effect (the front scanner light effect was completely different, though).
Just wait until something needs to happen! Malfunction? Just watch in big letters "MALFUNCTION" in the screen with a nice "zooming in" sound. Ask to find a route, get more nice sound effects. This goes on and on.
Don't forget the mobile FLAG computer. Always blips and many lights flashing for no reason at all.
Ziggy, Al's computer from Quantum Leap, has its own set of beeps, boops, and squeals, the latter of which usually indicates an error to be fixed via use of Percussive Maintenance.
Topher lampshades this in the Dollhouse episode "Echoes."
In the Doctor Who mini-episode "Time Crash", this trope occurs when Ten flips the monitor around to show Five the exact size of the hole in the time-space continuum that would happen if they don't separate their Tardises.
This happens almost any time you see a computer interface in NUMB3RS. Every scroll and click makes some sort of noise.
One or two BBC shows in the late 70s and early 80s showed people typing on computer keyboards, accompanied by a symphony of Radiophonic bleeps.
Somewhat averted in Asimov's "The Last Question", when the supercomputer was softly clicking (and some lights were flashing) when routinely sorting data, but once it was asked a difficult question "The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of clicking relays ended." Of course, no future computer ever makes a noise when working.
Justified because the story was written when analog computers were still prevalent - and were of course replete with relays and valves which clicked and lit up. See "Contemporary computers" under Real Life
In Discworld, one of the many strange peripherals on Hex is a device whose sole apparent purpose is to go "parp" every fourteen minutes.
The imps in the Dis-organizers say "Bingely-bingely beep!", which is apparently meant to be the sound a pager makes when it's notifying you of something.
Every time anybody uses a computer in Ghost Whisperer it makes a sound effect after the user does anything.
Lampshaded and averted in the second Artemis Fowl book. When Foaly needs to use Artemis's laptop without anyone noticing, the first thing he does is mute the volume, noting that the Mud People would insist on making their computers beep at the most inconvenient times.
In Iron Fist, a datapad makes a sound when it's finished uploading its program into a Super Star Destroyer's computer. This attracts a little attention, but Shalla is able to bully the stormtroopers into thinking the sound came from outside of the bridge - she's there as part of The Infiltration.
Averted in Galaxy of Fear. Zak Arranda expects SIM to beep or chime or something after he's entered some codes into it, but hears nothing.
Using any computer terminal in Xenogears results in a loud series of clicks as if someone tossed a handful of loose change into a clothes dryer. The noise always persists until the interface ends.
Team Fortress 2. Go inside any of the bases, and just try and think about anything other than, "Damn, those computers are really loud." 2fort is the main offender.
Considering that the game takes place in the 1960's, it is kind of justified.
The beeping noise they used might actually have been taken from a hard drive, ironically. It sounds exactly like the hard drive from a computer this editor used to use at school (it may have been a PS/2).
In System Shock 2, computer panels tend to make lots of noise.
Fallout continues the ancient, tape drive, room-size computers of previous two games. Beeps included.
Interaction with a computer terminal in said game series also produces beeping noises when the terminal screen is refreshing or when the player interacts with the terminal during the hacking minigames.
Parodied in Futurama in which Professor Farnsworth tries telling Fry that he has to wait for two specific beeps from the computer before analyzing is done. The computer seems to deliberately mock Fry by beeping in everything but the specified way.
Also parodied when Bender was running a computer dating service and ran Zapp Brannigan's preference card through the Computer Data Matchupifier (read: crumpling it up and throwing it in his chest compartment), making beeps and boops to trick Zapp think it was actually having something done.
Don't forget Boxy, Calculon's robot sidekick who's basically a mainframe on tank treads. He can communicate anything with a single, nondescript beep.
Parodied in, despite the show's reliance on Bamboo Technology, a Captain Caveman short on the 1980s series The Flintstone Comedy Show. In one episode, Cavey shows Betty and Wilma his "crime computer" which he feeds clues into for analysis, then activates the computer, with various computer beeping noises being made. Cut to the inside of the "computer," where we see it's powered by two birds—the first bird serves as a record player needle, playing a record of beeping computer noises; the second bird's job was to do the actual clue analysis, then chisel the results onto a stone "punch card" and spit the card out of a slot. Possibly lampshaded by Cavey who, after he gets the results, notes: "now that scientific!"
An episode of Garfield and Friends features in one episode Jon going on a dating game show, which presents a large, impressive looking mainframe computer that Jon's dating data is fed into, in order to match him with a prospective date. The back of the computer reveals it's just a giant cardboard prop, with some guy whose job it is to take the fed-in-data, press a tape recorder playing computer-beeping-noises for a few moments, then spit out pre-written "results" through a slot.
The episode of Arthur where Arthur visits the sanitation center. The back room looks like some kind of James Bond villain's base, with walls of mainframe computers covered in blinkenlights that are constantly beeping. A bit... dated for a '90s show, as you can imagine.
Not as much as you'd think. (Well, beeping aside.) A lot of field installations tend to be of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" variety, especially when it's a computer being used for a fundamentally non-IT business. This was even more the case before PC O Ses were both advanced and reliable, which didn't really happen until the early 2000s. Even today, it's not uncommon to find small businesses that are still on Windows 98 (and XP is even more common); businesses uniformly outfitted with the latest-and-greatest are the exception, not the rule. Add in the fact that industrial setups often have some kind of specialty equipment that might only be compatible with whatever system it was initially designed for back when it was initially manufactured (and for which a modern replacement might cost serious money), and it's not surprising that there's systems still in use out there that seem positively ancient by modern computing standards. Nobody's going to accuse Arthur of documentary realism, but it's not that far removed from reality.
Mr. Socrates is a sentient computer that parcels out the assignments to the heroes of Hanna-Barbera's Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kids. And strangely enough, he's allergic to dogs—namely the kids' dog Elvis.
Any cartoon based on DC Comics property does this, especially when Batman family characters are involved. From the Watchtower in Justice League to Mount Justice in Young Justice, every computer, whether physical or holographic, has a non-stealthy, ear-piercing sequence of beeps to let the viewers know that Wayne Enterprises is at the top of the computer game.
Windows: Whenever a Message Box is displayed, a short sound effect is played. Under default settings, it's a sound effect very akin to a beep. The name of the function that does it is quite explicit...
If you don't have a sound card or onboard audio enabled (either because you disabled the drivers in the Device Manager on purpose for whatever reason, you installed a expansion card that is for some reason conflicting with the sound card/onboard audio for resources, or the drivers have become corrupted), windows will revert to beeping using the PC speaker whenever a message box is shown.
Windows used to be replete with useless noises whenever things happen or actions are taken: computer startup, computer shutdown, minimizing a window, un-minimizing a window, closing a window, ending a program, clicking on anything, using a dialogue box, error messages, etc. Often this annoying behaviour is copied in window managers and software applications in other operating systems when attempting to seem as "user friendly". Even Linux applications can fall prey to this.
It's quite common, perhaps even a meme, to find songs with windows sounds set to the music. Or even as the music.
Then there's togglekeys which makes the computer beep when you turn num, caps or scroll lock on or off. (it's turned on by holding numlock for 5 seconds.) This serves an actual purpose however, as many people write looking at the keys instead of the screen, and you wouldn't notice if you accidentally hit one of those keys and started writing only garbage.
Windows CE and other operating systems for mobile devices make a click when any key is pressed for audible feedback when using an onscreen keyboard and a touchscreen. Modern mobile OSes may substitute a quick pulse of the phone's vibrate function for a more discrete (and more tactile) form of feedback.
In Mac OS 8.5, Apple added Appearance Sounds (originating from the Copland project.) Appearance Sounds made noises whenever you clicked on various interface widgets and while you were dragging or scrolling around various objects, even panning in stereo from one side of the screen to the other, and there were numerous plugins available featuring sounds ripped from various movies and TV shows to give your Mac the feel of a "real" Hollywood Computer. The feature was seen as a useless and rather annoying gimmick by nearly everyone, and vanished in OS X until a 3rd-party version named Xounds was written by fans.
Panning noises and noises specific to the functions being used are put to rather cool use in the program Tux Paint, a Paint program designed to be used by young children without much (if any) adult supervision (you can even trap the mouse inside the window and turn off the Exit button). Every tool you use makes some sort of noise that helps the child understand better what is going on.
In an example which might have started this trope, some old text terminals clicked or beeped every time a character was printed on screen. This traces back to noisy teletypes which these terminals replaced; the idea that printing could be silent did not occur immediately after technology made it possible. A similar evolution happened with cell phones: even now, you can configure something as advanced as an iPhone to play DTMF tones when number keys are touched, simply because users of touch dial phones are sometimes used to them.
All that beeping has a purpose: feedback. With each number having a distinct sound you can tell when you misdial a common number, it sounds wrong. On a real touch tone phone, pressing two keys at the same time produced a clearly wrong noise. With address books and call logs it's all kind of pointless on a modern cell phone.
DTMF tones are still relevant - automated phone systems use them to know the selection you've just made. While there exists newer systems that support voice recognition in which you can just speak your selection clearly into the mouthpiece, most also support DTMF tones as a fallback in cases where the user will have difficulty in speech recognition situations. For example, a noisy environment or heavy accent.
Additionally they are actually how telephone exchanges know what number you dialed. Phone lines were designed for the transmission of sound, so they transmitted everything, including dialled numbers, by sound. That is why even some more modern phones with auto-dial etc. still play the "number" through when connecting. You could, many years ago, hold the handset up to a TV commercial playing DTMF tones for a phone number, and the number would be dialed. (the commercial has long since stopped playing). However, this is not relevant in modern cellular phone situations where the number is transmitted digitally out-of-band, in this case the DTMF is only relevant for interacting with automated phone systems.
Many PC units to this day have internal speakers which the BIOS uses to indicate the status of the hardware; they normally sound a single beep shortly after the initial power-on to indicate a lack of major problems. Multiple or unusually long beeps are used to indicate specific hardware errors that prevent the computer from booting up; their exact meanings are usually listed in a printed troubleshooting guide.
The reason BIOS beep codes exist of course is that when your video display is not working, or you're not able to load enough of your operating system to display text, driving a primitive speaker requires almost no software support.
Many versions of the ubiquitous network diagnostic tool ping can be set to beep as long as the connection between two devices is okay. When the beeping stops, the network technician knows that he unplugged the right cable.
Particularly unnerving in computer labs where one of them beeps for some reason but you're not sure which.
Annoyance is only exacerbated when it eventually turns out to be someone's wristwatch.
The doors of the new type of streetcars in Vienna beep every time somebody presses the door opener.
Cisco has a networking simulation program called Packet Tracer that includes a lot of annoying noises for different actions, like mechanical grinding noises accompanying drop down menus.
Old dial-up modems when connecting. To a (old-school) nerd, that sound is as comforting as an audiophile hearing the sound of a needle being placed on vinyl. (Or reminds us of the "I hope Mom/Dad didn't hear that" wince we made if we'd snuck down go online at 3 AM and didn't know how to avoid the noise.)
The noises were useful because, if the connection was not made and you knew the noises, you could tell where it had failed.
You can also configure them to keep the speaker on after the handshake. Obviously, this has never been a very common configuration, except among technicians troubleshooting line issues.
Programs for some older home computers were encoded as bleeps and noises on cassette tapes, in a manner similar to the telephone modems of the day. The ZX Spectrum and TI-99/4 home computers play these noises while loading programs.
If you have a vintage computer that loads programs off tapes, you can play the tapes into a modern computer and burn them to CD or save them to MP3. Then you can play the audio into the old computer and it should load the program without wearing out your vintage tapes.
There's websites & groups now where people share archives of their old tapes for posterity and to help replace broken/bad ones or for use in emulators.
The Supercharger adapter for the Atari 2600 game console likewise allows loading of data from cassettes. These sounds are not intended for the user to hear. But tones indicating the loading status, and matching a graphical feedback, are played through the TV speakers.
Contemporary computers still make a variety of unintentional noises when operating. Even taking the loud and soon-to-be-hopefully-obsolete hard disk drives out of the question, modern CPUs under load rapidly cycle no-power and full-power states. The metal on the heatsinks used to keep those modern CPUs from melting expand and contracts very quickly as the thermal power fluctuates, which turns into faint vibration, i.e. sounds. Yes, if you listen closely, you can literally hear a modern CPU working, with the exact noise changing with the workload. If you have any audio hardware installed, current (as in, Voltage) microfluctuations from all the computer's components going into similiar load-halt cycles will also produce some faint noise on the audio hardwares output. There's a number of similiar effects that will probably prevent computers from being truly silent for as long as they use electricity.
Those sounds can actually be a security risk, leading to a class of side channel attack called acoustic cryptanalysis. An attacker can, for instance, learn something about cipher keys and/or data being processed, based on characteristic sounds of encryption, decryption, signing, etc., and the amount of time spent on each. That said, social engineering always has been, and always will be, the most effective attack in general.
Some people that have hyperacusis (ability to hear a greater range of pitch/volume) can hear some of the noise the radio is picking up. A very few people that also have synesthesia that lets them experience sound through other physical senses can use it to diagnose very basic hardware issues.
If your hard drive starts making loud periodic clicking sounds, you're in deep trouble (e.g. stuck spindle or bad heads).
The old 5.25" MFM, RLL and ESDI hard drives, particularly the Seagate ST-225 and its related models, produced a loud and rather high pitched beep with every track step as the head actuator seeked across the platters. Many late 80's and early 90's TV shows either used a recorded single such beep or artificially created one then played it repeatedly without any variation whenever a desktop computer was on screen. More realistic would have been randomly playing the beep rapidly a random number of times to simulate hard drive activity.
Some antivirus and antimalware programs emit a sharp detection sound when spotting possible infections.
Validated by Mars Curiosity's Mission Control, in which a flurry of beeps and chirps can be heard during the rover's arrival at Mars...and no known Ax-Crazy experienced by NASA scientists.
Averted with most modern servers (which usually have no speakers and monitors), which in the event of a fault inform the admin in different ways, the most common being: 1) by sending an alert directly to the admin's workstation or laptop using specialized apps (such as a webtool or email), and 2) using color-coded LED's on the server itself and its components such as the hard disks (eg Green = OK, Yellow = Minor fault, Red = Major fault, Blue = Identification).
The IBM 1401 was built in a time before the FCC limited RF emissions by electronics equipment; it was therefore much "noisier" in the RF spectrum than modern computers. This had the unintended effect that an AM radio would pick up a specific note for each instruction. It was thus possible for an operator familiar with the machine to recognize jobs by the sequence of notes they played - a real-life classic Beeping Computer!
Atari BASIC on the Atari 8-bit computers would beep every time you struck a key while writing a program.
Most higher end computer power supplies actually click when powering on and off due to the multitude of relays located within one (as opposed to mostly silent transistor-based gates used in mainstream and lower end power supplies).