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This Is the Modem World: Do You Smell That?


Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

There are two gadget scents: one triggers happiness and anticipation, the other conjures up sadness and fear.

The first arrives like an emotional bullet as we open the box. That plasticky odor wafts in with promised adventures, teases an initial power-up and floods us with curiosity and excitement.

The second shows its ugly head when electronics give up the ghost. That smell -- you know that smell -- of melting circuits and digital death sends us into a spiral of data-loss panic, guilt and fear for our safety.

Normally, our gadgets don't stink, and that's how we like them. Numerous attempts to give Smell-O-Vision the place it (arguably) deserves in human-computer interfaces haven't done much for us -- we simply don't want smelly gadgets.

But our electronics' two most important moments in their binary lives, birth and death, are laced with a myriad odors that produce real mental and emotional responses. Could this possibly explain some -- even a little -- of our irrational addiction to the act of ripping open boxes and installing things that plug in? Do we get off on opening boxes, on smelling the fresh electronics?

Smell is unique in that it passes its information straight into the memory cortex. Scent is a human SATA III interface, if you will: quick and efficient. Scents trigger memories and subsequent emotions with a speed and ferocity that we rarely see coming. Walk into your childhood home after a semester at college and the second thing you'll do after having a gawk at your poster of Terri Nunn (look her up) is get a big, fat waft of childhood memories.

Not surprisingly, my favorite gifts were always the ones that plugged in or required batteries. I remember cutting through the weapons-grade transparent shell, surgically stripping the protective bits, revealing the shiny plastic and then -- there it was -- that smell. Wafts of factory air, fresh plastic, warm silicon and a bouquet of synthetic olfactory pangs delivered me unto electronic rapture. What followed was a delicious day spent fighting aliens, winning wars to end all wars and updating my MP3 collection.

Then came those moments when my toys would give up their little gadget ghosts. The reek of burning plastic triggered a panicked scramble to rip plugs out of the wall and jettison batteries. Then, a reluctant sniff of the device and a quiet wait for it to cool down (Maybe it just overheated?). Then the guilt. Oh, the guilt: Was it my fault? Did I use the wrong power supply? Did I start a fire? Will mom be pissed? Were the batteries bad? Did it get wet? Distraught, I'd gingerly turn it back on only to find that yes, it was dead. Gone forever. Unrecoverable error.

But that smell of electronic death remains. When I get wind of house fires, the first thing I pick up on is that caustic electric fire note: burnt plastic, toxic fumes, digital death. It's unmistakable, and I hate it.

Then I wander into a shop just to smell the new electronics. A cocktail of chemicals, solvents and glues replaces remorse with hope and promise. I fondly remember my Starbird, the best toy ever made. I imagine I'm playing Snake on my Nokia 6160. I visualize a heaven of unboxings and boot-ups. Things will be okay.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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